Friday, July 09, 2010

Reaching Out to the Muslim World

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in an interview with Al Jazeera June 30:
I am here in the region - its sort of the first anniversary of President Barack Obama's visit to Cairo - and his speech there when he gave what has now become known as Obama's "Cairo Initiative" where he announced that he wanted this to become a new beginning of the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. When I became the NASA Administrator - before I became the NASA Administrator - he charged me with three things: One was that he wanted me to re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, that he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with predominantly Muslim nations, to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science and engineering -- science, math and engineering.

He then went on to deny that there was a diplomatic goal to his trip, but that he wanted to expand the sort of cooperation that NASA had with Russia and Japan and other countries contributing to the International Space Station.

For an example of what this outreach means in practice, see Bolden's remarks in Cairo on June 15, 2010. Tailoring the remarks to an Egyptian audience, he mentions two scientists born in Egypt: Dr. Farouk El-Baz, who contributed to the Apollo program, and Dr. Ahmed Zewail, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999. He describes NASA's international partnerships in general, its science and education agreements with predominantly Muslim nations in particular, and the potential for expanding this cooperation.

When Bolden's remarks generated a certain amount of controversy, NASA assistant administrator for public affairs Bob Jacobs told ABC News:
Administrator Bolden understands that NASA's core mission is exploration, both in space and in scientific endeavors here at home. Inherent to the success of that mission is cooperation and collaboration with other nations which are equally committed to this effort, including expanding the range of countries with which NASA engages and partners.

White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said:
The President has always said that he wants NASA to engage with the world’s best scientists and engineers as we work together to push the boundaries of exploration. Meeting that mandate requires NASA to partner with countries around the world like Russia and Japan, as well as collaboration with Israel and with many Muslim-majority countries. The space race began as a global competition, but, today, it is a global collaboration.

It seems clear that based on the further remarks in the interview and on the content of Bolden's Cairo remarks that "help them feel good about their historic contribution" was simply part of the outreach process rather than an end in itself.

There have also been complaints that Bolden had been asked to make outreach to the Muslim world NASA's top priority. That seems to be unjustified. Bolden said that Obama had asked him to do three things, with the third "perhaps" the foremost. But it doesn't follow that Bolden was asked to do only those three things, or to put them ahead of any of the other goals previously assigned by the executive branch or Congress.

And if we look at the budget presented by the administration, there's no evidence that any of the three charges were given any sort of paramount importance.

I should add that the second, cooperation with other nations, has been an explicit goal of NASA since it was formed in 1958, and the third is a subset of the second.

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