by Mahdieh Tavakol*
Not all science in Iran is nuclear.
In recent years, we have heard a lot of news about Iran’s scientific growth. In 2010 the New Scientist wrote that ”scientific output has grown 11 times faster in Iran than the world average, faster than any other country” and in 2011 it announced that “Iran has the fastest rate of increase in scientific publication in the world”. But how did Iran come to take this position and who is producing this science?
During the Shah’s regime and prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, there was not anything like an Iranian scientific community. In this period, the country’s scientific and technical needs were mostly met by the expertise of Western scientists and technicians. There were also a good number of brilliant Iranian scientists, typically with degrees from European or American universities. Their scientific activities, however, were at best “individually motivated and not grounded in any kind of collective identity of the scientific community.” After the Revolution, due to the Cultural Revolution of the early 1980s and the war with Iraq (1980-1988), Iran lost a large number of its scientists who either were forced to leave for political reasons or chose to leave simply to continue their scientific work under better conditions. Only a small group of scientists remained to form the nucleus of a scientific community to come.
Although the Iran-Iraq war somewhat helped develop technical aspects of warfare, Iran lost considerable scientific ground during the 1980s. It was only by the end of the war that the country came to recover scientifically. Old research institutions were improved and new ones were established. Studying in foreign universities was no longer an option for Iranian students, because of political conditions, a lack of scholarships, and a high currency exchange range. However, homegrown PhD programs emerged, due to the group of remaining scientists, some of whom were now holding high political or administrative positions. They also reactivated or established scientific associations, initiated scientific journals, established a new center for academic press and tried to enrich the Persian language by introducing modern scientific words and using them in their lectures and publications.
Despite international sanctions, since 1995 Iran has witnessed significant scientific progress, especially in the fields of mathematics, theoretical physics, chemistry and some branches of genetics. Most of the new scientific elite in Iran belong to the second or third generation after the Revolution and have done all their studies in Iran. Active collaboration with Iranian scientists abroad has been also developed.While still young and fragile, and sometimes not recognized even by its own members, Iran’s new scientific community has a way to strengthen itself and connect to the global scientific community.
*Mahdieh Tavakol is pursuing a Master’s degree in History of Science at Oregon State University
 Andy Coghlan, “Iran is Top of the World in Science Growth,” New Scientist (28 Mar 2011). http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18546-iran-showing-fastest-scientific-growth-of-any-country.html
 Farhad Khosrokhavar, “Iran’s New Scientific Community”, in Ali Gheissari, ed., Contemporary Iran (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 211-244. See p. 227.