Nobel Laureate Protests Lack of Israeli Speakers at Chemistry Conference in Jordan

A chemistry Nobel laureate wants leading scientists to boycott an upcoming international chemistry conference in Jordan because he suspects organizers have deliberately excluded Israeli scientists from the list of invited speakers. The organizers of the 11th Eurasia Conference on Chemical Sciences deny the charges levied by Roald Hoffmann, however, and say they won't be bullied into revising their plans.

Hoffmann says he at first accepted an invitation to speak and was asked to help organize a workshop for young scientists throughout the region that would run concurrent with the 6 to 10 October conference. He and fellow chemistry Nobelist and workshop organizer Dudley Herschbach discovered that none of the participants were from Israel. After asking conference organizers to reach out to Israeli students, they learned that the workshop had been canceled.

"That's when I became suspicious," says Hoffmann, who calls the absence of Israelis "preposterous." He decided to encourage his fellow invited speakers to boycott the meeting after back-channel efforts with conference organizers to find a solution failed.

The conference series was launched in 1988 to expose students and young scientists in developing countries to top-level chemistry researchers. Previous Eurasia conferences have been held every 2 years in developing countries throughout Asia and the Middle East, including Pakistan, Turkey, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

In response to Hoffmann's concerns, the chair of the conference's national organizing committee e-mailed the invited speakers to explain that speaker invitations were decided not by nationality, but "based on nominations and consultations with eminent chemists, topics of the conference, available slots in the program," among other criteria. Because the list of speakers has been finalized for months, they noted, it was too late to make changes in the lineup. "We wish to emphasize that inviting speakers at the present stage under pressure and threat does not enhance a positive atmosphere for this conference or any conference of this caliber," the letter concludes.

Hoffmann also asked the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) to withdraw its support for the conference. Joshua Jortner, president of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, has asked IUPAC to investigate the matter and to support the inclusion of Israelis among the featured speakers. But in a letter yesterday to Hoffmann, IUPAC President Nicole Moreau says she is not considering withdrawing IUPAC sponsorship for the conference. Moreau said that the choice of invited speakers is not among the list of criteria for IUPAC's sponsorship of a conference and that withdrawing support based on the exclusion of speakers from a particular country would set an unwelcome precedent.

"It's extremely frustrating for everybody," says Bernd Rode, one of the conference's founders and a chemist at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Even if nothing else is done, Rode says, conference organizers will hold a panel discussion at the meeting to allow participants to discuss the issue thoroughly.