A monthslong effort to breathe new life into Iranian universities is at a crossroads after the ouster on Wednesday of the nation’s reformist science minister, Reza Faraji-Dana. “His downfall is a sad day for science in Iran,” says a scientist at the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran who asked to remain anonymous because of the uncertain political climate. “His heart was in the right place, and he was nudging universities in the right direction,” she says.
Under Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, university leaders had steadily curtailed academic freedom by squelching debate on any topic deemed anathema or sensitive to the conservative establishment, purging liberal-minded administrators, and limiting the possibilities for researchers to travel or collaborate with colleagues overseas. Strengthening the higher education system has been a consistent theme of Ahmadinejad’s successor, Hassan Rouhani, who came to power in August 2013.
With that mandate, Rouhani last October gave the science ministry to Faraji-Dana, an electrical engineer and former president of the University of Tehran who during his 9 months as minister had worked to create conditions for a freer atmosphere on Iranian campuses, both for homegrown researchers to blossom and to entice expatriate Iranian scientists to return. One of his chief accomplishments, says the Sharif researcher, was to implement a more open and transparent mechanism for appointing university chancellors based on their talent rather than their political persuasion.
It was that perceived liberalization of campus life that provoked conservatives in parliament, who voted to dismiss Faraji-Dana on 20 August. According to the Tehran Times, Faraji-Dana noted in a speech to parliament before his ouster that the number of Iranian publications in “reputable” journals had risen steadily during his tenure, and he “criticized certain people for trying to give the impression that academics are against the system.”
Rouhani has appointed as caretaker science minister Mohammad-Ali Najafi, a mathematician and former education minister with solid reformist credentials. If parliament votes to approve Najafi—an outcome that by no means is certain—and if Najafi were to pick up where Faraji-Dana left off, he will have at least one powerful ally in the cause: Iran’s reform-minded vice president for science and technology, mechanical engineer Sorena Sattari.