Iranian researchers fear for science after hardline cleric takes important post

Iranian researchers fear for science after hardline cleric takes important post

Many Iranian scientists are dismayed about last week’s appointment of a hardline conservative cleric as the new secretary of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution (SCCR), a body with considerable power over science, academic life, and culture in Iran.

They worry Abdolhossein Khosropanah, appointed on 17 January by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, will strengthen the grip of antiscientific forces on Iranian research and promote an “Islamic” interpretation of the sciences. “I think we should expect unfortunate events for science in Iran,” says physicist Reza Mansouri, a former deputy of research in the nation’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology.

The appointment comes amid monthslong antigovernment protests and the emergence of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died while in custody of Iran’s morality police in September 2022. The protests have led to ferocious crackdowns at some Iranian universities.

Among other responsibilities, SCCR elects university deans and the presidents of the Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and the Academy of Arts. The council consists of 28 members—18 of them appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—and the secretary. In that role, Khosropanah does not formally participate in the council’s decisions, but as its public face, he has a lot of informal power, Mansouri says. Khosropanah succeeded Saied Reza Ameli, a much more moderate cleric and a professor of communication studies at the University of Tehran.

Khosropanah, who has written extensively about religion and theistic science, is a professor at the Research Institute for Islamic Culture and Thought and a former president of the Iranian Research Institute of Philosophy (IRIP). His appointment, approved by Khamenei, was welcomed by the conservative wing of Iran’s government.

But critics of Khosropanah say his past statements and actions show he is not qualified for the job. In a 2021 TV appearance, the cleric said he had caught COVID-19 three times and cured it with a plant-based traditional Islamic potion every time. He claimed the efficacy of such treatments had been scientifically proved, and that they had fewer side effects than COVID-19 vaccines. “There is absolutely no evidence for his claims about such treatments,” says Mahan Ghafari, an Iranian-born postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Medicine.

Some scientists worry in particular about the potential fallout for women, as Khosropanah will now oversee the implementation of guidelines for academic promotions and codes of conduct. In 2014, Khosropanah said he believes “women reading novels, talking with unrelated males, and wearing makeup” were the main causes of Iran’s rising divorce rate. In a recent statement, he defended the death sentences given to several Iranians protesting after Amini’s death, saying, “This is the punishment for those who rebelled against the God and his prophet.”

Khosropanah has been accused of plagiarism and self-plagiarism. In a 2018 review of his writings, Amir Hossein Khodaparast, a philosopher at IRIP, highlighted text fragments in Khosropanah’s writings that appeared to be copied verbatim from his own and other scholars’ publications. Khosropanah has not directly responded to the allegation.

“I find this new appointment deeply troubling and a huge setback to the prospects of science in Iran,” Ghafari says.

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