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Helping Afghanistan's Researchers

Since the rapid retaking of Afghanistan by the Taliban, researchers and scientists in that country are in fear for their safety, uncertain about the future of the work they've carried out for the past 20 years, and are sending messages to the global scientific community asking for help, reports Nature News. For now, the Taliban says it wants scientific work to continue, but many researchers are skeptical. Those who have conducted international collaborations, male scientists who have worked with or taught female students or scientists, or researchers who are in fields of study that may be considered antithetical to Taliban teachings are particularly afraid.

When the US first invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban regime, researchers from outside the country who went to Kabul arrived to find that almost no science was being done there. For a long time, "scientists considered Afghanistan a black hole," Najibullah Kakar, a geohazards scientist at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam, tells Nature News

Since 2010, howeber, about three dozen public universities have been established or re-established, and tens more private universities have been set up. The student population at public universities grew from 8,000 in 2001 to 170,000 in 2018. About 25 percent of those students were women, Nature News says. 

All of that progress is now in danger of being erased. "The achievements we had over the past 20 years are all at great risk," Attaullah Ahmadi, a public-health scientist at Kateb University in Kabul, tells Nature News. Further, billions of dollars in overseas finance for Afghanistan’s government have been frozen, meaning salaries have gone unpaid and research has gone unfunded. 

One of the many messages sent to Nature from researchers in Afghanistan following the Taliban's capture of Kabul on Aug. 15 and the evacuation of US military forces on Aug. 31 read, "The situation in Afghanistan is horrifying. We need immediate assistance."

Organizations that help refugee scholars, such as the New York City-based Scholars at Risk, have been doing what they can to provide support for fleeing scientists and their families, and have been calling on universities in various countries to accept faculty members and students who are able to leave, Nature News says. 

But it also noted that not all scientists and researchers in the country can, or will want to, leave. And those who stay will need the support of the international community, which means countries will need to maintain some lines of communication with the Taliban. 

"This will not be easy, and it will need the Taliban to honor its pledge that people who receive US or European funding, or who work with international organizations, will not be persecuted," Nature News says. "Researchers at risk must be able to leave and to resume their lives in countries that can provide them with safety and security. But, at the same time, research leaders in Afghanistan's neighbouring countries — and those farther afield — must work strenuously to support those Afghans who are staying, and who must not be forgotten or neglected."