9 February 2011 | EN
Islamic nations' ministerial committee on S&T cooperation must refocus on policy leadership or risk losing relevance, says Athar Osama.
Last month, 22 ministers of science, technology and innovation met in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, to discuss the state of science and technology in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) member countries.
The event was the 14th annual general meeting of the OIC Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH).
Since its creation in 1987, COMSTECH has been marred by lack of real and meaningful political support from the wider OIC community and left to languish at the doorstep of its chief champion, the Pakistani government.
But the organisation now has an opportunity to re-invent itself. If it doesn't, it risks becoming irrelevant.
COMSTECH was originally charged with "strengthening individual and collective science and technology capacities of OIC member states through cooperation, collaboration, and networking."
In the last decade and a half, COMSTECH has built a portfolio of grant programmes with several international partners, and sought to organise networks of scientific expertise.
At the January meeting, the Executive Committee presented a budget of US$35 million for approval for 2010–2011 — unchanged from the last biennial.
But the organisation struggles to raise money from member states, managing to bring in a shocking US$2.26 million (just 12.4 per cent of its approved budget) over the past two years. And more than half of this was contributed by the government of Pakistan.
In essence, COMSTECH's real stakeholders — the science ministers of 57 OIC member countries — have consistently failed to honour their commitments to the budget they approved.
Even during the recent general meeting, an open call for funding received a cool response. Only Saudi Arabia contributed, raising a paltry half a million dollars towards the organisation's programmes. Even with Pakistan having doubled its contribution, this is a mere drop in the bucket.
Why the cool response?
Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, COMSTECH's coordinator general, believes that the lack of enthusiasm lies not with science ministers but with the finance ministries that oversee science funding in member states. "We have no issues in convincing the respective science ministers of the importance of COMSTECH's activities", says Dr. Rahman.
But translating this into concrete commitments is another matter.
And the difficulties in securing significant funding from most member countries do not explain why even countries such as Iran, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — which are serious about supporting science programmes at home — hold back from contributing substantively to COMSTECH.
These countries clearly do not see enough value in the intra-OIC scientific collaboration that COMSTECH actively seeks to promote. But there must be more to this than a lack of appreciation of science by a group of finance ministers.
The issue goes back to the original purpose and intent of COMSTECH, and the real or perceived efficacy of its interventions.
Battle of ideas
Although originally created to nurture leadership support for science and to influence policy, the organisation has actually focused on implementing programmes to strengthen science and technology (S&T) across member states. Many observers believe that this has diluted its energies away from the core objectives set originally.
Earlier this year, COMSTECH led the creation of the Science Technology and Innovation Organisation (STIO), which was formally endorsed at the recent meeting. Although a separate entity, this is largely seen as COMSTECH's 'implementation arm', with Dr. Atta ur Rahman leading both organisations.
Its creation came after a fairly contentious turf war and battle of ideas between those who believed COMSTECH should not be in the implementation business at all — and therefore supported plans to create a new entity — and other organisations within OIC that wanted to keep implementation as their exclusive domain.
STIO gained approval for a US$70 million annual budget, of which US$20 million has already been committed by member states — and in this, the OIC seems to have found a way around COMSTECH’s budgetary problems.
Whether it succeeds in creating the kind of intra-OIC collaboration envisioned remains to be seen. STIO has yet to roll out its agenda.
Back to its roots
STIO's creation offers an opportunity for COMSTECH to go back to its roots as a policy think tank where science ministers could meet, perhaps informally, to discuss ideas and ideals for moving S&T ahead in the Islamic World.
As the organisation re-invents itself to commit to this higher purpose of building real and meaningful political will to promote science, networking and grant-making functions could perhaps be best achieved under the umbrella of the newly created STIO.
This would be an ambitious but worthy project. Should the organisation accept the challenge, it could follow the example of the World Economic Forum (WEF), which shapes the year's global political and socioeconomic agenda.
A reinvigorated COMSTECH must create real and meaningful conversation between some of the Islamic World's leading science policymakers, thinkers, and planners on the one hand, and political leaders — including, but not limited to, science and finance ministers — on the other hand.
And if it doesn't reinvent itself to show distinctive value as a Ministerial Committee with real influence on science policy and politics, COMSTECH will inevitably compete with its own brain child — the STIO — and become largely irrelevant.
Athar Osama is a science and innovation policy consultant, founder of Muslim-Science.com, visiting fellow at Boston University's Pardee Centre for Study of Longer Range Future and a director of a technology commercialisation, consulting and policy firm.
Lars Eklund ( Scandinavian Competitiveness Group Ltd. | Sweden )
10 February 2011
The challenges you are pointing out may be met by private equity funded innovation competitions, in this case among innovation clusters in the STIO member countries. In order to attract private investors one must possess excellence in 1) innovation development, 2) private equity investment attraction, and 3) innovation competition management. I invite you to join forces to embark on such an approach. I know the Pakistani innovation system pretty well.
Dr Lars Eklund
Global Innovation Facilitator
Stockholm Sweden +46703168865
malik ( Pakistan )
11 February 2011
COMSTECH in its last session announced the establishment of STIO but unfortunately, did not invite anybody from the Islamic Chamber of Commerce & Industry (ICCI) which is based in Karachi and represents the entire Private Sector of OIC countries.The absurdity of implementing STIO by the ministers and public sector without the participation of the private sector is beyond imagination.Time has come to bring in experts into the fold of COMSTECH who understand SCIENCE, ENGINEERING, TECHNOLOGY and INNOVATION in the 21st century context and put them in-charge instead of the old and haggard leadership which has been there throughout the existence of COMSTECH .We have already wasted many years and try to cover up our follies by blaming lack of funding for COMSTECH.Lets start looking at generating our own funds thru INNOVATION rather then raising the begging bowl at every conference.New and bold leadership at COMSTECH is required very badly.
Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy ( Pakistan )
12 February 2011
Dr Athar Osama: The problem with COMSTECH is more serious than you would ever care to admit, and needs much more than the dollop of cash you always argue for. This organization is peddling bogus science. Recently the Coordinator-General of COMSTECH, Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, made the mind-boggling claim in an article published in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn that the US was causing floods and earthquakes across the world using the Alaska-based HAARP project. Please visit the following links:
1. Atta-ur-Rahman’s article claiming that HAARP may be responsible for earthquakes and floods in Pakistan:
(The above has mysteriously disappeared from the Dawn website, apparently because of political pressure, but is reproduced on several other sites such as:
2. Hoodbhoy’s article debunks the claims made by Rahman as scientific gibberish:
3. Atta-ur-Rahman disputes Hoodbhoy:
4. Hoodbhoy responds: http://www.dawn.com/2010/11/25/the-haarp-controversy.html
Even if COMSTECH had all of Saudi Arabia’s money, it would be irrelevant to the world of science. I just wish that my country stopped wasting its millions on trying to make this albatross fly.
Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, Professor of Physics, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad 45320, Pakistan.
malik ( Pakistan )
14 February 2011
COMSTECH belongs to all of us who are Science/Engineering professionals in the Muslim World and is neither owned by Dr.Atta nor should be dis-owned by critics like Dr.Hoodbhoy. Lets put our heads together to improve this organization rather than pulling it down.
Athar Osama ( United Kingdom )
16 February 2011
Thanks for your comment but I beg to disagree here. Private Equity may be a solution to many problems but not for what I am arguing here. Besides, there is a reason why private equity doesn't take root in OIC member countries because the conditions for its taking root aren't ripe yet. I seriously doubt if provision of private equity will make a dent If we continue producing science which has no relationship with the problems of the real world around us. I think the big problem in the Islamic World is that of relevance - both of the science that we do to problems around us and of the institutional mandates that we create as pointed out in this article.
Athar Osama ( United Kingdom )
16 February 2011
Great comments. I agree with the spirit of both. I was quite surprised that the private sector was visibly absent from the conversation at the COMSTECH General Assembly Meeting as well. I think we need to develop the maturity to create multi-sectoral dialogues and initiatives without which our efforts will not bear fruit. Private Sector also needs maturity to invest in science and innovation. Some of the recent analysis I have attempted to do on Science Vision 1441 leads to the inevitable conclusion that it is a losing battle without private sector being a full partner to the exercise. Lets try to work together to make it happen.
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