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Islamic nations must regroup to put faltering science strategy back on track, says policy advisor Athar Osama.

Seven years ago, a conference of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, approved a 17-year vision for a knowledge-driven society that committed to "utilising and advancing science and technology to enhance the socioeconomic well-being" of the Islamic world.

Vision 1441H — referring to a target year in the Islamic (Hinri) calendar that coincides with year 2020 of the Gregorian calendar — challenged OIC member countries to produce 14 per cent of the world's scientific output, to ensure that they produced 1441 researchers, scientists, or engineers per million of their population, and to dedicate 1.4 per cent of their gross domestic product to research and development (R&D).

Yet the document is as vague on implementation as it is ambitious on targets. Two organisations, the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and the OIC Standing Committee on Science and Technology (COMSTECH), were expected to take on the challenge of encouraging implementation. For the most part, that has not happened. 

Reality check

Last month, member states and leaders of the OIC family of institutions met in Dubai for a midpoint review of Vision 1441H. It was a timely reality check for the 57-member country organisation. And it raised important questions about OIC aspirations, whether intra-OIC cooperation works, and OIC's mandate and ability to execute its plans.

With the benefit of hindsight, there were clear omissions in launching and planning the vision which signal the challenges of implementing it.

First, there was little or no separate budget allocated to implementation or for any joint initiatives. Two initiatives mentioned explicitly in the vision, a US$500 million R&D seed fund and a 'business angels' network, never really took off for lack of political and financial support from member states.

Second, Vision 1441H did not give clear responsibility for implementation and oversight to any particular entity — beyond suggestive language aimed at IDB and COMSTECH. The Malaysian Ministry of Science Technology, and Innovation (MOSTI) has thus far played host to the vision's permanent secretariat, but is ill-equipped to meet the political and bureaucratic challenge of implementing a multinational vision.

No political will or follow-up

The OIC leadership's inability to deliver what was endorsed at the summit reveals an intriguing picture of the internal politics of this group. Member countries' science, foreign, and finance ministries have failed to rally around the vision despite their leaders' endorsements of it.

In truth, in spite of the nice sounding political slogans, most OIC countries do not see value in investing in science and innovation. An Islamic Development Bank US$250 million loan facility dedicated to science and technology (S&T) projects remains largely untouched.

Even for countries that have begun to take investment in science more seriously, there is little appetite for joint and collaborative projects, or coordination on policy. As is often the case, the biggest spenders are most resistant to collaboration for fear of 'free riding' by other countries.

In the recent Dubai meeting, Mohammed Ali Mahesar, assistant coordinator general of COMSTECH, noted that "[the] majority of the represented countries showed-off investments that would have been made anyway without much value-added of the Vision 1441 initiative". Most countries, Mahesar believes, are at too early a stage in S&T to consider joint development.  

Limitations of OIC

The challenges of putting into practice Vision 1441H highlight the OIC's limitations as a platform. Without much implementation muscle, it depends on the cooperation of member states to transform the will of its leaders into action.

Until quite recently these member states were not even adequately represented on the task force set up to coordinate implementation. Instead, the task force depended on OIC institutions that acted as implementation arms but without an independent funding authority to push the vision through.

The organisation is now rethinking this as executive mechanisms are being clarified. One benefit from the Dubai meeting is a clear realisation that Vision 1441 needs a champion — a strong OIC entity — to encourage and oversee implementation. There is near consensus that COMSTECH should take on that role, but would need resources, and a set of clear mechanisms, to deliver.

Evolving these mechanisms would require the OIC to address crucial questions that get to the core of what the organisation must try to do (and not do), and how it could deliver.

Should COMSTECH — acting on behalf of OIC — be content with a bare minimum role of encouraging member states to develop their own S&T policies, acting perhaps only as a think tank? Should it try to pursue policy coordination across member states more aggressively — and to what end, and how?

What kind of enforcement authority should it seek, if it were to support a newly acquired policy coordination function? Or should it evolve its own agenda for greater cooperation and joint projects?

Addressing these questions could open a Pandora's box of issues at this late stage in the process. But it is also crucial for future implementation to work. For OIC, going back to the drawing board for a new policy design on Vision 1441H would ignore these questions at its peril.

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.

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