Islamic nations have agreed to set up a network to explore the relationship between Islam and science.
Ethical issues have been at the forefront of the debate between the scientific and Islamic communities in recent years, as scientists have pushed the boundaries of research into biotechnology, genetically modified crops, and stem cell research.
The Islamic Ethical Network on Science and Technology (IENST) was announced at the third Islamic Conference of the Ministers of Higher Education and Scientific Research held in Kuwait this week (19-21 November), attended by representatives from 56 states and 30 regional and international organisations.
Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri, director general of the Morocco-based Islamic Educational, scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), said the network was needed to strengthen scientific research and extend its scope to the maximum.
"Our Ummah [community] witnesses a lack of interest in keeping pace with the latest scientific and technological developments," he said.
IENST, which will consist of scholars, scientists, technologists and researchers from Islamic countries, will monitor and analyse the applications of new technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology.
It will assess their ethical and legal — with regards to Islamic law — impact on Islamic society, and will issue guidelines for ethicists, scientists, policymakers and the general public.
In addition, IENST will seek to promote an Islamic scientific culture through training programmes on the ethical responsibility of scientists.
Athar Osama, founder and coordinator of the Pakistan Research Support Network, said Muslim scientists need a broader consensus to reassure them of what scientific practices are in line with Islamic values.
"What IENST would attempt to do is to try to formalise these interactions within the Muslim world," he said. It will be interesting to see to what extent the IENST's guidelines will become authoritative for scientists, and to what extent religious scholars will participate in the discussions, he told SciDev.Net.
Pa Tamba Ngom, a researcher at the Nutrition Programme of Medical Research Council, The Gambia, likewise welcomed the network but warned of the risk of isolating Islamic scientists.
"While it is important to have such an Islamic boost for science, [one should not] loose sight of the fact that scientific research is heavily hinged on global collaboration. A balance must be reached between the benefits of an Islamic boost for science and the realities of the present day situation," he told SciDev.Net.
Scientists, technologists and science policymakers from Islamic, Arab and international academic organisations attended the tri-annual conference organised by ISESCO, which will now be held every two years.
To prevent the continuing brain drain, participants suggested that Islamic countries increase academic opportunities and facilities for higher education and training, particularly at postgraduate research levels.
The conference also agreed to increase bilateral and multilateral scientific cooperation, notably by sharing experts, manpower and increasing interactions between scientific academies and organisations.
"[The Islamic community] has the lowest levels of scientific and technological development among all nations and suffers from a poor scientific infrastructure at all levels," said Altwaijri.
He said consolidating Islamic solidarity would help confront the challenges they face.