Just over a year ago, a group of individuals met over a wet week-end at the headquarters of the Third World Academy of Sciences in Trieste, Italy. On the agenda was a proposal to set up a website that would provide news, background information, and a forum for comment, about the contribution of science and technology to the needs of developing countries.
Those who attended the workshop came from a diverse range of professions with an interest in this issue. They included academic researchers, science and technology policy experts, science journalists, representatives of charitable foundations, and aid agency officials.
One factor that brought us together, however, was a common belief that a significant -and in some cases growing - gap exists between the levels of access enjoyed by rich and poor countries to the scientific knowledge that forms a core element of the modern knowledge economy. A summary of the meeting pointed to the irony that "those who stand to benefit most from modern science are also those who have least access to information about it."
The conclusion endorsed by all those present in Trieste was that a website devoted to the wide range of science and technology issues related to development would be a valuable contribution to resolving this dilemma.
Events since then have reinforced that conclusion. For example, there continues to be a growing awareness that debates on issues in which science and technology are central elements, such as genetically modified crops or human-induced climate change, must be global - and socially inclusive - if they are to lead to a satisfactory and acceptable outcome.
A second, less anticipated, factor has been the way that the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September, as well as the subsequent military action in Afghanistan, has had a severe impact on the willingness of individuals to travel to attend meetings on such topics in person. In such circumstances, however unfortunate, the Internet now offers an alternative channel through which information can be effectively, economically and rapidly disseminated, and points of view exchanged.
One year after the Trieste meeting, the proposal endorsed there has now become a reality with the launch of SciDev.Net. Our overall aim is to "empower both individuals and communities in developing countries, increasing their ability to ensure the effective contribution of science and technology to sustainable development, and thus to the general improvement of health and economic well-being".
We are particularly keen to ensure that a 'southern' perspective exists at the core of the website. We intend to achieve this by a number of ways, for example by assuring that the majority of trustees are from the developing world, commissioning items where possible from local correspondents, researchers or policy advisers in developing countries, and bringing together the presentation of news, comment and features from individual regions into what we are describing as 'regional gateways'.
Several debts of gratitude are owed to those who have helped to get this website off the ground. Immediately after Trieste, the UK Department for International Development provided money for a six-month planning phase, carried out under the auspices of and with the support of the journal Nature, and the department has now provided further funding for the operation of the website itself.
In this, it has now been joined by the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency’s department for research co-operation, and the International Development Research Centre in Canada. The generous support from these three agencies has provided sufficient short-term financial security not only to get to the position we are in today, but also to allow us to test the viability of SciDev.Net over the next couple of years. Other charitable foundations are also expected to provide additional financial support.
A second debt of gratitude is owed to the journals Nature and Science. The editors and publishers of both journals have agreed to lend their support to this initiative, for example by informing their readers about the launch of SciDev.Net and providing its users with free access to a limited number of relevant articles - selected by SciDev.Net staff - each week.
SciDev.Net, itself an independent not-for-profit company - and is currently seeking registration as an educational charity under UK law - has no editorial or commercial links with either journal. But it hopes to benefit from their editorial insights and experience - for example through the presence of their respective editors on our board of trustees.
In addition, we are grateful to the Third World Academy of Sciences for its guidance and partnership in pursuing a common goal, namely the increased ability of developing nations to integrate modern science and technology into their social fabric, and to do so in a way that encourages sound decision-making on the many contentious issues that this process can generate.
In the same vein, we would like to thank those who have agreed to offer their personal guidance by becoming trustees of this (venture a full list of these, as well as more detail about the background to editorial principles of SciDev.Net can be found under the 'About Us' section of the website. And we would also like to thank the members of design team at Synergy New Media -- particularly Ed Horrocks, Alison Milne and Katherine Rees -- who have worked long hours and with considerable forbearance in putting together both the website and the database in which its content is stored.
Finally, it has become clear from the start of this project that its success will depend heavily on the support that it receives from you, the user. Already we have been gratified by the enthusiasm and messages of support we have received for the launch of such a website. We have also benefited substantially from the perceptive and invaluable feedback we have received on several occasions from individuals who were asked or volunteered to comment on early versions of the website.
While we ask for your patience in getting the website fully operational, conscious of its current gaps, weaknesses, and dead-ends, we also hope to continue to benefit from your suggestions for improvement. We also ask that, even though registration is voluntary (on the grounds that compulsory registration might dissuade some from visiting the site regularly), as many of you as possible register brief details with us.
Doing this will allow you to receive weekly e-mail alerts describing new material that has been posted on the site (including information about the material being made available for Nature and Science). We recognise that for some, access to material on the Web remains limited, and are therefore exploring ways of sending the full text of articles by e-mail on request.
At the same time, your registration will provide us with information about the use of the site that will be invaluable in assessing its strengths and weaknesses, hopefully demonstrating its value as a 'public good' sufficiently to allow us to raise long-term financial support. This will ensure that we continue to provide free access, at least to those in developing countries who stand to gain most from what we seek to offer.
Most importantly, the direct engagement of the users of this site will be critical to its success as a forum for joint reflection on the many complexities of the relationship between science, technology and society.
To encourage this, for example, we have made it possible to comment immediately on virtually every item to appear either directly or indirectly on the site. Although such comments will be moderated for legal and editorial reasons before they are posted, our intention is that as many as possible will be made available to other users of the site.
Extensive opportunity for comment and feedback has been designed into SciDev.Net in the belief that sound development policies require a true public appreciation and understanding of science and technology. At the same time, we are also committed to the idea that this must be an organic process that starts in the community, and cannot merely be handed down by institutions, however authoritative or well-meaning.
Time will tell how successful we have been in helping to achieve this goal. But we are convinced that the potential exists, through the Internet, for opening up a new era in the communication of information about science and technology between researchers, policy-makers, and the public. And we are optimistic that SciDev.Net can make a substantial contribution to turning this potential into reality.