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.