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  • Information summit endorses key role of 'e-science'

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The first session of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) ended on Friday (12 December) with endorsement of a broad list of principles intended to guide the future development of information and communication technologies (ICTs), and of a 'road map' showing how these should be put into practice.

Included in the first of these is a statement recognising that science has a central role in the development of the information society, and that there is a need to ensure that scientific data remains widely accessible.

"Many of the building blocks of the information society are the result of scientific and technical advances made possible by the sharing of research results," says the Declaration of Principles, which was endorsed by representatives from more than 175 countries.

The declaration also makes an explicit reference to the need to promote open access initiatives for scientific publishing as part of support for "universal access with equal opportunities for all to scientific knowledge".

The inclusion of this language was a direct result of pressure from open access activists during the preparatory process for WSIS that has been taking place for the past 15 months.

The content of second document – the Plan of Action – also reflects proposals from the scientific community, although this time expressed more broadly in a section urging support for what the document describes as 'e-science'.

The plan includes commitments by countries represented at the Geneva meeting:

  • To promote affordable and reliable high-speed Internet connection for all universities and research institutions;
  • To promote electronic publishing, differential pricing and open-access initiatives "to make scientific information affordable and accessible in all countries on an equitable basis";
  • To promote the use of peer-to-peer technology for sharing scientific knowledge;
  • To promote long-term collection, dissemination and preservation of essential scientific digital data; and
  • To promote principles and metadata standards "to facilitate cooperation and effective use of collected scientific information and data".

In practical terms, the governments who attended the meeting failed to agree on any new international initiatives to boost the use of ICTs, particularly in developing countries.

In particular, the meeting rejected calls by a number of countries – particularly in Africa – to set up a new international fund to finance ICT developments.

According to representatives from the developed countries, this did not mean that there is opposition to providing additional financial aid in this area. Rather, it reflected a conviction that this is best achieved through bilateral agreements.

There was stronger objection in principle from the developed world to a second central demand from many developing countries, namely that control of the Internet should be passed to a United Nations agency to ensure that it operates in an equitable way, and is not dominated by the interests of the developed world.

In both cases, the issues have been referred to working groups, who have been asked to study the proposals and report back to the second part of the summit in Tunisia.

The failure of the Geneva meeting to agree, or even to consider seriously, either of these two suggestions led to the outcome being widely criticised as a failure by many non-government organisations, and some developing-country participants.

A statement issued by Civil Society, an alliance of development groups represented at the summit, argued that "technological decisions should meet the needs of people, not enrich companies or enable control by governments".

At the same time, there was widespread agreement among the 10,000 politicians, business representatives, development workers and technology consultants present that the meeting had provided a valuable opportunity for practical interaction and the emergence of new partnerships and projects. 

There was also recognition that both the Declaration of Principles and the Plan of Action provide useful yardsticks against which progress can be measured over the next two years leading up to the second half of the summit.

In some cases, the goals are explicit. For example, the Plan of Action states that 50 per cent of the world's population will be connected to the Internet by 2015 (although it doesn't say how this is going to be achieved).

In other cases, precise targets have been omitted. For example, although the Plan of Action includes a commitment to connecting all universities to the Internet, it does not stipulate – as various scientific bodies had previously proposed – that this should be achieved within five years.

But the fact of identifying goals and targets – whether quantified are not – is being seen by many as an important step. "Now that we have these principles on the table, it is up to groups such as the scientific community to put them into practice, " says Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the Third World Academy of Sciences.

"ICTs can be used effectively as part of the toolbox for addressing global problems," Yoshio Utsumi, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, said in closing the meeting. "The summit's successes now give us the necessary momentum to achieve this."

The Tunis section of the WSIS will provide the opportunity to see how much of this momentum has been sustained.

To access the Declaration and the Plan of Action go to: http://www.itu.int/wsis/geneva/docs.html

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