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  • Pakistan’s novel open access instrumentation

Pakistan's 'open access instrumentation' initiative can be replicated in other developing countries, opines Atta-ur-Rahman.

Open access publications have been gaining popularity over the last decade for two major reasons. Firstly, publications in open access journals have high visibility as they are freely available on the Internet to a worldwide readership. Secondly, developing countries, where libraries have limited budgets, benefit from access to the latest research publications without having to pay subscriptions that are beyond their resources.

When I was Pakistan's federal minister of science and technology, I asked myself, why cannot we introduce the concept of open access instrumentation at the national level so that the scientific community has free access to scientific instrumentation? The basic philosophy behind the open access movement is that it is the right of individuals to have free access to knowledge, unhampered by financial constraints.

Open access instrumentation shares a similar philosophy – that every scientist has a right to have access to scientific instrumentation so that his creativity can blossom unhindered by financial and other constraints.

The instruments crunch in developing countries

An initiative I launched in 2005 became a huge success as it provided free access to sophisticated scientific instruments and saved considerable funds. In most fields of science, it is difficult to carry out cutting edge research without access to sophisticated scientific instruments. In organic chemistry, my own field, these include nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers, mass and atomic absorption spectrometers as well as X-ray crystallographs that cost from US$200,000 to more than US$1 million. Most chemistry laboratories in the developing world do not have such sophisticated instruments.

There are similar demands for instrumentation in other fields of science such as flow cytometers, electron microscopes and protein and DNA sequencers. Lack of access to sophisticated instrumentation can be frustrating for scientists who often decide to give up research or migrate to the West in order to pursue their careers.

There are several challenges to be addressed in the acquisition and maintenance of sophisticated instrumentation. The first is that of funding. It is difficult for developing countries to provide funds for purchase of sophisticated instruments in most science departments and institutes due to paucity of funds. Only a few laboratories may be fully equipped.

The second challenge is that of operation and maintenance of the sophisticated instruments. Trained electronic engineers and operators are not easily available, and most developing countries, including Pakistan, do not have local agents of the foreign instrument manufacturers who can provide quick and satisfactory service in case of technical faults.

The third challenge is rapid access to spare parts. Import of spares can be tedious and time-consuming as it requires import formalities and spare parts can take many months to arrive.

Another challenge is the need for appropriate services at the site where the scientific instruments are to be installed such as stable and continuous power supply and ready access to various pure gases as well as liquid nitrogen and liquid helium needed in superconducting NMR spectrometers or for operation of magnets and research at low temperatures.

Pakistan's open access success story

Open access instrumentation is a scheme that allows scientists to send their samples for free analyses to any institution in the country that has the facilities. The results can be sent back within a week with costs borne by the Higher Education Commission, the organisation responsible for all universities and degree awarding institutes in Pakistan.

Under this scheme the institution providing the service will benefit as the income generated could be used for purchasing spare parts or for upgrades and the instruments installed fully utilised. Scientists would have rapid and free access to scientific instrumentation without the worry or hassle of operation and maintenance. Finally, the government would save by not having to provide sophisticated instrumentation to every laboratory in the country. Open access instrumentation would, therefore, be a win-win situation for all involved.

The scheme was introduced nationwide after lists of scientific instruments installed in Pakistan’s major institutions were made and there was agreement on charges for each analytical service. The scheme has had spectacular success and contributed to the growth of research publications in Institute for Scientific Information abstracted journals from 600 in 2003 to about 8,000 a year now. Several thousand samples are analysed each year through this scheme, thereby providing a huge boost to scientific research in Pakistan.

As far as I am aware, Pakistan is the first and only country in the world to have introduced and practiced this concept successfully with enormous benefits to the scientific community. It may be worthwhile for other developing countries to follow Pakistan’s initiative.

Atta-ur-Rahman is Pakistan’s former Federal Minister of Science & Technology, former Federal Minister of Education and former Chairman/Federal Minister of the Higher Education Commission.