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[BAGHDAD] A UN initiative backed by Japan has been launched to help rebuild Iraq's research infrastructure and begin the transition towards a knowledge-based economy.

The initiative, announced in Erbil in December 2010 at a meeting between UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and senior officials from Iraq's ministries for scientific research and higher education, will draw up a comprehensive national policy for science, technology and innovation.

The first step is to "identify existing research capacity in Iraq", Samir Raauf, a senior official at the Ministry of Science and Technology, told SciDev.Net. This will be done by bringing together existing research papers and reports, including research not yet completed that has been carried out by special committees.

Raauf said the aim of the initiative, which was launched last month, was to assess the existing research capacity in Iraq and use the information to meet the country's urgent needs, outlined in the Ministry of Planning's five-year plan.

With about US$212,000 from the Japanese government, the initiative will establish a network of national and international government experts, scientists, academics and businesses to articulate policy priorities over a 12-month period. Scientists will be linked to Iraqi government bodies and organisations that can benefit from their work.

Research priorities differ in each Iraqi regions. The task of identifying them will be part of a national dialogue on the role of science and technology in spurring economic growth and improving the quality of life in Iraq.

Falah Ibrahim, director of the Center for Energy Research in Baghdad, described the initiative as vital to achieving the potential of Iraqi scientists, and an "innovative way to put their production in the right place".

He added that it will support the country's effort to reduce its dependence on imported technology, help revitalise its scientific development and take advantage of its scientific cadres.

Three main conferences will be held in 2011, in the Kurdish region, Baghdad and Basra, along with a number of workshops. The recommendations from the conferences will be collated by the end of the year.

Government priorities for research over the next four years in five main categories — human capacity building, information technology, agriculture, environment and water resources, and renewable energy — will be based on this work.

At the press conference following the announcement of the initiative, Casey Walther, the natural sciences officer for UNESCO in Iraq, said: "This joint initiative is, in essence, about paving the way towards a brighter future for the people of Iraq by leveraging the knowledge and capacities of its leaders, scientists, schools and businesses."

UNESCO is the main UN provider of technical advice and capacity building in science, technology and innovation policy.