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S&T ministerial committee must reform its Inter-Islamic Networks to promote real collaboration with clear objectives, argues Athar Osama.

Last month, The Royal Society released a study of global scientific networks and collaboration that highlighted the truly global nature of science and called for policies to institutionalise scientific collaboration.

The document reinforced the established wisdom that international collaboration enhances the quality, visibility and impact of science. For example, papers co-authored with colleagues in a different country may receive three to four times more citations than papers written by authors in the same country.

This applies equally to the Islamic world. In 2004, papers authored by Pakistani scientists during the preceding five years received, on average, 1.1 citations. In the same year, papers co-authored with Turkish and Moroccan scientists received on average 2.4 and 4.0 citations, respectively.

But the Inter-Islamic Networks of science and technology set up by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to promote such collaborations have performed poorly, undermining the raison d ́être of the OIC Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH).

Dormant networks

Seven Islamic countries currently host eight such networks in water resources development and management, biosaline agriculture, space sciences, information technology, oceanography, tropical medicine, biotechnology and renewable energy.

To set up a network, an institution of a member state must submit a proposal that includes a basic commitment of US$100,000 from the host government, and it must attract at least five member states as paying members. COMSTECH also contributes US$50,000 as start-up capital.

Once the network is established, it must develop its own agenda and be responsible for executing it. But the performance of these networks has been quite varied.

Perhaps the most successful is the Inter-Islamic Network of Water Resources Development and Management (INWRDAM), based in Jordan, which has 18 active members and several international partnerships and projects to its credit.

The dormant networks invited concern at the 14th General Assembly of COMSTECH in Islamabad earlier this year. Atta-ur-Rahman, COMSTECH's coordinator general, commented that "either there should be an 'active' network, or no network at all".

But reaching consensus to close down existing networks will be difficult. In fact, the General Assembly ended up approving four new networks.

Fundamental questions

The problems underlying this lacklustre performance are many — but foremost is a lack of understanding, even among the host institutions, about what is expected of these networks. Many have set themselves up for failure with an agenda that aims too low, or by letting complacency creep into their operations.

It is striking how little the 'active' networks have achieved in terms of scientific collaboration, measured through joint projects and co-authored papers. Instead, most have resorted to holding meetings and training programmes — useful as a means, but not an end.

Even the most active network, INWRDAM, is dominated by the interests of its host country, and does little to promote real collaboration between member states.

The case of INWARDAM illustrates an important complication at the heart of these networks. "The water challenges between Bosnia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are galaxies apart. Bangladesh could be more fruitfully compared with India and Burma, Kazakhstan with China or Russia, than their co-religionists in Africa or Europe," says Daanish Mustafa, an expert in water resources and geography at Kings College London.

And that's a big problem. The basic rationale for putting together a scientific network of countries with such diverse interests needs a careful rethink.

COMSTECH must ask some fundamental questions: What kinds of problems lend themselves to such an approach? What should a network be expected to achieve?

Clear objectives

At the most basic level, a network could simply be a platform for information exchange. Or, as with INWRDAM, it could create a critical mass and a credible capability that will attract funds from international sources.

But a network will not fulfil its potential without collaboration. Collaborative research does not happen just by talking about it. It needs people to work together on projects of mutual interest — in this case, on specific problems that are important to member states.

COMSTECH must do its part too by developing a clear and coherent mandate — adaptable to the circumstances of each network — that could guide the rationale, membership and activities of each network.

This must begin with a much more rigorous application process. On application, each network must be asked to commission a scientific roadmap to solve a particular problem, and explain why its members are uniquely qualified to solve it.

Once this is peer reviewed and approved, based on its scientific merit and collaboration rationale, the founding members should be invited to submit a strategic plan of how to organise and fund it to achieve the desired objectives.

A measurement and evaluation framework — with milestones and targets at the first, third and tenth year — must be agreed at the very beginning. Networks must have a finite lifespan and dissolve at the end of a ten-year period into smaller sub-specialisations, which could then begin growing in new directions.

Only by linking the Inter-Islamic Networks programme with purposeful and goal-oriented research can COMSTECH rid it of vague and complacent objectives, and breathe life into its collaboration agenda.

Athar Osama is a London-based science and innovation policy researcher and consultant, the founder of and a visiting fellow at Boston University's Frederick S. Pardee Centre for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.