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Is the turmoil in Arab countries fertile ground for science diplomacy? Yes, but only with due attention to local context, argues Athar Osama.

As freedom movements sweep across the Arab world, commentators, including SciDev.Net, have called for science diplomacy efforts to be stepped up both in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

There is optimism that science and innovation could become a positive force for economic prosperity, creating opportunities through which people may fulfil their potential. 

The calls demand serious thinking. They need to consider to what end, and how, might this science diplomacy be conducted.

These are fundamental questions to answer. With a history of suspicion overshadowing the relations between Islamic countries and the West dating back at least a century, there is reason to exercise caution and humility.

Open and honest meeting

With the chaos unfolding in Arab countries as a backdrop, leaders of the Global Innovations through Science Technology (GIST) initiative — the cornerstone of US president Barack Obama's science initiative towards the Islamic world — held a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last month.

It brought together eminent scientists, innovators and policymakers from the United States and the Islamic world to design programmes to support technology transfer and commercialisation, and promote entrepreneurship and innovation in Islamic countries.

Though far from perfect, the proceedings marked a clear departure — in both style and content — from past US attempts at science diplomacy.

The organisers listened, rather than lectured. Senior government officials were visibly absent, allowing the meeting to cut across public and private sectors and promote civil society support for the programmes. And those US government representatives who were there were refreshingly honest about current constraints and prospects for attracting additional resources.

What models will work?

But serious intellectual and practical challenges remain in putting together initiatives that will make the most sense (and impact) on the ground.

One of the key questions that needs to be addressed now, and as science diplomacy efforts mature, is about the transferability of models of innovation and entrepreneurship. In short, what is it about the United States, or the combined experience of the developed world, that can be transplanted without an arduous and costly learning curve?

This is important to consider not only because the West must put its best foot forward if these science diplomacy efforts are to succeed, but also because an appreciation of the challenges ahead would better inform expectations.

For example, would an American model of university technology commercialisation and spin-offs work equally well in the Islamic world, or must it be modified to meet the readiness of the target institutions? Would creating new venture capital funds solve the problems of lack of entrepreneurship — or would these still fail because of factors such as different cultural attitudes to business?

For example, faculty entrepreneurship might work in a few Islamic countries but would be a rather meaningless exercise for the majority, where universities are largely disconnected from the economic sphere and the concept of commercialisation does not exist.

What these countries, and their universities, may require instead is help to take the even earlier step of jump-starting meaningful university–industry collaborations — and begin making research more relevant to their economic structure, needs and aspirations.

Wanted: local champions, entrepreneurs

It is not quite clear if an appreciation for local context exists among those who took part in the Kuala Lumpur meeting, at least at a level deep enough to make a meaningful impact on programme design.

The complexity of the Islamic world complicates the problem, and the idea that "no size fits all" must prevail.

The idea of 'catalysing' innovation and inspiring people to start talking about what it means to become an entrepreneur is an important aspiration for the United States, said Jonathan Margolis, from the US Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, who presided over the meeting.

"We will be very honest about the fact that with the resources that we have we can only take you this far, i.e. to have jointly specified and developed programmes with preliminary proof of concept established," he said.

Key stakeholders in the US and the Islamic world have joint responsibility for taking the initiative forward — and expanding it.

But even this will mean that programme designers need to 'learn from the field', and to adapt to local conditions. Programmes must be flexible enough to provide room for bottom-up innovations to emerge.

To deliver results, they must also refrain from funding public bureaucracies — ideally, they should promote much leaner, more responsive, and more innovative civil society organisations or genuine public–private partnerships.

The developed world's entrepreneurial system is built on its ability to find the most 'hungry' entrepreneurs — not the most laid back, or the most well-connected — and supporting them by providing 'intelligent' capital and a support structure.

Now it has the unenviable task of finding the most passionate and hungry champions of innovation and entrepreneurship from across the Islamic world, and working out what it will take for them to bring about an entrepreneurial and innovation revolution in their own societies.

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

This article was updated 24 March 2011. A previous version of this article stated that the meeting of the GIST initiative was presided by Jeffrey Margolis of the US Department of State's Office of Science and Technology Cooperation. This statement was incorrect.