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A ten-year plan to promote science and technology in the Muslim world was endorsed by the senior officials of 57 Islamic states in Mecca last week (7-8 December).

The plan aims to reduce the technology gap between much of the Islamic community and the developed world by enhancing the level of research and development (R&D) in the former.

It identifies several specific targets to be met in the medium- and long-term. For example, it proposes that by the year 2015, 30 per cent of students between the ages of 18 and 24 should have the opportunity to go to university.

It also suggests that by the same date, Muslim countries should aim to spend 1.2 per cent of their gross domestic product on R&D (although the target for the least developed countries is accepted to be one-third of this figure).

To help achieve these aims, the plan urges oil-producing countries to channel part of the revenues from increased oil prices into national R&D activities.

The ten-year plan has been developed over the last two years by a panel of top Islamic figures, set up by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Its final details were agreed at a meeting of Muslim scientists and scholars in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in September 2005.

Although it is not binding, it is intended to be a cooperative roadmap that individual states can use to plan knowledge-based economic development and investment strategies.

General Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, said at the extraordinary session of the Islamic Summit at which the plan was adopted that most Islamic countries were struggling to evolve stable institutions for governance, and "remain far removed from the expanding frontiers of knowledge, education, and science and technology".

He added that the Muslim world needed to break free from a "stagnation of centuries".

The new plan proposes several courses of action to address what it perceives to be the basic challenges in science and technology. For example, it proposes that each OIC member state prepare a national science and technology strategy.

It also advocates establishing centres of excellence, increasing the links between scientists and industry, and setting up an OIC R&D Fund to support scientific and technological projects in member states.

As part of its proposals to reform higher education, it suggests giving priority to science and technology in academic institutions and curricula, and making more effort to facilitate the exchange of knowledge between academic institutions in member states.

It urges the Islamic development bank (IDB) to further enhance its programme of scholarships for outstanding students and specialists in hi-tech subjects (see US$2 million fund to boost research in Muslim world).

Following on from this, the plan highlights the need to find ways to avoid losing highly qualified Muslims to a brain drain.

"[This action plan] is an important milestone in the quest by Islamic countries to raise and enhance their human resources," Wardiman Djojonegoro, former education minister of Indonesia and present chairman of the Jakarta-based Foundation for Human Resources Development for Science and Technology, told SciDev.Net.

"In this global world, you can only compete successfully if you master science and technology."

Djojonegoro's words were echoed by Anwar Nasim, president of the Federation of Asian Biotech Associations, and an adviser to the OIC Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH).

"There is no doubt in my mind that for OIC countries to make any progress, science is crucial", Nasim, told SciDev.Net. He added that the real value of the plan now depended on its implementation.

The two-day summit in Mecca was attended by representatives from the 57 OIC member states and representatives from international organizations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, the United Nations and the European Union.