US and Islamic nations launch innovation projects

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[RABAT, MOROCCO] In an effort to promote science-based innovation in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, the US-backed Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) initiative announced two projects last week.

One, the GIST Accelerator Network (GISTnet), is a web-based "innovation ecosystem" intended to "connect and facilitate collaboration and participation among the region’s entrepreneurial and investment communities," according to Cathy Campbell, chief executive of CRDF Global, which implements GIST’s activities on behalf of the US Department of State.

The second project is a competition, due to be launched on 1 July, to encourage promising young entrepreneurs in 43 nations to develop novel solutions to economic development challenges. A shortlist of 25 submissions will be selected to compete for awards of up to US$60,000.

The projects were announced at the end of a two-day meeting on economic development through scientific and technological innovation held in Morocco, last week. This was the last of a series of meetings organised by GIST, following earlier regional conferences in Egypt and Malaysia.

Both projects result from recommendations and plans developed at these earlier meetings, each of which was attended by about 200 participants from research communities, governments, private business, universities and NGOs in 26 Islamic nations.

Addressing the Rabat meeting, Kerri-Ann Jones, US assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, said that science and technology represent "the currency of the 21st century" and are essential tools for addressing the problems of society.

Jones called on participants to cooperate to achieve economic and social development. She pointed out, for example, that the current upheaval in the Arab region demonstrates that young people need the jobs that innovation and economic growth can provide.

Ahmed Akhchichine, Morocco’s minister of national education, higher education, executive training and scientific research, told SciDev.Net he was pleased that the GIST initiative recognised a "different logic" in encouraging scientific collaboration from the previous strategy of "capturing qualified and talented citizens of the South" and moving them to the North.

The series of meetings that concluded in Rabat had "paved the way for a framework that unifies the visions between the United States and the Arab and Muslim nations [on how to achieve] sustainable development," Akhchichine said.

It had also ensured "a balance between economic development and the needs of domestic and foreign labour markets," he added.

Abdelhafid Debbarh, secretary general of Morocco’s ministry of national education, told SciDev.Net that the three meetings had prepared the ground for the launch of a fund to finance technology transfer projects and collaboration between researchers and investors throughout the region. But the announcement was never forthcoming, despite news reports before the meeting that an announcement would be made.

"We need substantial funding to provide opportunities for [young people] to apply their ideas, and we also need to change strategies and policies towards the acquisition of scientific knowledge and its transformation to products," said Abdalla Alnajjar, president of the Arab Science and Technology Foundation, based in the United Arab Emirates.

Alnajjar pointed out that young people, academics and investors in Arab nations have the ability to use science for social and economic development. "They just need a suitable environment for a paradigm shift [to occur] in the field of science and technology."

Kamal Oudrhiri, a senior scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and founder of the San-Francisco based Grove of Hope science education project, said the GIST initiative faced the challenge of helping nations agree on common objectives, even though each has "its own specificities and requirements".

The goal now was "to build an exchange network between them in the field of science and technology," he said.