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The Islamic world needs new mechanisms that enable leaders to interact informally and share scientific knowledge, argues Athar Osama.

One of the most important factors that distinguish developed and developing countries is their ability to benefit from science and technology. And there is little doubt that science will be more important for development in the future.

Yet many members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) have failed to make science the foundation of their development paradigms. But there are exceptions.

Egypt and Pakistan have made significant headway in agricultural research during their respective green revolutions in the 1960s and 1970s. Iran and Pakistan boast well-developed defence industries and nuclear research programmes. In the Gulf states, petro-dollars fund petrochemical and water research programmes.

This diversity, set within a common sociocultural background and a shared set of constraints and challenges, creates opportunities for knowledge sharing — but what Islamic countries lack is the mechanism to make this happen.

Opportunities for sharing

A new experiment being proposed in Egypt, for example, demonstrates the kind of initiative that could hold lessons for other OIC member countries.

The caretaker Egyptian government recently announced its intention to create the Zewail City of Science and Technology, named after Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail. The US$2 billion project is being hailed as Egypt's National Project for Scientific Renaissance. While the details are sketchy, there are plans to allow Egyptian people to contribute money towards the project — in essence, becoming its owners.

This is a significant step forward to establishing a "social contract" between science and society.

Another example is the Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC), established by the government in early 1990s, to provide early-stage financing for commercialising locally developed technologies. The MTDC has created a successful venture capital model and this knowledge is far more relevant to Islamic countries than traditional US venture capital models.

These examples show that Islamic countries at different stages of development can learn as much, if not more, from each other's experience as they can learn from developed countries.

But what we need now is appropriate mechanisms to share this knowledge.

Formal mechanisms

While several formal structures exist for promoting collaboration and networking among Islamic countries, they are often restricted by formalities and the desire to tow the official line.

Opportunities for learning and sharing knowledge are also undermined by rivalries between countries whose overriding objective is to safeguard national interests, rather than work for the common good.

Earlier this year, a progress report on Science Vision 1441H (Year 2020) that largely showed the OIC lagging behind in achieving its targets failed to elicit any response from science ministers.

At another meeting of Ministers of Higher Education and Scientific Research held in Malaysia last year, delegates breezed through the agenda.

A diplomatic silence or conference fatigue may not be unique to OIC member countries. But what aggravates matters in the Islamic World is that alternate fora to promote a culture of open, vigorous, and critical debate are weak, at best.

There is a dire need for think tanks, universities or informal groups that allow government and industry leaders to interact informally and share knowledge and experiences.

 'Coalition of the willing'

An informal group of leaders in science, policy, business and senior government from a small number of like-minded countries — a 'coalition of the willing' so to speak — is the best way to do this. They should be committed to mutual learning through open sharing of experience and knowledge, and vigorous and critical debate on science and innovation priorities.

The Third World Network of Scientific Organisations (TWNSO) is a suitable model. Although now defunct, at its peak the TWNSO attracted science ministers from more than 20 developing countries who came together in their individual capacities, not as government representatives, to share and learn from each other.

For a network to function well, it must be established as an autonomous entity that could work alongside other political and scientific bodies within the Islamic World, and collaborate with independent science policy think tanks.

To support and promote openness, the group's internal exchanges could be governed by the Chatham House Rule, which allows speakers' opinions to be reported in proceedings anonymously.

The OIC's activities would be enhanced by a group such as this — one that supports the codification of best practices through experience and knowledge sharing. It could become the foundation on which to build consensus and help set a mutually beneficial agenda to guide the OIC's activities in science and innovation.

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.