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Science  26 May 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5777, pp. 1154-1155
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5777.1154

Iraqi Virtual Science Library Brings Data—and Hope—to the War Zone

The e-mail arrived this spring from a Ph.D. candidate in molecular spectroscopy. His note was brief, but there was no hiding his tension: Living in the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq, he finds it nearly impossible to meet with his adviser at the University of Baghdad—travel is too dangerous. The lack of a full library only compounds his isolation.

Samir Shakir Mahmud Al-Sumaydi, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States.

But for that scholar and for thousands of other scientists, engineers, and students in the embattled country, a new resource has emerged: The Iraqi Virtual Science Library (IVSL). Conceived by a small group of 2004–2005 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows, the library has grown from a bright idea to a powerful new research tool backed by a spectrum of science and diplomatic interests in the United States and Iraq.

The library “provides us an important step toward rebuilding our scientific community,” Samir Shakir Mahmud Al-Sumaydi, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, said at a 3 May news briefing in Washington, D.C. “It … can serve as a vital tool for Iraq's economic growth and the betterment of Iraqi society for many generations to come.”

Organizers say the IVSL will deliver scientific articles from over 17,000 journals, plus online educational material and access to funding opportunities. In the months ahead, organizers expect it to offer access to up to 80% of Iraqi S&T professionals and students. Over the next 2 years, control of the library will be transferred to the Iraqis.

Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for Democracy and Global Affairs, used the news briefing to credit the AAAS S&T Policy Fellows for bringing “an extraordinary project” to fruition. The Fellowships were founded in 1973 as a way to make sound science more available to policy-makers. Nearly 2000 scientists and engineers have served as Fellows in a variety of federal departments and agencies.

Over the same three decades, Iraq's once-sophisticated science, engineering, and research sectors have been militarized by Saddam Hussein and further weakened by wars, sanctions, and looting. Since Saddam's fall in 2003, scientists and engineers have been prominent in recovery and rebuilding efforts—and frequently have been targeted by anti-democratic assassins.

Alex Dehgan, a field biologist, has seen the conditions firsthand. As a AAAS Diplomacy Fellow, he was assigned to the U.S. State Department and deployed in 2004 to Iraq to implement and oversee a program that sought to redirect weapons scientists into civil society. On his return, AAAS S&T Policy Fellow Susan Cumberledge, a molecular biologist assigned to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), suggested to Dehgan a digital effort to aid colleagues in Iraq.

A group coalesced to develop the idea. Despite the threatening conditions in Iraq, they saw opportunity: Electricity was scarce, but still, Internet access was growing. So was the culture of Internet cafés.

In addition to Cumberledge and Dehgan, organizers included Fellows D. J. Patil and Ben Perman at DTRA; Ranjiv Khush in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State (STAS); Kwabena Boakye-Yiadon at the Office of the Secretary of Defense; 2001–2002 AAAS Diplomacy Fellow Barrett H. Ripin, the senior science diplomacy officer at State; and Bill McCluskey, director of the International Technology Policy Office at the Department of Defense.

In time, nearly 30 agencies, associations, and publishers joined to support the project, including the National Academies, the United Nations, and Sun Microsystems. The Academies parlayed a modest federal outlay into articles and journals valued at $11 million. Twenty nonprofit and commercial scientific publishers, including federal and academic organizations, are offering deeply discounted access. (Science is available to Iraqis through HINARI—the Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative.) Sun is donating eight servers to Iraqi research centers.

In beta testing before the rollout this month, about 700 Iraqis used the library. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers recorded 250 downloads at its electronic library from IVSL users in January; in March, there were more than 10,000.

Ripin said the early usage rates “have exceeded my wildest dreams and expectations and demonstrate how thirsty Iraqis are for information and inclusion in the world scientific community.”

Organizers acknowledge the challenges ahead. But Patil noted the Kurdish doctoral student has signed up to use the IVSL, and in that he sees a sign of hope. “This project is all about scientists reaching out to help other scientists,” Patil said. “Things will stabilize at some point—we hope they will—and at that point you need to have people ready to step forward.”

Science Policy Experts Stress Innovation to Address Challenges

Some of the nation's most influential science policy experts focused on U.S. innovation strategy at the annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, urging a deeper commitment to research and development.

In 2 days of discussions and lectures, the experts identified a range of challenges facing the United States and the world in the years and decades ahead—energy, security, climate change, economic growth, education, and public health, among others. The issues are interrelated, they said, and innovation will be crucial to resolving all of them.

“We are at a moment of historic challenge and historic opportunity,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. “A consensus is building … that this nation must act, and act decisively, to improve mathematics and science education at all levels and expand its support for basic research and development work in the physical sciences.”

Other speakers worried that elected officials and the public lack the political will to make an investment that could someday pay historic dividends. Like Bodman, former AAAS President and Chair Shirley Ann Jackson compared the current era to the time of urgent soul-searching that followed the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1957.

The Administration and Congress must ensure “real investment in the components of an innovation agenda that are so critical to our nation's economic and national security,” said Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

The 31st annual Forum on S&T Policy was held 20–21 April in Washington, D.C. More than 500 scientists, policy-makers, educators, students, journalists, and others came to hear science policy experts and government officials explore critical issues facing scientists and society. 

Bodman and John H. Marburger III, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, emphasized the American Competitiveness Initiative offered by President George W. Bush. The plan would allocate $5.9 billion in the coming budget year, and $136 billion over the next decade, to basic research in the physical sciences, improved mathematics and science education, and tax incentives for private research.

In the Forum's opening address, Marburger predicted the initiative would “assure the future economic competitiveness of our nation.”

A bipartisan panel of budget experts offered a more gloomy forecast. Unless escalating long-term costs for Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare; interest on debt; and other mandatory expenses are offset by increased revenues, the nation faces a devastating debt build-up or crippling budget cuts. A huge tax increase might not be the answer—that could undermine economic growth. All such scenarios would put future R&D commitments at risk, the experts warned.

AAAS President John P. Holdren. © Credit: (TOP) Martha Stewart

AAAS President John P. Holdren, the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at Harvard University, moderated a panel on energy policy. To counter global climate change, he said, the world will need to continuously improve energy efficiency over the whole 21st century.

“Everybody who looks at this picture says our investments are inadequate in energy technology innovation in relation to the scale of the challenges and the opportunities,” said Holdren, who also serves as director of the Woods Hole Research Center. “Everybody who looks at it says that's particularly true in terms of the climate challenge and also the demands of achieving sustainable prosperity for all the world's population.”

In the annual William D. Carey Lecture, Princeton President-Emeritus Harold T. Shapiro struck a cautionary note. To build support for innovation, he suggested, science must call on its often overlooked humanistic dimension to more fully engage with a broad, diverse—and sometimes skeptical—society. 

“Friends of science need to understand that ultimately scientists and nonscientists alike are part of a common moral community,” Shapiro said. “As a result, the scientific community has an enormous stake not simply in the amount of resources made available to them, but in the nature and health of the society we are trying to build.”

—Earl Lane contributed to this report.

AAAS Staff Discuss NSF, Education on Capitol Hill

Senior AAAS staff members visited Capitol Hill in May to discuss two topics directly related to long-term U.S. innovation strategy: the National Science Foundation (NSF) budget and plans to improve Advanced Placement science curriculum in American high schools.

Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science, told the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space that despite an 8% budget increase proposed for NSF in 2007, the agency will be able to fund fewer than 25% of the research proposals it recieves.

“This matters because it means a great amount of very important work will still go unfunded,” Leshner testified on 2 May.

He said he was further concerned that the NSF budget for education and human resources would increase just 2.5% in the proposed spending plan—leaving it 20% below 2004 funding in real terms.

Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, appeared later that day on an NSF/College Board panel convened to discuss new ways to teach Advanced Placement science courses in U.S. high schools. NSF is underwriting a redesign of the courses with a $1.8 million grant; the curriculum is slated for an autumn 2009 launch.

Malcom compared current instruction to teaching isolated scenes of a play without ever telling students the play's full story. “Let's go for things that are important, for the knowledge that is significant,” Malcom said. “Can we set them up for a lifetime of learning?”

Improvement in AP curriculum would ripple through all high school science instruction, she said.

-Paul Recer

Japanese S&T Minister Details Bold
Innovation Plan

Confronted by rising Asian competition and its dependence on foreign oil, Japan is embarking on a visionary plan to become a world innovation leader, Iwao Matsuda, Japan's minister of state for science and technology policy, said during a visit to AAAS.

In an animated and engaging lecture, Matsuda described initiatives that, if successful, would have global impact: gas-free automobiles, technology for monitoring Earth's environment, and medical technology for the detection of microscopic cancers.

The approach is detailed in the third 5-year phase of Japan's basic S&T plan, which began in April. It calls for government research and development investment of 25 trillion yen, or about $221 billion. The plan's guiding assumption: Economic productivity through the development of new technologies is essential to Japan's future competitiveness in the world market.

“This is the first time that such a clearly defined investment strategy has been introduced in the history of Japanese S&T policy,” Matsuda said. “I hope very much that setting priorities in this way should lead to more effective R&D investment.”

Matsuda, a veteran elected official in Japan, was appointed minister of state for S&T policy in 2005 and is also minister of state for information technology. The 3 May talk in Washington, D.C., was sponsored by the Japanese embassy, the Washington Science Policy Alliance, and AAAS.

“Minister Matsuda's speech provided us with an excellent overview of Japan's S&T plans,” said Albert Teich, director of Science & Policy at AAAS. “Watching his energy and enthusiasm should serve as inspiration for our own efforts in the United States.”

-Lonnie Shekhtman

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