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BOTTLENECKS: They have become users rather than producers of knowledge
DESPITE progress by some member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Islamic world has lagged behind in finding a common voice on innovation.
Making innovation work will not be easy. The reason lies in the lack of institutional development that the Islamic world has suffered for several centuries.
Islamic countries have become users rather than producers of technology and knowledge -- the legacy of a shared colonial experience, among other factors. Innovation is hampered by underdeveloped institutional infrastructure -- such as scientific societies, intellectual property regimes and a venture capital industry.
Take Pakistan: the country is capable of producing sophisticated defence technologies such as a cruise missile, but not relatively simple civilian applications such as a car engine. This is a task that calls for dramatic change at multiple levels within society and its institutions.
First, there needs to be resolve and commitment -- both at the political level and within the scientific community -- to develop science with a demonstrable impact on society, and to become producers rather than consumers of scientific knowledge and technology.
Second, science and technology (S&T) institutions need to be adequately funded and exposed to international competition. Most science is carried out in public sector labs that are average, at best. These institutions must either compete internationally and demonstrate value, or be closed.
Third, putting in place the right incentive system for innovation is a critical step. Half measures and ill-conceived plans, such as making scientists responsible for commercialisation without proper incentives, simply do not work.
And last, the countries, individually and collectively, must address the obstacles posed by science funding systems: their lopsided emphasis on science with very little commercialisation, and a lack of private funding.
Innovation is not even a funding category in much of the Islamic world, there is very little in competitive research and development funds available, and scientists often need to wait months for basic equipment needed for the day-to-day work.
Islamic countries need to create a virtuous cycle where investment in science and technology leads to tangible benefits and nurtures a society where innovation, rather than the status quo, is rewarded.
"Thinking outside the box" is one way to push ahead with reforms in spite of opposition.
Policymakers seeking to rewrite the DNA of their S&T establishments by making them performance-driven, customer-focused, and more responsive to societal needs, may need to look elsewhere -- often outside the established system -- for partnerships, coalitions and action.
Policymakers must also look towards fertile sources of talent for new ideas and methods -- most often young people, of whom many of the Islamic countries have ample supply -- outside of the mainstream of S&T establishments.
One way of doing this is through prizes and challenges, such as that offered by the X PRIZE Foundation, which about a decade ago launched a US$20 million (RM63 million) prize to entice the private sector to venture into space travel, creating an innovation industry several times the size of its initial investment.
Another example is Microsoft's Imagine Cup, which engages university students in "writing code to solve the world's toughest problems".
More than 350,000 registrants from 183 countries participated last year -- with Pakistan fielding 11,000 student entries. Such massive brain power has never been mobilised like this before.
Prizes are the best example of how, and when, bypassing traditional S&T bureaucracies can have a significant impact. But they are only part of the solution.
Another, novel approach is building public sector coalitions to solve the problem of inertia within the sector.
Public-private partnerships offer some promise too, but again can become handicapped if public sector S&T establishments are dysfunctional.
Creative mechanisms that can solve the challenges of commitment, institutions, incentives and funding may not only provide alternative platforms for innovation, but can also shake things up for those unwilling to change course.
This article first appeared on www.scidev.net.