COMSATS’ Experience of Science Diplomacy

984

Ambassador (R) Fouzia Nasreen

The Commission on Science and Technology for Sustainable Development in the South (COMSATS) is an outstanding example of Science Diplomacy. Conceived as an inter-governmental and an international organization, it brought together countries of the South in an attempt to accord pivotal role to science and technology for the socio-economic development and prosperity of the developing countries. Established in 1994, the leaders from the developing countries extended their political support to promoting sustainable development and science and technology. At the Foundation meeting an impressive array of representatives from the developing world and international organizations demonstrated the will to give priority to education, research and development and generation of knowledge.
The unremitting mission of the Organization is “To help create a world where all nations are at peace with one another and capable of providing a good quality of life to their populations in a sustainable way, using modern scientific and technological resources.”
The above overarching aim required an innovative structural arrangement that would provide multiple levels of cooperation and interaction among various stakeholders, most importantly the institutions of the North. COMSATS therefore, can be regarded as pioneer in propagating the core principles of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Its objective of South-South and North-South cooperation corresponds with the concept of Triangular cooperation. Right from the beginning COMSATS’ focus has been on sustainable socio-economic development through science, technology and innovation –an aspiration which is inbuilt in the SDGs. The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and COMSATS’ Technical Advisory Committee composed of 10 internationally renowned scientists, provide connections with the North on a more permanent basis. Linkages with the United Nations agencies such as UNOSSC, UNESCAP, UNESCO and others provide COMSATS and its member states an additional leverage for institutional opportunities.
COMSATS presents diversity in terms of regions, levels of development, culture and socio-economic template. Beginning with a relatively small number of member states, it now represents 27 countries from three continents: Asia; Africa and Latin America and a population of 37.3 % of the total world population. From the more advanced and prosperous countries to Less Developed countries (LDCs), it provides scope for robust Science Diplomacy. China is a P-5 member and an economic power with heavy investments in science, technology and innovation. China’s national desire under the patronage of President Xi Jinping is to share development widely with the developing countries of Asia, Africa and also Latin America. It is an active player in G-20 along with Turkey another COMSATS member state. Chinese scientific institutions are significantly involved in COMSATS’ pursuits of building knowledge- based economies and societies in the member countries.
There is also variation in among COMSATS member states in terms of Gross Domestic Products (GDP), Human Development Index (HDI) and science and technology indicators and investments. The GDP ranges between US$ 12.24 trillion to US$249.7 billion. Similarly GDP Growth rate varies from 7.4 % to 0.8 %. HDI shows that 9 of the member states are in high category; 7 in medium and 9 in low. Therefore, the gap is huge which accentuates development problems and insufficiency in human and material resources. Since financial constraints do not allow heavy investments in producing manpower compatible with national aims and in building science and technology institutions, the need for pooling of resources, sharing of technical knowhow and skill development, education and training is very dire.
Over the last 25 years COMSATS has played an important role in overcoming some of these constraints. Its Network of 22 International Scientific Centres of Excellence (CoEs) has been instrumental in fostering scientific cooperation. In the field of higher education COMSATS has encouraged member states to award scholarships. Its own CoE – COMSATS University has provided 100 scholarships to applicants from member states which have been availed predominantly by students from Africa. Correspondingly, the CUI faculty and students have benefitted from the opportunities offered by the developed countries/institutions such as Commonwealth, European Union, US and other countries. This circular cooperation symbolizes the essence of Triangular cooperation.
In order to give more focus to the research work within the framework of COMSATS, focused International Thematic Research Groups have been constituted led by one of the CoE. The areas are climate change and environmental protection; Information and Technology; Natural Product Sciences Mathematical Modeling; Agriculture Food Security and Biotechnology; and Renewable Energy. The ITRG arrangement allows various Centres, under the lead Centre, a framework for exchanging information/data and pooling of resources and expertise for research and collaboration.
COMSATS has all along been cognizant of the soft aspect of cooperation through Science Diplomacy especially as it helps in: i) building cooperative arrangements; ii) pooling of scientific knowledge and resources; iii) promoting knowledge-based economies and societies; iv)fostering of sustainability, development and constructive transformation; and v) most importantly overcoming the development challenges confronted by the world today. The exigencies of the Fourth Industrial revolution call for nuanced scientific policy frameworks and governance structures. Through conferences, seminars, lectures, workshops and training programmes COMSATS’ idea is to inculcate the growing importance of Science Diplomacy. In the age of digitalization, it is imperative to propa gate smart technologies, broadband and 3D and IoT. COMSATS’ has the privilege of being the pioneer internet service provider since the early 1980s. Aligning ICT related activities with the demands of modern time remains a desired goal for COMSATS.
The development challenges which have inter-related global impacts require synchronized global and regional cooperation and collaboration. Climate change, erratic weather patterns, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, disasters and droughts necessitate reliance on collective wisdom and expertise as these problems are not geographically bounded. More pronounced effects can be seen as growing water scarcity is aggravating food insecurity and causing health problems. Water availability is a challenge confronted by most member countries. An international workshop arranged in Cairo on Water Resources: Expected Crises and Strategies for Predomination highlighted the importance being attached to water issues. The realization is that if not tackled, the potential for conflict because of migration and disparities could lead to serious instability. Bio-economy and biotechnology initiatives can potentially provide answers to efficient use of natural resources and to preventing their depletion. Interaction with China’s Tianjin Institute of Biotechnology (TIB) and COMSATS’ pursuit of creation of Technology Parks, universities and dedicated Centres in its member countries continues relentlessly. With the aim of providing a network for climate and sustainability, recently COMSATS has set up COMSATS Centre for Climate and Sustainability (CCCS). It allows 13 climate change centres in the member countries to exchange information and data.
Under the umbrella of ISESCO (Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization), since 2005 various activities have been organized including capacity building workshops and training programmes. The workshops have been in the areas of Repair and Maintenance of Scientific Equipments in Teaching, Research Institutions and Small Scale Industries; Internet Security; Nanotechnolgogy; National Innovation System and Intellectual Property; and Applications of ICT in Education, Healthcare and Agriculture. ISECO recently arranged a workshop in Tunis on Agriculture, Biotechnology and Food Security. It was well attended by the African countries. The participants benefitted from the presentations/interventions of experts. In order to elicit support of Muslims countries for science and technology, COMSATS concluded MoU with OIC last year. It provides avenues for mutual collaboration.
Integration of SDGs in the plans, programmes and visions COMSATS is being reflected in several of its initiatives. Notwithstanding the fact that COMSATS’ activities traditionally had been well within the framework of recently developed SDGs, focus now is on creating awareness about the role of S&T in the implementation of SDGs. Three events were organized towards this direction. An international seminar on SDGs: The Role of Universities was organized last year with the participation of international speakers from US, Australia, Turkey and TWAS as well UNDP Resident Representative in Pakistan. Deliberations were held on three subtopics: Promotion and Advocacy for SDGs; SDGs Implementation: Perspectives on Education, Research and Development; and Frontier Technologies: Scientific Institutions Driving Innovation. A follow-up seminar titled SDGs Implementation: Collaboration among Universities was also held last year.
Efforts to involve Youth constitute an important pillar of the emerging area of focus for COMSATS. With this in view COMSATS younger officials have regularly participated in youth forums and presented their perspectives on SDGs and other issues. This has involved participation in Commonwealth Youth Forum; NAM summit’s side event on youth as well as the recent World Science Forum. It is our desire to give an institutionalized shape to the Youth related initiatives by constituting at some stage COMSATS Youth Forum. To commemorate the First UN Day on Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, a seminar on the Role of Youth in the Implementation of SDGs was held in April 2019. For the young scientists from COMSATS member states in particular to sensitize them to the relevant SDGs, a workshop has been arranged in Turkey in the next few days. TWAS and TUBITAK have partnered with COMSATS.
There are numerable examples of COMSATS initiatives that fall under the rubric of Science Diplomacy. To summarize, these have been related to: Institution building; expanding the frontiers of technology in the region through pioneering projects; capacity building; facilitating academic and scientific excellence; policy advocacy; participation in international forums and South-South and Triangular cooperation; promotion of joint research for common solutions; information dissemination and management. In so far as the future vision is concerned efforts could be devoted to developing more nuanced collaboration among member states/CoEs in the field of emerging technologies; collaboration between COMSATS and International Organizations in the field of science and technology; formalizing future vision in keeping with collective aspirations; and commercialization of research through Tecknoparks
The role of Science Diplomacy has increased in the 21st Century. Technological innovations and transformations because of the scientific breakthroughs are affecting every aspect of life. Correspondingly the planetary challenges are necessitating changes and compelling the global community to change from “business as usual” to proactive and hands on approaches. Fourth industrial revolution is posing more challenges for the developing countries due to weak governance structures, weak policy frameworks, lack of awareness, capacity and smart education, insufficient funds and the challenges of poverty, hunger, disease and over population. The emerging paradigms also present opportunities with scopes for expanded Science Diplomacy framework. COMSATS has intelligently integrated some of the latest transformative trends in its activities. It stands to benefit from the leadership of the Commission’s Chairman, the President of Ghana who is leading development of Africa and championing the cause of the countries of the South particularly in the context of SDGs. Science Diplomacy is an effective tool for outreach and networking and for creating influential inter-linkages. However, in COMSATS’ experience demonstrable ownership can be created if the host country takes benign interest in helping COMSATS’s Secretariat exercise its clout and influential role to the advantage of its member countries.