- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2006

When scientists think big, sometimes big things happen.

The Iraqi Virtual Science Library (IVSL) never was intended to be a small matter, but its existence — electronic access to 17,000 cutting-edge scientific journal titles for Iraq’s scientists, engineers and scholars — has elicited praise of the kind usually reserved for a major breakthrough in basic research.

A breakthrough it is, although of a different kind. Given the number and variety of public and private institutions involved in its creation, the project is considered unique. Partners in the venture total 28, including six U.S. government agencies, 13 journal publishers, Sun Microsystems, the Civilian Research & Development Foundation (CRDF) of Arlington, seven Iraqi universities, the Iraq Ministry of Higher Education, and Iraq’s quasi-public International Center for Science and Industry, all aided by the National Academy of Sciences.

As a result, an estimated 80 percent of Iraq’s scientists and university students can log on to a Web portal — https://ivsl.org/ — for online training and educational materials as well as information on funding opportunities. More than 700 registrants currently are enrolled, with eligibility monitored by the Iraqi partners.

The project was conceived by a half-dozen American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellows who had been spending the 2004-05 academic year working in U.S. government agencies. They hoped to give qualified Iraqis up-to-the-minute access to materials “the same as that enjoyed by a full professor at MIT,” in the words of Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, who spoke at the library’s official opening May 3 in the National Academy of Sciences building in Northwest.

She outlined five ways in which the project also serves U.S. foreign policy goals. Kenneth Krieg, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, pointed to a similar effort in the past by the U.S. government to “reintegrate into the international scientific community” scientists from the former Soviet Union “as an effective means of eliminating proliferation and building long-term partnerships.”

Iraq’s new U.S. ambassador, Samir Al-Sumaydi, an engineer by training who that day was making his first public appearance, noted how isolated his country’s scientific community has been in past decades, and how needy, but hailed Iraq’s “rich and proud legacy of great scientific and engineering achievement,” adding in only a half-joking way that the legacy goes back to “around the time when we invented the wheel.” These days, he said, scientists at home perform an act of heroism “simply going to university, yet all of them persist and do it daily.”

A primary concern of the AAAS fellows, says Alex Dehgan, a lawyer and ecologist who now is a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, is to keep from jeopardizing lives while working to transfer the library into Iraqi hands. As an AAAS fellow working as a special adviser to the Coalition Authority, he helped rebuild Baghdad’s Natural History Museum library. “The underlying theme [of IVSL] is the idea that a scientific society is basic to building a society. … Western traditions of democracy come from a society strong in science.”

No single AAAS fellow claims credit for thinking up the idea, and all were essential to bringing it to completion — it has been “growing organically,” says Mr. Dehgan — along with William McCluskey, the head of the Defense Department’s International Technology Policy Office.

“We were all scientists and therefore really understood and appreciated the value this would bring to our colleagues in Iraq,” says physicist Barrett Ripin, a former AAAS fellow who now is a senior science diplomacy officer in the Department of State. Remarkable, too, he notes was bringing the project to fruition “in less than a year and a half, with [only] a total $362,000 from the Department of Defense and additional funds now coming from state and the CRDF.”

CRDF is a nonprofit organization that promotes international scientific and technical collaboration with a special interest in developing countries. The seed money, from the Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, went to building the Web site and software, as well as to pay participating journal publishers who agreed to ask for only a small fraction of their usual fees. Sun Microsystems donated consulting services and will provide hardware and software for the project’s second phase, which is when founders hope to turn over management to Iraqis.

It is Mr. Ripin’s view that the project’s most important role, outside of helping to rebuild the country, is to become “a way for Iraqis to talk among themselves and regain connections with the science community.”

“Access to information is the way to empower people,” says former AAAS fellow Susan Cumberledge, an associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “A sense of knowledge is one of the first steps to rebuilding a scientific community and in turn that provides a foundation for rebuilding a nation,” she reminded the audience on May 3. “As scientists we knew how to use digital libraries, but we knew nothing about how to make them,” she confessed by way of thanking their many sponsors.

The first sponsoring organization to sign on was the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society, which has seven members in Iraq.

“The stars were aligned,” allowing them to put such an operation into place and do it all within two years’ time, agrees DJ Patil, a mathematician affiliated with the University of Maryland’s Institute for Physical Sciences and Technology and a former AAAS fellow.

He demonstrated IVSL by showing how a civil engineer interested in building earthquake-proof buildings would find materials and then locate the author of those materials for further information. The entire undergraduate curriculum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is available, he pointed out, and, if desired, a user could see an entire biology class on video through IVSL.

“I see this as a startup,” Mr. Patil says. The second phase will require more money for next year’s subscription costs, among other matters, he says. Meanwhile, he notes, “the most rewarding aspect is the interaction with scientists. In one or two universities the Internet connectivity is just as good as at home, and every day there are increasing numbers of Internet cafes.”

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