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Virtual Library Offers Reams of Dataand Hopeto Embattled Iraqi S&T Community
On an autumn morning in 2004, a small group of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows conceived what seemed a simple idea: an Internet-based web portal that would offer Iraqi scientists and engineers access to the latest journals and research findings. It had the potential to support the education system, aid in reconstruction and help to sustain hope in the ravaged nation.
The organizers encountered many challenges over the next 18 months, but now, backed by a network of partners that spans the U.S. science, technology and diplomacy communities, the Iraqi Virtual Science Library came to life. The libraryIVSL for shortwill deliver millions of full-text scientific articles from over 17,000 science and engineering journals, plus online educational material and access to funding opportunities, to thousands of professionals and students at Iraqi universities and research centers. Organizers say the IVSL resources are similar to those available at top U.S. universities.
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. “This tool offers Iraqi scientists, researchers, doctors and engineers access to a wide body of scientific research in fields critical to Iraq’s reconstruction effort. It…can serve as a vital tool for Iraq’s economic growth and the betterment of Iraqi society for many generations to come.”
The AAAS S&T Fellows conceived the IVSL while assigned to the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, and it was those two departments plus the National Academies of Science and others that supported its development. But the effort to aid the Iraqi science community involved a broad spectrum of U.S. science organizations, businesses and government agencies. In interviews and at the news briefing, AAAS was singled out for its critical contribution.
“The Iraqi Virtual Science Library is an extraordinary project launched by talented and dedicated Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science,” said Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs. “These Fellows…saw a problem and set their minds to solving it.”
“AAAS has been absolutely instrumental for their dedication to the principle of the project and for making it happen,” added scientist and mathematician D.J. Patil, a former Fellow at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) who served as one of the technical architects of the library.
The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships were established to build and nurture links between federal decision-makers and scientific professionals, with the goal of offering sound science as a basis for public policy. Nearly 2,000 scientists and engineers have served as Fellows and gone on to influential positions in Congress, on congressional staffs and in federal agencies, as well as in the academic, non-profit and business sectors.
“The IVSL is an excellent example of the creativity and collaboration that has been a hallmark of the Fellowships for more than 30 years,” said Director Cynthia Robinson. “The Fellows have a network of scientists and engineers spanning the U.S. government, and that enables productive partnerships across agencies and with external stakeholders. As a result, AAAS Fellows serve as catalysts for endeavors such as this, which provide significant benefits to all parties.”
The roots of IVSL reach to the first half of 2004, when AAAS Diplomacy Fellow Alex Dehgan, a field biologist assigned to the State Department, was in Iraq. He’d been deployed to oversee a program that was working to redirect identify former Iraqi weapons scientists into non-military work. Dehgan also had an interest in restoring the library of the Iraq Natural History Museum, which had been sacked in the days after the fall of Baghdad. He asked officials at Science for back copies of the journal to help restore the museum’s library; they offered to provide electronic access, but as Dehgan recalls, Iraq was not equipped at the time to take advantage of the offer.
Several months later, on 28 October 2004, Dehgan was back home, giving a talk to the Washington Science Policy Alliance during a breakfast meeting at AAAS headquarters. In the audience was molecular biologist Susan Cumberledge, also a AAAS Fellow at DTRA, and Bill McCluskey, director of the International Technology Policy Office at the Department of Defense who has worked closely of the Fellowship program. They heard Dehgan describe the impoverished condition of Iraqi science. After the talk, Dehgan recalls, Cumberledge approached him with a question: “Why don’t we build libraries electronically?”
In subsequent weeks, an informal group of Fellows and others associated with the program coalesced to develop the idea. In addition to Cumberledge, Dehgan, McCluskey and Patil, collaborators included Fellows 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; and 2001-2002 AAAS Diplomacy Fellow Barrett H. Ripin, the senior science diplomacy officer at State.
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.
“As scientists, we knew how to use digital science libraries, but we had but no experience in actually creating them,” Cumberledge, now at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, said during the news briefing. “When I got working on this project I think I really appreciated and felt deeply the value and the necessity of providing Iraqi scientists and engineers access to the current body of scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is really one of the first steps to rebuilding the foundation for a scientific community.... Access to that knowledge is empowerment.”
As the months passed, a powerful network emerged to resolve the technical, financial and business challenges faced by the project. In all, nearly 30 agencies, publishers and associations in the United States and Iraq, plus the United Nations, were involved.
At the Defense Department, DTRA allocated $360,000 to the project. STAS has been closely involved in its development. The National Academies of Science (NAS) were tapped to negotiate with journal publishers; some of the DTRA funds were leveraged into $11 million worth of articles and journals. In all, 20 nonprofit and commercial scientific publishers and federal and academic organizations will be offering access at discounts averaging 95 percent. NAS officials said the scientific community in Iraq will be billed as one site by each publisher, as if all of the scientists and students comprised a small college library.
Sun Microsystems received a small payment from federal funds for work on the project, but also has made substantial donations: expertise on developing software for the library; servers for seven Iraqi Universities and the Iraqi International Center for Science and Industry (IICSI), which was founded by the State Department; plus online training and, perhaps, live training at a site in Middle East.
Sun sees the project as a way to bridge the digital divide and as a way to build business opportunities, said James Simon, chief architect for Sun’s global higher education group. IVSL “creates a reference model we can duplicate anywhere in the developing world, or even the developed world,” he explained. “We think there’s a global need for this. It’s not just going to be Iraqit’s going to be Africa, Europe, Asia and South America.”
Clearly, there’s a demand for such materials in Iraq. To address security concerns, access and password protocols have been developed, complemented by measures to protect the users’ identities. In beta operations over the past several months, more than 700 Iraqi users have tapped into the library. According to Ripin, preliminary data from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, JSTOR, the scholarly journal archive, and others suggest that the Iraqis have downloaded thousands of documents just since the start of 2006, with usage growing exponentially as word of the library spreads.
The usage rates “have exceeded my wildest dreams and expectations and demonstrate how thirsty Iraqis are for information and inclusion in the world scientific community," Ripin said.
As the library becomes fully operational, it will be made available to Iraqi universities, government ministries and IICSI, giving access to as much as 80 percent of Iraq’s scientists and students.
“The IVSL being unveiled here today is a resource which provides access to current knowledge and techniques in civil engineering, agriculture, medicine, water management and basic research in many disciplines,” said Under Secretary of Defense Kenneth Krieg, who oversees U.S. military technology and logistics. “That knowledge is absolutely necessary for rebuilding Iraq’s higher education system, its scientific community and its economy.”
Last year, before the IVSL project was complete, the Fellowship ended and members of the 2004-2005 class went back to their academic posts, or moved on to new jobs in government, private industry and the non-profit world. But many of the IVSL organizers continued to work on the project as it moved toward launch.
Now day-to-day operation of the library is being shifted to the nonprofit U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF), in Arlington, Va., an organization authorized by Congress and established by the National Science Foundation. The State Department plans to spend $250,000 for the second year of subscriptions and training; CRDF is expected to provide another $50,000. Over the course of the next six to 18 months, organizers say, CRDF and others will work with officials in Iraq as the library is transferred to Iraqi control.
In the meantime, there are challenges aheadgetting the word out to Iraq’s S&T community, improving the power grid, building bandwidth. Those no doubt pale next to the challenges of bringing peace to Iraq and nurturing its fragile democracy.
But the organizers are convinced that the Iraqi Virtual Science Library can play a part in resolving those challenges.
“The IVSL represents two things,” Dehgan said. “First, it is the resolve that the people of the United States continue to stand by the Iraqi people, and second, it is the hope and belief that science can be the basis for building a better society.”
According to Dehgan, the 700 IVSL users so far represent “700 steps away from tyranny and chaos.”
Patil, now back at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Physical Science and Technology, has a similar view. “No one disputes that the situation on the ground is extraordinarily difficult there right now,” he said. “It may not happen tomorrow, but things will stabilize at some pointwe hope they willand at that point you need to have people ready to step forward.
“This is a way to reach out to the people who are going to make a difference in Iraq,” he added. “This is a gift from the American people to the Iraqi people.”
To read more on AAAS engagement with rebuilding science and technology in Iraq, see:
“AAAS S&T Policy Fellows Risk Their Lives to Rebuild Iraq” (Science, 26 August 2005)
“High-Ranking Iraqi Education and Science Leaders to Visit AAAS” (29 June 2005)
“Panel at AAAS Says Iraq Scholars and Students Need Help from U.S. Counterparts” (17 December 2004)
“Iraq Science: The War Within the War” (commentary by Alan I. Leshner, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of Science, 23 November 2004)
“Rebuilding Science in Iraq, One Scientist at a Time” (7 September 2004)
Edward W. Lempinen
9 May 2006