Iraqi scientists get virtual access to research

Federal, private sector will help Iraqis build and take control of digital science library

Iraqi Virtual Science Library

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A public/private partnership to build a digital science library for Iraqis could demonstrate how open-source software bridges technical and cultural divides.

Several agencies, academic institutions, nonprofit organizations and publishers, aided by donations from Sun Microsystems, will provide eight Iraqi institutions with servers, software and training necessary to create a locally operated open-source Web portal. The project will reconnect Iraqi scientists to the worldwide research community, and officials expect them to take control of the system in two years.

A group of U.S. scientists devised the project after being shocked by what they witnessed in Iraq in 2004. While helping former weapons scientists readjust to civilian science, they saw that the once highly regarded Iraqi scientific community had languished during Saddam Hussein’s nearly three-decade reign. Hussein was interested in advanced weapons, not information technology systems or civilian engineering.

Before Hussein’s rule, the majority of the Iraqi government’s ministers were well-regarded scientists, physicians and engineers. Today, Iraq’s research libraries stand looted and impoverished.

The U.S. scientists realized that Iraqi institutions would need a virtual library to help make up for years of isolation. The latest information is not in textbooks; it is online. Moreover, rebuilding physical libraries would be too costly, and entering physical libraries would be unsafe.

The scientists sent a memo to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, requesting permission for the Iraqi Virtual Science Library (IVSL). He endorsed the project, adding a note of encouragement. The State Department and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency began funding the introduction of the first phase of the $362,000 program: a digital science library hosted in the United States and accessible to most of Iraq’s academic and research institutions. The portal, launched in January, provides about 80 percent of Iraq’s educational base with access to more than 17,000 science, engineering and computer science journals. Publishers contributed $11 million worth of online subscriptions.

In addition to journals, the library has educational aids, such as course materials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and links to federal and international government scientific resources, including Science.gov and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization catalog.

“These are scientists who have been isolated for almost 20, 30 years,” said University of Maryland scientist D.J. Patil, who helped implement the project as an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. “They ask questions, such as, ‘How do you build concrete bridges?’”

The U.S. team and Iraqi agencies will now create an open-source portal, which Iraq’s institutions will own, operate and customize. Sun and the IVSL team are equipping the Iraqi partners with hardware, software and IT training so that they can take control of the digital library. The new Web site will use Java applications and standard university library protocols for journal access. In about six months, the library will move from its U.S. host to eight Sun servers in Iraq. Eventually, the eight local servers in Iraq will act as regional gateways so all Iraqi universities can share resources and license fees.

James Simon, Sun chief technologist and principal engineer at the company’s Global Education and Research Division, said the Iraqis face logistical challenges that force them to depend on Web-based communications. Anti-U.S. sentiment often inhibits Iraqis from speaking English in public or on the phone.

Sun provides Iraqis with technical support through e-mail exchanges and chat sessions.

“The way we talk to them is not by phone lines, we use Skype,” Patil said, referring to the popular Internet telephony service.

“We were all very concerned that we not put any Iraqi in jeopardy by being associated with a U.S. government project…and thought it very important that the people who were signed up in Iraq not be concerned that they were being monitored,” said Barrett Ripin, who is aiding the initiative as State’s senior science diplomacy officer.

The idea is to supply the Iraqis with a self-sustaining library system that they can then expand and tailor however they wish. The larger goal is to provide Iraq with the tools to advance in science and help the country rejoin the global scientific community. If the digital library proves successful, it could be a model for developing countries in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, Simon said.

“The true natural resource of Iraq is not its oil but its people,” said Alex Dehgan, one of the U.S. scientists who pioneered the project, after serving as an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow in Iraq on behalf of the State Department.

Iraqis’ virtual library experience

A group of federal agencies, businesses and nonprofit organizations have banded together to help Iraqis build a digital science library that will give Iraqi scientists access to research worldwide. Launched in January, a virtual science library hosted in the United States is accessible to most of Iraq’s academic and research institutions. It will take two years for the group to transfer the hosting of the Iraqi Virtual Science Library (IVSL) to Iraqi institutions.

Meanwhile, Iraqi scientists have accessed many resources available on the Web site since its launch. In March, more than 10,000 PDF articles were downloaded from Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers journals compared with about 800 in February and 250 in January. Within three months of the site’s launch, Iraqi scientists downloaded more than 20,000 articles from JSTOR, a database of scholarly journals.

One Iraqi user sent an e-mail message to the founders, writing, “Good day, I would like to express my gratitude for accepting me in IVSL, hope this great effort by making this huge library available for us will help us all to share knowledge and to exchange informations.”

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