Dear Fellow of TWAS:
Greetings from Chennai, southern India. I am a volunteer with an NGO and I devote half my time to a project on ICT-enabled development and the other half to science in the developing world. The common thread in both of them is improving access to relevant information. The rural poor and the marginalized need information that can benefit them and our project is built around this simple premise. Scientists, as all of us know only too well, also need to access information relevant to their work. However, most scientists in the developing world do not get all the information they need. Journals are expensive. Databases are prohibitively costly. Not all of them have high bandwidth Internet connections. As telecommunication costs are high they rarely use telephones.
The problem is not only with accessing information. Developing country scientists also find it difficult to get their papers read by a wide audience. They lack the much-needed visibility.
Fortunately, thanks to recent advances in information and communication technologies, we have a great opportunity to make the playing field level wherein irrespective where one works one can access information as well as make one's own work widely noticed.
Experts like Stevan Harnad of Southampton have been advocating institutional self-archiving of all our results prior to publication in professional journals. Physicists amongst us know the value the archive arXiv. Computer scientists know the value of CiteSeer. These are centralized archives. What Harnad advocates is decentralized or distributed archives (or institutional self-archiving).
If every academic and research institution in both developing and developed countries sets up such archives and makes them interoperable, then the twin problems of access and visibility can be solved to a great extent.
TWAS and like-minded organizations such as IAP, ICSU and Unesco, should work towards setting up such distributed archives. Indeed, the forthcoming WSIS meeting in Geneva provides us a great opportunity to pass a resolution on this subject.
Even if all the world's information is freely available on the Net, it will not be any use if one does not have a decent Internet connection. As Prof. Bruce Alberts said in one of his talk in Geneva, we should launch a massive programme of connecting developing country academic and research institutions to high bandwidth Internet, even if it means heavy subsidy. TWAS may try to persuade international (mulrilateral and bilateral) organizations and philanthropic foundations to underwrite such a programme. The forthcoming TWAS meeting in Beijing, I am sure, will consider these issues.
I have pleasure in attaching my recent paper Information for Research in Developing Countries Information Technology, a Friend or Foe?
where I have articulated my views.
30 September 2003