Scientists in war-torn Iraq, where much of the country's infrastructure has been destroyed, can now overcome some of the current dearth in scientific information by signing up for free to the Iraqi Virtual Science Library which will enable them to access more than a million research articles.
One highly symbolic example of the destruction that has befallen Iraq came when, shortly after Baghdad fell to US troops in 2003, the ensuing state of anarchy led to the looting of the city's National Museum. During the plundering, 170 000 items – many of which were priceless – dating back over thousands of years throughout Iraq's rich history (Arab, Babylonian and Sumerian, among others) were stolen or destroyed.
|Established in 1233, Mustansiriya University in Baghdad is one of the oldest universities in the world.|
After a quarter of a century of almost continuous war or sanctions, Iraq has gone from being one of the most advanced and prosperous countries in the Middle East to become a battered and oft-lawless land. The war in the country destroyed much of its infrastructure, and a violent insurgency has held up rebuilding work.
Against this backdrop, the country's once vibrant academic and scientific landscape lies in ruin. According to a report released this month by the United Nations University (UNU), 84% of Iraq's higher education institutions have been burned, looted or destroyed.
“The devastation of the Iraqi system of higher education has been overlooked amid other cataclysmic war results, but represents an important consequence of the conflicts, economic sanctions and ongoing turmoil in Iraq,” the report's author, Jairam Reddy, director of the UNU International Leadership Institute in Amman, Jordan, was quoted by SciDev.Net as saying.
Reddy estimates that up to 40% of Iraq's most highly trained educators have emigrated since 1990. Being an academic in Iraq today can be a dangerous job. Nearly 50 leading academics have been murdered since 2003. The apparent motives include alleged co-operation with the Americans, or to silence scientists who might have information on former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's one-time weapons programme.
The UNU report estimates that more than 2 000 laboratories in Iraq need re-equipping and that the country's universities and other research and learning institutions need 30 000 computers.
The Iraqi Virtual Science Library is one virtual brick in the reconstruction effort. Launched on 3 May, it will provide Iraqi researchers with free access to more than a million research articles in 17 000 journals in engineering, computer science, the life sciences and physical sciences. The library also offers a substantial collection of educational materials, including on-line encyclopaedia, books, course materials, information about funding and research opportunities, and other resources.
The project is led by the US National Academy of Science and will be operated by the US Civilian Research Development Foundation at a cost of US$170 000 (nearly €134 000).
“It appears to be an excellent way to begin redressing the damage done to Iraq's scientific research community through 13 years of sanctions, three years of targeted assassinations, and several months of institutional chaos,” Nabil al-Tikriti, an Iraqi researcher at the University of Mary Washington in the United States, was reported as saying.