“scientific thought and its creation is the common and shared heritage of mankind.” – Dr. Abdus Salam
PROF. DR. ABDUS SALAM was one of the most outstanding proponents of the idea that the developmental gap between the North and the South can be bridged through SandT capacity-building in developing countries. Among his various initiatives to achieve this goal, one was to establish a high-level Commission having affiliation of several RandD organizations of the South.
The Commission on Science and Technology for Sustainable Development in the South (COMSATS) was established in 1994, as a realization Salams grand plan to enable developing countries to come together and deliberate on ways to incorporate SandT in their national developmental agendas. The Commission is an apex body comprising of Heads of State/Government of twenty-one developing countries as its Members. Republic of Turkey is slated to become the 22nd Member State of COMSATS after having signed the Accession Agreement to join the organization. The organization also has a Network of 19 affiliated Centres of Excellence in developing countries, committed to meeting developmental challenges through South-South cooperation. The heads of these Centres constitute COMSATS Coordinating Council. The political patronage of the Member States towards the Network comes from COMSATS Consultative Committee comprising senior officials from relevant ministries in these countries. Thus, the organizational structure of COMSATS provides for political patronage, bureaucratic support and scientist-to-scientist interactivity.
One of the key objectives of COMSATS is to sensitize the countries of the South to the centrality of Science and Technology in the development process, adequate allocation of resources for research and development, and integration of science and technology in the national and regional development plans.
The organization that marked its 20th anniversary in October 2014 has been using a variety of conventional and innovative mechanisms to achieve its objectives. Capacity-building at the level of individuals and institutions has been conducted through seminars, symposia, workshops, training programmes, pilot-projects and sponsorship of scientific activities. Over 210 national and international events have been organized in specific areas of science and technology that have a direct relevance to the socio-economic development of the Member States. Despite its engagement in a number of such activities, COMSATS is not a funding agency and manages the execution of its programmes with the support of its Member Countries. Apart from voluntary financial inputs from member countries, its major contribution comes from the Government of Pakistan, which generously provides adequate funding to cover the operating expenditure of COMSATS Secretariat based in Islamabad. In spite of its financial limitations, the organization has instituted a number of mechanisms to meet the funding requirements for its various initiatives, one of which is the policy of organizing international capacity-building programmes in partnership with other international organizations. The size and scope of these activities varies from national and regional to international levels. COMSATS has working relations with organizations, such as AS-ICTP, TWAS, South Centre, UNESCO, ISESCO, COMSTECH, INIT, NAM SandT Centre, Chinese Academy of Sciences and different UN agencies.
Being signatories of the International Agreement to establish COMSATS, all member countries have been contributing to, and taking tangible benefits from, the organization, especially the host country, Pakistan. Since its establishment, COMSATS has been identifying and employing ways and means to bring the benefits of science to the common people in Pakistan. It was realized during mid 90s that Information and Communication Technology is going to dominate the world in future, affecting all segments of society with respect to information dissemination and interactivity among scientists as well as common people. Two institutions were, therefore, set up by COMSATS to get the country ready for this unfolding information revolution. The COMSATS Internet Services (CIS), started in 1996, was the pioneer of high-quality Internet access in Pakistan, while in 1998, an IT training centre was launched under the name of COMSATS Institute of Information Technology (CIIT). The latter is now a well-established public sector degree-awarding institute with more than 35,000 enrolled students, over 2,800 faculty members, 865 of which have Ph.D degrees. The Institute offers 96 degree programmes spread in eight campuses across Pakistan. The Institutes quality of education can be judged by its HEC ranking, according to which CIIT is placed at number 3 among 132 universities of Pakistan in terms of Research Productivity; whereas it has been ranked as top most in the field of Computer Science and IT. The university also offers post-graduate scholarships to students from COMSATS Member States. COMSATS Internet Services (CIS) is operating successfully as a not-for-profit company and offering services on highly competitive prices, although a multitude of Internet service providers have entered the field with corporate investment.
COMSATS also launched other pioneering projects, which were later patronized and up-scaled by other stakeholders, such as pilot-project of bio-gas production and the tele-health programme. The COMSATS project on the provision of medical consultation to remote areas of Pakistan through tele-health facility is being expanded under a grant approved by the Planning Commission of Pakistan. The remarkable success of these projects is a testimony of how investment in a scientific organization pays back several-times of the original investment.
Due to its international programmes, COMSATS is taking a leadership role in the South for promoting SandT in the developing countries and providing them a platform to cooperate with one another. To further augment its efforts of making SandT a vehicle for progress, COMSATS has devised a five-year strategy, the lynch-pin of which is a radically new initiative of conducting COMSATS sponsored thematic research in areas directly relevant to socio-economic progress. The four International Thematic Research Groups (ITRGs) are currently operational and undertaking research in areas of: Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs); Natural Products Sciences; Climate Change and Environmental Protection; and Mathematical Modeling.
Recently, COMSATS has further broadened the outreach and scope of its activities in view of the importance of national level policies that effect SandT sector. These include, on-demand lectures from world renowned professors, consultancy for National Science, Technology and Innovation policy-making, and COMSATS Science Diplomacy Programme.
Employing various conventional and unconventional mechanisms, COMSATS remains committed to its mission, which is to help realize Salams vision of progress through judicious use of Science and Technology in developing countries. The organization is a living testimony of how developing countries can establish and sustain self-supporting international organizations, working for their collective benefit according to their own preferences.