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Science and Technology in Pakistan: The Way Forward


The stunning advances in various fields of science and technology have had a profound impact on our lives in almost every sphere of our activity, such as health, agriculture, communication, transportation, and defence. These advances have been driven by an ever-growing volume of exciting discoveries, largely emanating from science laboratories in the West, and by their transformation into new products or processes that have flooded world markets. These floods in turn shower vast economic rewards on those nations that have the will and vision to make science and technology the cornerstone of their development programmes.

The world is today sharply divided by a technology boundary that separates the technologically advanced countries from the technologically backward ones. The former have been able to use their scientists and engineers for rapid economic growth, whereas the so-called developing countries (which in reality are not developing at all) are relegated to the role of consumers of technological products. They become almost totally dependent on the advanced countries for most of their needs, be they chemicals, pharmaceuticals, engineering goods, transportation equipment, or defence equipment. In the process, more and more funds from developing countries are being transferred to developed countries, raising the level of poverty in the developing countries.

It needs to be understood that development is a multifaceted process, and a number of factors must dovetail together before economic growth and progress can occur. In my opinion, five key components must come together. First, the development process must be built on a foundation of high degrees of literacy and quality education at all levels. The Afro-Asian countries have vast populations at their disposal, and the challenge is to transform this resource into wealth. In order to unleash their creativity, the Third World countries must expose their youth to a challenging educational environment that teaches them to think and find novel solutions to difficult problems.

The second important facet for development is a high level of expertise in the sciences. Third World countries need to upgrade their universities and research centres to an internationally compatible level of excellence through development and retention of world-class researchers and provision of appropriate research facilities. They must become focal points for creation of new knowledge. Only when we have high-quality basic research in various fields and can work at the cutting edge of knowledge will we have the capacity to absorb frontier technologies and adapt them for our use.

The third important facet of the development process concerns applied research and technology development. We must identify and launch focused projects directed at (a) enhancing exports, (b) fostering import substitutions, (c) improving the quality and productivity of existing manufactured products, and (d) bringing to market new and better products through supporting the creative talents of our technologists and engineers. This is a complex issue involving the interaction between technologists and economists to develop and optimise the production process on a reasonably large scale so that financial feasibilities can be properly worked out.

The fourth facet of development involves government policies and mechanisms to encourage investment of entrepreneurs in indigenously developed products and processes. These measures include tax incentives, provision of risk capital by venture capital companies, protection of intellectual property rights, rationalisation of import duty structures, banning of smuggling to protect local industry, and creation of investor confidence through stable and long-term policies.

The fifth and most important factor for success is involving the most creative people at all levels, which requires introducing measures that will persuade our brightest students to opt for science and technology when they are deciding on their careers. This involves introducing an appropriately attractive career structure and creating R&D institutions at an international level of excellence where our scientists can lead intellectually stimulating and rewarding careers. Research grants must also be provided so that they can contribute meaningfully. In other words, the operation of a merit-based system in which only the brightest people are allowed to go up the ladder must be incorporated with a suitable reward and punishment system as an integral component of a highly transparent but demanding accountability system.

In Pakistan, due to negligence and faulty vision of planners in successive governments, the science and technology sector was never given the status required to effectively use it as a contributor to national and economic growth. Due to meagre funding provided by the government, our R&D institutions could not produce any valuable research. Lack of proper facilities and environment for research in the universities and research institutes led to deterioration in the standard of higher education to the extent that today our universities have been relegated to the status of low-level colleges in which valuable university-economy links are totally missing.

The present government places science and technology, including information technology (IT), amongst its highest priorities. A comprehensive programme has been worked out and launched for building a knowledge-based economy by integrating science and technology with economic development programmes. The government has raised the financial commitment to the ministry I head to more than Rs. 7 billion (US$120 million; a 6000% increase). In turn, the ministry, taking a holistic view of the dismal scenario in Pakistan, has launched a vast number of projects that fall under other ministries but that involve the effective use of science and technology for economic growth. Since June 2000 the government has launched over 260 development projects worth a total of about Rs. 18 billion (US$300 million) in various fields of the IT, telecommunications, and science and technology sectors.

In the science and technology domain, our programmes aim mainly at human resource development, technology development and industrialisation, strengthening of R&D activities, and use of science and technology for economic development.

Pakistan faces another problem: Higher education has also been neglected, and the quality and quantity of Ph.D.-level research in universities has been constantly deteriorating. As a result of four Ph.D.-level programmes launched and financed by the Ministry of Science and Technology, Ph.D. output has increased from 60 per year to 400 per year. Under the Indigenous Ph.D. Programme, grants are being given to both young scholars and their supervisors. Each supervisor gets Rs. 5 lacs (Rs. 500,000 or US$8400) per student per year for the purchase of equipment, chemicals, consumables, and so on. This provides much-needed infrastructural support to our universities. Rs. 600 million (US$10 million) will be spent over the next 4 years on this programme.

In addition to these Ph.D. programmes, the ministry has launched a postdoctoral fellowship programme to help teachers and researchers update their knowledge. To ensure that these researchers are gainfully employed on their return to Pakistan, jobs will be guaranteed for them by the nominating institutions on their return. A system of ?starter grants? will provide them with immediate access to research funds on their return. To improve the standard of research, the laboratories of 25 universities have been strengthened with grants of Rs. 37 million to Rs. 39 million (US$630,000 to US$660,000) each.

A very interesting initiative that should have a far reaching impact on the economic development of Pakistan is a programme entitled Science and Technology for Economic Development (STED). Under this programme, joint projects are being initiated between public-sector institutions and private-sector industries for technology-based production of high-value-added goods. This partnership between academia and industry represents an exciting new approach to achieving a certain level of technological development. These are not just research projects but involve the application of existing technologies for agricultural or industrial development. So far 28 projects in different sectors including biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, IT, energy, and health have been launched under public-private collaboration. The STED programme is expected to strengthen the industrial and technological base of the country and set the trend for commercially viable high-value-added products and processes.

IT and biotechnology are the main thrust areas of the government. The government has established the National Commission on Biotechnology and initiated 15 projects worth Rs. 415 million for various fields of biotechnology, mainly in the health and agriculture sectors.

The government has given highest priority to IT education. As a result of the multidimensional strategy adopted by us in Pakistan to overcome the deficiency in human resources in the field of IT, a large number of short-, medium-, and long-term training programmes have been initiated, and some have been completed. Six new IT universities have been established, and 34 IT and computer science departments have been set up or strengthened in public-sector universities. Through an educational intranet programme, about 56 universities are being interconnected so that they may share knowledge and information. Internships and scholarships have been offered in various fields of IT to encourage bright students.

While seven new IT universities are in the process of being set up in the public sector and two in the private sector, in order to save money and time we have decided not to invest government funds in construction but rather to use existing campuses and convert them into IT universities or institutes. The most exciting educational programme, however, is the establishment of the Virtual IT University, which started functioning 26 March 2002. It will allow us to train tens of thousands of IT professionals from all over the country. Under this distance-learning programme, high-quality TV programmes are being prepared and then broadcast through the television and Internet across the country. Four separate digital TV channels are now being established for educational programs and will begin to function later this year.

To facilitate software development, the government has set up a chain of well-equipped technology parks in major cities. And a project has been launched for industrial automation of small- and medium-sized industries and ISO certification for IT companies.

Although the government has taken many steps to improve the standard of education and research in Pakistan, the most important step, in my opinion, is the establishment of the Higher Education Commission. The commission, which is in the process of formulation, has already done good work to prepare its action plan for attainment of international standards in the quality of education, research, and development. The commission is working to tailor higher education programmes to national needs and socio-economic development. The government has announced a substantial increase in funding to universities through the commission.

These programmes represent a genuine turning point in the development of science and technology in Pakistan and should provide a much-needed injection of funds and scientific expertise to our universities, ultimately leading to the country's socio-economic development. A real beginning has therefore at last been made, after 50 years of negligence in this important sector.

The author is the Federal Minister for Science and Technology, Government of Pakistan; and winner of the prestigious UNESCO Science Prize. He is also Director of the HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry, University of Karachi; Coordinator-General of COMSTECH; and Chairman of the Higher Education Commission.