PAKISTAN’S first Nobel Laureate, Prof Abdus Salam, constantly lamented our failure to promote science. His contributions to theoretical physics apart, he was a powerful advocate of science and research. For decades, even after he had left Pakistan in protest, Salam’s love for his homeland and concern for his government’s failure to promote science was undiminished. He continued to plead the case for science through his speeches, writings and the institutions he founded, till he died in 1996.
It is a pity that 18 years after his death, science in Pakistan continues to languish as the neglected stepchild of state and society. It never recovered from the severe blow it suffered under Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation and anti-education policies. Not that science and research had received preferential treatment at any stage, but today their survival is endangered.
According to an Economist issue in 2013 the OIC spends a puny 0.81pc of GDP on research and development — the linchpin of science in any country. This is a third of the world average. According to the World Bank Pakistan’s R&D spending a few years ago was 0.3pc of GDP, a slide from 0.4pc. It is doubtful if the slide has been stopped in the last few years.
More than the low research spending what is worrying is the absence of a science culture in society. This also has something to do with how science is taught in schools to young children when they are at the age of exploring. Teachers use dull textbooks which put off students. Why don’t they use low-cost stuff and have practicals that make science exciting?
The survival of scientific research is endangered today.
A society that has a science culture has characteristics which are essential for the growth and development of rational thinking, the basis of all sciences. One doesn’t necessarily have to be a scientist to enable a science culture to take root. But it is important that the people should have respect for science — physical and social — and recognise its role in their personal growth.
A science culture requires people to show curiosity, eagerness to explore, tolerance of diversity, capacity to share intellectual ideas, and willingness to accept the fallibility of one’s own ideas if proved wrong. These qualities were identified by Prof Abdus Salam in his speech at a 1984 Unesco conference where he spoke of the reasons for the decline of science in the Muslim world. In the absence of a science culture, unsurprisingly we have failed to develop technology suited to our local needs.
This failure is reflected not only in underdevelopment and the poor quality of life, but also in our national psyche. That explains our people’s inability to think rationally and tolerate any questioning of what one believes is right while excluding the ‘other’ from their life.
This mindset also has an impact on Pakistan’s approach to the social sciences which are inherently imprecise and dependent on human variables to deduce conclusions that are not as definitive as a physicist’s.
Against this backdrop, the initiative by Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, the eminent professor of physics, to inculcate a culture of rational thinking in our society is commendable. His brainchild, the Eqbal Ahmad Centre for Public Education is a digital venture (www.eacpe.org) that seeks “to foster the use of science and reason to understand nature and society so as to better enable all citizens of Pakistan to participate fully in the political, economic, social and cultural life of their society”. Eqbal Ahmad, one of Dawn’s leading columnists in the 1990s, was trying to do just that though the powers-that-be did not facilitate the establishment of Khaldunia, the dream university he wanted to set up.
The website is bilingual and hosts a large number of videos in English and Urdu to explain seemingly simple but actually profound issues such as ‘where is the centre of our universe?’, ‘making black holes in Europe’ and ‘life in outer space’. The eight-minute presentations are packed with basic knowledge on common issues that should enrich minds. More significantly the website contains a lot of information on the social sciences. ‘Rich countries and poor countries. Why?’, ‘Nationalist movements, good or bad?’
EACPE is now moving further. It has announced a video contest on the subject ‘Pakistan: how to make a better future’. The themes range from citizenship’s rights and responsibilities, minorities and natural disasters to saving the environment. The contest is designed to create awareness and encourage activism with the use of the new media.
With so many people, especially the youth, new-media-savvy, this contest should open new doors in education by encouraging students to undertake research on the issues being addressed. Hopefully more such exercises in creativity will be undertaken by others as well.
Published in Dawn, October 29th , 2014