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No science culture

Published Oct 29, 2014 04:37am


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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 ( 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

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (11) Closed

AYZA Oct 29, 2014 05:07am

Interesting POV by Zubeida Mustafa, however with due respect I shall give my own view for what it's worth. If the sciences in Pakistan's academic sphere has been so diminished, how is that thousands of brilliant Pakistani students from LUMS and Agha Khan University, among many other institutions are applying to top medical and engineering universities in North America with a 95% acceptance rate?? I personally know of several Pakistani students who have been offered full scholarships in physics, molecular and cellular biology, etc. to study in Europe and North America.

Yes, Dr. Hoodhboy and other selfless Pakistanis such as him have played a huge role in advancing high level science standards in Pakistan. A great deal of credit goes to Dr. Salaam to whom Pakistanis owe a huge debt for his foresight and brilliance by raising the bar in the realm of science based academics. However, let's not marginalize many hard working students in Pakistan with strong parental support guiding them to incredibly successful science based careers. When these students decide to pursue careers overseas in the West, they not only surpass many of their Western colleagues - they're awarded momentous accolades the world over. All these milestones achieved by our amazing Pakistani students despite the madness and mayhem inflicted upon Pakistan by its enemies. Truly incredible and courageous students succeeding on all levels of academic challenges against so many odds!

observer Oct 29, 2014 08:16am

I would disagree with the author's thesis that Pakistan lacks science.

In fact Pakistan has more than science. It has Islamic Science.

And Pakistani Islamic Scientists can bend the man made Laws of Thermodynamics to produce Water Driven Cars.

All Salute Pakistani Islamic Scientists.

Shoaib N. Oct 29, 2014 09:01am

@AYZA Dear Ayza - I do not know where you are getting your statistics from. As a professor in a top university in the US, I can assure you that both the number and quality of Pakistani students coming to the US has drastically declined over the past 20 years. On the other hand China and to some extent India have seen an explosion of qualified students. Pakistani education is in a crisis. From a recent visit to Jinnah university, I was dismayed to see how far behind Pakistan has fallen in higher education. Even if research is not very good, it is absolutely necessary to have quality training for students at the university level. This is sorely lacking currently.

BRR Oct 29, 2014 10:27am

Just visit any research university in the US and then you will see hundreds of Indian and Chinese students with a mere token few pakistani students. You can draw your conclusions. I know what it will be - the evil west favors non-muslims and hates pakistanis. Such is the conspiracy minded typical pakistani response.

Sanjay Oct 29, 2014 11:22am

There is a RAW and Mossad hand here. Pakistan needs to increase defense funding to pep up ISI to counter the threat. The best way to come at par with rest of the world in scientific research and education is to bring them down at your levels.

S. Haider Oct 29, 2014 11:46am

Abscense of Science leads to stagnation of a society. The solutions for present-age problems are offered by those countries, who invest a lot in Science and scientific research, and develope a culture and climate of scientific research. Good professors, devoted to Science, can inspire young students. Pakistan has many talented and devoted professors. Lack of political-governmental support, and lack of research funds discourage scientific research.

ali Oct 29, 2014 01:32pm

Beautiful observation.The author was rightly saying that not only in Pakistan, rather in the whole Muslim world has given a scanty impetus in providing budgets for imparting science education and research. That's why they are lagging far behind of creating a science based rational society and culture throughout the Muslim World, except a few to Turkey and Malaysia.

b.k Oct 29, 2014 11:39pm

Pakistan does not believe in wasting its time and resources on silly things like research. instead it uses its time tested and proven formula" shortcut ".just get a ready made scientest of pak origin or any muslim scientest. then copy paste. See now who is smart!!!!!

SHAZIA Oct 30, 2014 06:57am

@Shoaib N.

I teach English at an Ivy League university in the USA, and know of several Pakistani students attending Columbia, U Penn, Yale, Harvard, Cornell, etc. due to their outstanding science based academic record. Many students from Pakistan are on Fulbright Scholarships as well which you may not have had exposure to at your university .. I'm assuming you're and Indian from your lack of factual info about Pakistani students studying sciences in the West? As for your incorrect view re Mohammad Ali Jinnah University, Islamabad where Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy was a senior Professor and I believe head of the Physics dept. there, he would disagree with you completely. I know several M A Jinnah University students in North America who are presently pursuing Ph.D's in advanced physics at top universities. You would be surprised to learn that the Indian students in their department arrive at 10am and leave by 3pm, while the Pakistani and Chinese students arrive early, stay in the labs and continue their research well into later hours of the evening. It seems you have very limited knowledge of the reality re our hard working Pakistani students, whether in Pakistan or abroad.

whitesky Oct 30, 2014 01:42pm

We are perpetually in the mode of denial. We will disagree with the author and insist that we have many excellent universities and the students and doing well in the research in top american universities. So the problem as identified by the author does not exist at all . Hence where is the need to go for any corrective steps.?

citizen Oct 30, 2014 08:49pm

@SHAZIA : As one stayed in Boston and involved in MIT, I could see more chinese and indian students at HBS and MIT, MIT sloan..For example check the nationality of faculty members in Harvard Business school, MIT, carnegie-Mellon, Stanford, and other top american universities, you will be surprised to know the out come..Among asians why japanese/chinese/indians get noble prize in science stream...We have to admit the fact that country is lagging in science and research...Positive steps to be taken to improve science..Country got more politicians not leaders..politicians think about next election..A leader thinks about the next generation....