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STEM crisis

October 10, 2017

THE year 2017 has been a difficult one for Silicon Valley as the tech industry in the United States has repeatedly come under fire following blog posts, lawsuits and exposés centred on sexual harassment and gender discrimination. While there is still a long way to go before we see equality of the sexes in the American tech industry, the year 2017 has been a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, many other countries around the world have not yet reached the same level of discourse around issues of diversity and inclusion in STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and math.

A recent study, Engineers of jihad, exploring the connection between violent extremists and the STEM fields showed that a large majority of radical-minded Muslims have engineering backgrounds. The researchers’ explanation was that individuals with extremist proclivities may be more inclined to pursue studies in engineering. The authors describe an ‘engineering mindset’ which favours right-wing ideology, hierarchy and order.

Some have argued against this study, calling into question the samples and methodology used. In Pakistan, however, there is overwhelming anecdotal evidence for the existence of religious extremism in STEM. Famous examples include Afiya Siddiqui, an MIT-trained neuroscientist who was arrested on charges of her connections to Al Qaeda, 9/11 ‘mastermind’, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who studied mechanical engineering in the US and Hafiz Saeed, a founding member of Lashkar-e-Taiba, who was a faculty member of University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore.

This pattern has become even more alarming in Pakistan’s context with the newest militant group, Ansarul Sharia Pakistan (ASP) which is claimed to have carried out several terrorist attacks in Karachi. Some members of the ASP belonged to the physics department of Karachi University and the NED University of Engineering and Technology.

Do religious extremists opt for STEM education?

Further exploration is needed to determine whether there is a significant correlation specifically between STEM fields in Pakistan and violent extremists, and the underlying mechanisms of this relationship. While it is indeed possible that the mindset that leads individuals to gravitate towards these disciplines also makes them more likely to espouse extreme religious beliefs, STEM departments at universities and colleges have also fostered a culture of radicalisation.

This is not just significant for effective counterterrorism policy. Science and technology play a central role in the development and progress of any nation. Sadly, the prevalence of extremist ideology has had a damning effect on the STEM fields in Pakistan. There is a common perception that STEM departments in universities are heavily dominated by bearded men and have fallen victim to increasing religiosity. This trend extends to workplaces in STEM fields.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist and professor, has been an outspoken critic of the impact of ‘Islamisation’ on the state of science and technology in Pakistan. In articles and interviews, he has brought attention to the increasingly anti-science culture in Pakistan which is closely tied to the infiltration of religion in the teaching of STEM subjects. He cites examples, such as textbooks that decry the theory of evolution. The increasing religiosity and our inability to separate religion from science has had great bearings on the quality of education in STEM and the future of the field in Pakistan.

The intolerant and extremist culture in the field is also a deterrent against diversity and inclusion. Women are unwelcome in a field dominated by ultra-religious men. My career in the technology sector in Pakistan has led me to encounter men who inform women in the workplace that religion forbids them from going outside the home unless it is out of absolute necessity; men who harass women who are friendly with male colleagues; and men who refuse to look directly at female colleagues as they are ‘na-mehram’. This intolerance extends to all kinds of diversity — the most tragic example being that of Dr Abdus Salam, a Nobel prize winning Pakistani physicist who was rejected by our country for belonging to the Ahmadi community.

In this atmosphere, the brightest and best students of Pakistan are no longer gravitating towards STEM subjects as they are now seen as backwards. Those who are, strive to leave Pakistan resulting in a serious brain-drain in the STEM fields. A friend who recently completed her PhD from a top university in the US lamented that she couldn’t come back to a country where she wouldn’t even be able to teach the theory of evolution.

While the debate in Silicon Valley rages around gender equality, it is time that Pakistan seriously started considering the sorry state of the STEM fields. We need to modernise the field, including revising textbooks, attracting better faculty, enacting legislation around diversity and inclusion and reintroducing Pakistani youth to heroes such as Dr Abdus Salam.

The writer works in strategy and business development at Microsoft.

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2017