Elusive innovators

April 16, 2019


The writer is a former civil servant.
The writer is a former civil servant.

IN the 1970s, Dr Abdus Salam had recommended creating a culture of research and development rather than focusing on nuclear weapons. He was discouraged. He came away to set up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy.

Pakistan is at number 109 of 126 in the Global Innovation Index 2018, published by Cornell University, INSEAD and the World Intellectual Property Organisation. Pakis­tanis believe in serendipity rather than true excellence. We tend to believe that individuals backed by their flawless persona can achieve anything — for instance, if a certain individual is installed as head of the FBR then it would somehow miraculously incre­ase tax collection even if that individual has never worked in the FBR before. When this approach is applied to science and technology which believes in empirical evidence rather than claims, it results in disappointment.

The National Engineering and Scientific Commission (Nescom), credited with the development of Pakistan’s missile defence system, is among the largest scientific institutions in Pakistan. Even if the system has been indigenously developed (some debate the point) it is rather disappointing for a scientific research institute to limit itself to such pursuits only.

Our scientist and engineers lack innovation; this is not to say that others are doing very well, but that engineers and scientists are the vanguard of innovation after artists. Somehow we have managed to create a mindset among our knowledge workers that they do not see beyond a secure career for themselves in the government sector.

Our scientists haven’t tried to create a sustainable financial model.

Nescom has yet to make commercially viable products such as medical equipment, indigenous cars, chemicals, industrial gadgets, things that are useful to the public and sustainable for the organisation. The scientists and engineers working there simply work go through the motions and quietly retire. The young aspirant engineers and scientists see nothing to be inspired by; they seek what their predecessors, do ie a secure job in the government sector.

This is the reason that generous funding by HEC has failed to kick-start an era of scientific innovation of any kind, even if it has increased the number foreign-qualified PhDs. The degrees are not worth more than the paper on which they are printed.

Our national psyche tends towards creating little dominions of our own. Whoever gets the opportunity starts working towards that goal. Take, for example, the Thar coal company, it has eaten up over Rs3 billion with no results whatsoever — the machinery, the offices, the salaries, everything might be there but the pursuit was taken up with no end in mind. It seems that Dr Samar Mubarkmand was able to convince the government to pursue a project that was not feasible in the first place.

A few television appearances creating the illusion of divine blessings are usually enough to get the politicians as well as the public start off on the ‘achievement’. Backward nat­ions believe in miracles and magic; scientific nations believe in research and innovation.

In fact Prime Minister Imran Khan has done something very similar recently with regard to oil reserves. He has mentioned the impending oil discovery quite a few times, but the company drilling for oil and doing the actual work has so far not mentioned anything as it is a professional outfit and does not believe in in miracle merchandise.

Our scientists and engineers have never looked towards creating a sustainable financial model. All they do is convince the movers and shakers in government about the effectiveness of the work they are doing to secure enough funds and create the illusion that their work is even more important than what it actually is. In a country like Pakis­tan, it is not very difficult to influence the decision-makers, especially when they are politicians who are not qualified for such decision-making and are backed up by a bureaucracy whose knowledge in the scientific arena is almost nil, thanks to the CSS recruitment system.

Since the majority of people in this country are in love with false hopes, miracles and messiahs, all that a ‘scientist’ has to do is to state with a matter-of-fact expression is that such and such project will alleviate poverty and be a continuous source of power generation. This results in our scientists founding their own kingdoms funded by the government until such time that someone calls their bluff, and once that happens there is always enough room in the field of science and technology to sell a new hope.

Lastly, it seems that our knowledge workers believe in securing a free lunch. Science and technology in Pakistan is a niche where there is very little competition, hardly any audit and not much to prove. We need inspiring figures who think beyond creating their own little realms and pronouncing themselves emperor. We need innovators in the true sense of the word.

The writer is a former civil servant.


Twitter: @SyedSaadat52

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2019