Research rigmarole

April 25, 2019

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AS experts put it, one word that defines agriculture research scene in Pakistan is ‘directionless’.

It lacks sustained political and financial commitment both at federal and provincial levels. The institutions at both levels work independent of each other, with no coordination. The private sector works for its own profits, free of official control or coordination. Whatever little is happening in the sector is more of an academic exercise, with little reference or relevance to the fields and farms. To top it all, there is no national institution that can work as clearing house for research projects and give the effort any direction. All these factors are pulling and pushing research in different directions and creating huge confusion at the national level.

The crisis in research, in fact, flows from the parent sector itself, as agriculture has been in a limbo after the 18th amendment. After the event in April 2010, the sector became ownerless as the centre was forced to devolve it and the provinces had no institutional capacity to host it. Unfortunately, they are yet to develop effective institutional framework to run the parent sector, leave alone sub-sectors like research. This institutional and ownership vacuum has hurt the sector, along with all its sub-streams like research, badly.

However, it is fair to say that even in the years before the 18th amendment, research never got its due recognition in the national scheme of things. For the last more than 71 seven decades, the official patronage has been at best an ‘off and on’ affair – largely designed to responding to emergencies like a particular crop failure (cotton, for example) in a specific year. Once the crisis was over, the entire initiative fizzled out.

This approach turned research into an occasional bandwagon, with everyone jumping on it when money flowed in and leaving as soon as the money dried up. The creation of, and now almost dying, bio-tech institutions explain the situation. At one point, over 30 institutions were created as the government realised its importance and every researcher got involved, needless to say, without any major achievement and all of them are now complaining about paucity of funds.

Pakistan invests around 0.25pc of its agricultural GDP on innovation which is below regional markers. Comparison is futile with the developed world which spares 3-4pc.

The private sector succeeded only where it was able to work independent of official control and it, naturally, worked for, and on, its own profits – maize and poultry being two examples – ignoring all other social and economic realities of the country.

This directionless research has a context. In the last seven decades, almost all governments – political or otherwise – developed a fetish for quick gains because of persistent political instability. All of them worked for projects that yield quick political and economic harvest. Unfortunately, agri-research does not fit that frame of quick gains; it is a long-drawn process that yields sustained and huge returns but is spread over years, if not decades. That is why it never appeared on the policy radars of successive regimes.

The world, however, has calculated huge long-term economic benefits that research can bring once it is pursued with the required political and fiscal will. The World Bank, for example, in one of its studies maintained that better research had been adding three per cent to world productivity since 1971. In some cases however, its gains are surprisingly quick.

The world bodies have also been maintaining that the internal rate of return (IRR) in agriculture research is among the highest in the world, at around 41 per cent – meaning thereby that the entire investment on it could be retrieved within 30 months. Hardly any other sector meets this lucrative IRR.

In Pakistan’s context, there are some additional benefits as well. In Pakistan, this rate, as per the calculations of some local scientists, could be even more because the sector here has consistently been under-performing. According to them, the IRR in case of Pakistan could go as high as 80 per cent – returning the entire investment within a short span of around 14 months. The social benefits could also be higher because of demographic realities of Pakistan. A small breakthrough in any of the crop could directly benefit over 70 per cent population (farmers) and indirectly to the rest 30 per cent (urban dwellers) through price reduction. This simple fact should make research the strongest candidate for official money, attention and planning.

Despite these potential benefits, Pakistan, to its misfortune, has not taken that route so far. As things stand, Pakistan invests only 0.25 per cent of its (agricultural) gross domestic product (GDP) on research. With economy now contracting – as being claimed by almost all international and national institutions – the figure might shrink further. Compare it with what India (0.45 per cent) and even Bangladesh (0.35 per cent) spend), and causes of Pakistan’s agricultural woes are not hard to understand. The developed world spares three to four per cent for research.

It is not only financial poverty that hurts research, but the infrastructure – both administrative and human – is also marked with confusion. At present, three tiers of institutions are involved in the research activity. At the federal level, Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC), Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and the Ministry of Science and Technology etc. (through a long list of subordinate institutes) are involved in the process. At the provincial level, departments of agriculture, irrigation, forestry, provincial agriculture research boards etc. are part of the process. The third tier comprises agriculture universities administered by the provinces but funded by the federal government.

These confusing parallel streams with no division of work or mandate add to the bewilderment in research. These huge overlapping adds to the cost as well. That is why the funds spared by Pakistan and its federating units for research hardly meet administrative cost, without adding to the national pool of research.

Since the private sector has insulated itself from official activities, most of the research in the government sector has regressed into academic activity, designed at bloating curriculum vitae of researchers rather than any problem-solving in the field. The list of projects undertaken by provincial research boards testifies to the fact. The private sector was able to create two success stories – maize and poultry – because the technology and research came from abroad. Pakistani scientists played no role in them.

Due to these constraints, the rate of innovation in the sector has slowed down for the last few decades, leading to increased cost of production and marketing and turning the entire sector non-competitive in international markets. These problems can provide the basic context for research planning.

As a result, agriculture research has developed some inherent problems, like little and inappropriate investment, lack of coordinated planning, monitoring and evaluation, focus on academic rather than problem-solving areas, and little commercialisation of whatever research was able to achieve.

Without belittling the permanent role of research in agriculture, one can safely say that it would assume added significance in the years to come as climate change and increasing population exert additional pressure on Pakistan. The climatic change alone would need a new set of technology, agronomy, planning and practices.

Pakistan in the years ahead may not only have to coordinate research within the country but also collaborate with international players in the shape of multinationals to find new seeds that absorb weather shocks. It is time to start getting the act together and start planning for it.