SMOKERS’ CORNER: WHAT HINDERS SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH?

Updated 05 Apr 2020

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

On March 28, the Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry posted a tweet in which he asked why Pakistani universities were silent when universities elsewhere in the world were producing research to help governments address the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

A valid query. Even though most of the replies that this tweet received were from the usual trolls who, even in times like these are falling over each other to shout out inarticulate rants, the tweet received some sane replies too.

For example, a few respondents immediately asked how the minister could criticise his country’s universities in this context when the government that he is part forked out millions of rupees to an already wealthy madressah in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa?

Then there were those who asked how much his government invests in the research capabilities of the country’s universities. 

These too are valid queries. But the problem is much deeper.

Federal science minister Fawad Chaudhry asked why Pakistani universities were not producing good research. It’s a good question. But is he willing to listen to an answer?

While doing research for my fifth book in 2019, I came across a news item published in the June 1967 issue of the now defunct Pakistani English daily Morning News

The report was about a group of college students from Lahore who had built a small car from scrap metal pieces.

They had also built the engine of the car from scratch. In the very next edition of the same newspaper was an interview of another group of students, this time belonging to Karachi’s NED University of Engineering and Technology. They said they were excited about the manner in which the students from Lahore had built the car because they too were in the process of building something similar. It wasn’t a car, but an unmanned rocket, which they planned to pitch to Pakistan’s ‘space programme’.

According to an essay in the February 2019 issue of the Swiss academic journal Environmental Science & Policy, Pakistan was one of the first 10 countries in the world to formulate a space programme. The programme was launched by the Ayub Khan regime in 1961. It was headed by the theoretical physicist Dr Abdus Salam. The programme, however, ran into trouble due to economic and political instability from 1970 onwards. 

Till the mid-1970s, the state, government and students of science in Pakistan were genuinely driven by the urge to remove the country’s ‘Third World’ tag with the aid of science. At least this is what one of the NED students interviewed by Morning News told the paper. 

In 1977 when I was just 10 years old, I remember a much older cousin of mine, who was studying biology at Karachi University. He told my parents that he and his team were working closely (through written correspondence) with the American epidemiologist Dr Donald Henderson, to develop vaccines against viruses that were largely found in humid regions such as Pakistan. 

Dr Henderson, as we later learned, was the man who had initiated a robust plan in 1968 to eradicate the deadly smallpox virus that had  haunted the human race for centuries. Even though an anti-smallpox vaccine had been developed in the UK in the 18th century, its more effective variations were still unavailable to most people. Due to Henderson’s efforts, backed by the World Health Organization (WHO), by 1974, over 90 percent of the world’s population had been vaccinated. In 1975, WHO declared that the virus had been completely eradicated.

I was also pleasantly surprised to note that newspapers and children’s magazines, both English and Urdu, used to have pages dedicated to science. Some of these pages were, in fact, edited by scientists. PTV used to telecast a weekly show on the sciences hosted by the late educationist Laiq Ahmad. The show lasted from 1965 till 1977. 

Fast forward to today: On March 27 this year, while Twitter trends in most European countries were about possible vaccines against the elusive coronavirus, the leading Twitter trend in Pakistan was #Dajjal. 

So what happened?

Even in the most scientifically advanced societies, there are groups of people who consider science to be a conspiracy against their theological beliefs. But they hardly ever manage to enter and disrupt the focus of the scientific order in developed countries. 

But they did in Pakistan. The country’s once promising scientific order was invaded and then littered with pseudoscientific hogwash. The outspoken Pakistani physicist Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy’s 1991 book Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality demonstrates how this happened. He writes that the state and government of Pakistan, during the reactionary Gen Zia dictatorship in the 1980s, pumped in millions of rupees to organise ‘Islamic science conferences’ in which not-very-credible ‘scientists’ from various Muslim countries spent days showcasing how energy could be derived from jinns, and how one could “measure the velocity of heaven”. 

But Pakistan wasn’t the only country that let go of the universalist idea of science to create a nonsensical version of an ‘indigenous science’. The British-Pakistani author Ziauddin Sardar writes in his 2005 book Desperately Seeking Paradise that, till the late 1970s,

Muslim societies were inspired by scientific breakthroughs in the West, and also by seminal works in astronomy, chemistry, biology and physics of ancient Muslim scientists.

But from 1976, according to Sardar, the Saudi monarchy began to invest millions of ‘petro-dollars’ in a different kind of so-called ‘Islamic science’ that had nothing to do with the influential works of past Muslims. The ‘Islamic science’ that these petro-dollars pushed did not require a scientist to work hard in a lab to invent or discover things. Instead scientists were to spend all their time in ‘proving’ that Muslims already knew everything because everything scientists create or discover was already mentioned in the Muslim sacred texts.

But the fact is, this too was not an original idea. Hindu nationalists and some Christian writers were first to claim that their respective sacred texts contained ‘scientific truths’. Johannes Heinrich’s Scientific Vindication of Christianity (1887) is one example, while Mohan Roy’s Vedic Physics: Scientific Origin of Hinduism is another. These emerged long before some Muslims got into the same meaningless act. 

My cousin gave up his research in the early 1980s due to a lack of support from the government and the university. In 1980, he was once asked by a group of younger students to ‘not waste time trying to discover something which was already mentioned in the holy book’. He responded by saying that in the book, the Almighty encourages people to discover the mysteries of His creation; and that these could only be discovered through scientific research. 

The reaction to his response couldn’t have been good, because the very next year he migrated to Denmark.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 5th, 2020