KARACHI, June 24: After three decades of looking at the heavenly bodies, the progress of the observatory at the University of Karachi remains far from meteoric. Those at the helm of affairs are at best cynical about its very existence and purpose, dashing all hopes of the aspiring astronauts.
“Paying attention to space sciences will pay off little in the long run. Had the government paid due attention to it when Suparco launched Rehbar Awwal, things would have certainly been in a better state,” says the KU vice-chancellor, Dr Pirzada Qasim Raza Siddiqui, about the Institute of Space and Planetary Astrophysics (ISPA).
ISPA, however, is about 12 years old and stands majestically atop a hill and surprisingly, was built to last. It can resist all seismological challenges as its pillars go 15-foot deep into the ground. The telescope has a motor that keeps pace with the movement of the earth making any object under view always visible without any readjustments.
Despite such credentials, the observatory faces brutal neglect on part of the authorities concerned that can be gauged through the fact that there is just one permanent faculty member who is also the director of the institute with only five visiting professors.
Dr Pirzada seems to stand by the disregard and maintains that even if the institute is improved, it will make little difference. “The world has progressed so much that it will take ages before the country is able to catch up,” he says.
However, the science fraternity remains perturbed at the unmotivated performance of the students of astronomy both at the KU and at the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science, and Technology (FUAAST) that offer astronomy as a subject. The latter also has a telescope since 2004 but it has not seen the light of day as the university does not have an observatory to house it.
The High Education Commission has also arranged an Uzbek astronomer Salakhutin Nuritdinov for the FUUAST but this was not a choice for the University of Karachi.
However, ISPA Director Shahid Qureshi tries to defend the administration. “They really cannot do much about it. We have very few experts in space sciences and astronomy who can convince and change the general perception about astronomy. And even fewer if it comes to making it alluring for the policy-makers,” explains Qureshi.
The director voices another reason for apathy amongst students. “Their poor educational backgrounds hamper their curiosity,” he says. However, he concedes that the government has not done much for this particular area of study.
Rahmatullah Jilani, general manager, Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco), believes that the government is not responsible for the indifference towards this field but the students actually lack the aptitude and initiative.
“We keep visiting institutions to find some bright students who are interested in the subject. But the youth opt for courses that can bag lucrative jobs,” he says.
Jillani admits that Suparco was immensely disillusioned in the 1980s when it sent some students abroad on scholarships but they never returned. He also mentions that the government has not been supportive to students who sought financial assistance for research projects. “Suparco continues to offer training courses but has not received an outstanding response,” he says.
The students harbour an entirely different set of issues. “If we have facilities to collect the required data on our own and not have to obtain it from the Suparco and the meteorological department, we will be more efficient in our work, and it will keep our interest in the research alive,” says a student of the department.
Students also attribute their lack of interest to the fact that their schools did little to generate curiosity.
“Do our schools ever take students to the planetarium, Suparco or the meteorological department? Besides, the poverty ratio in our country forces people to opt for subjects that promise high-income jobs,” says another student.