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The misguided priorities of Pakistani academics

Published Nov 02, 2011 01:06pm

A recent public opinion poll revealed that the top-most research priority areas identified by Pakistanis included Chemistry, Urdu literature, Islamic studies, Arabic, Botany and Zoology. Those who responded to the survey asked of Pakistani academics to devote their energies on the above-mentioned research areas and requested the governments to fund additional research in Chemistry and other basic sciences.

You are not alone in wondering how you missed seeing the results of this critical opinion poll in which Pakistanis identified research priority areas for the nation. In fact, no such poll exists. But what exists is a list of  7,151 Ph.D. dissertations completed since independence in Pakistan, which shows that most frequent research subjects included Chemistry, Urdu literature, Islamic studies, Arabic, Botany and Zoology.

The following graph is a pictorial representation of the subject areas used to categorise the 7,151 doctoral dissertations. The size of each subject area is in proportion to how frequently it appeared in the list thus revealing Chemistry and other basic sciences along with Islamic studies and Urdu being the most common research areas for doctoral dissertations in Pakistan. Education and agronomy are rare examples of frequent research topics that address immediate needs in Pakistan.

When one thinks of the grave challenges Pakistan has faced in the past three decades, Chemistry, Zoology and Urdu literature do not come to mind. One sees poverty, income inequality, food security, water shortages, infrastructure deficits, illiteracy, violence, wars, religious fundamentalism and sectarianism as some of the challenges that threaten the survival of the society and the State. It is hard to comprehend why academics in Pakistan would avoid focusing on the immediate challenges, but instead focus on subject areas where their impact will, at best, be marginal because researchers in Europe and North America have significantly more capital, infrastructural, and other intellectual resources at their disposal than their counterparts in Pakistan.

Some research labs in Pakistan, such as HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry, are one of the finest in the world. Several other research centres in pure sciences produce high-quality research in technical subjects. Similarly, some research centres focused on languages and literature are also delivering quality research. If the socio-economic conditions in Pakistan were the same as in Canada or in another G-7 country, it would have made perfect sense to devote the nation’s resources on basic sciences. However, while Pakistanis struggle for potable water, electricity, affordable health-care, food, and shelter, Pakistani academics are dedicating their time and nation’s resources on topics that do not address the nation’s immediate needs.

Research in applied and pure sciences is a very expensive proposition even for a rich country. The federal government in Canada, for instance, spent over C$10 billion on research in science and technology during the fiscal year 2009-2010. The Canadian government dedicated over a billion dollars to fund research through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, an agency that funds academic research. Similarly, another granting agency, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funded an additional C$330 million to support academic research in the humanities and social sciences.

With a nation of only 33 million people, Canada spends over C$300 per capita annually in science and technology research. In order to match Canada’s per capita spending on research in science and technology, Pakistan would need to spend over $55 billion annually. This obviously is a non-starter for Pakistan because the entire planned federal government spending for the current fiscal year is around $32 billion.

Granted that research expenses in Pakistan on a parity basis are much lower than that in Canada or other western countries. However, the comparative advantage, if it at all exists, rests on relatively inexpensive graduate students and faculty members. The expensive research equipment required for research has to be imported from abroad, which takes resources away from other competing needs such as primary education and health care.

Some research spending in engineering is also directed at technologies that may not have a direct benefit for Pakistan. Consider the newly established mechatronics research centres at various engineering universities in Pakistan. Unlike the mechatronic research labs in the United States, such as the one at MIT where doctoral students and post-docs are busy in advanced research relevant to the American industrial needs, the Pakistani initiatives have essentially become undergraduate teaching labs where budding engineers are being trained in skills that may have no relevance to the engineering job market in Pakistan.

Even if Pakistan were to produce internationally recognised research from the advanced research labs that have been set up for millions of dollars, can Pakistan-based researchers effectively compete, either in quality or in quantity of research, with the researchers based in the advanced economies. Let’s compare published research in mechatronics. Of the 2,144 papers on mechatronics listed in the Web of Science citation database only three journal articles are listed from researchers based in Pakistan. Furthermore, these articles are yet to be referenced by any other researcher. As a comparison, the most referenced paper in mechatronics is from Keio University in Japan. Similarly in Chemistry, the most cited paper published by a US-based researcher in 2010 was referenced by 322 other researchers from all over the world. For the same time period, the most cited research paper in Chemistry from Pakistan attracted 22 citations, all from researchers based in Pakistan.

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) in Pakistan has made some progress in aligning research priorities and research needs in Pakistan.  The Commission’s biggest impact could be seen in the quantity of research produced in Pakistan. Between 2003 and 2009, over 3,000 doctoral dissertations were defended in Pakistan, which is a result of the HEC’s efforts to promote higher education. As a comparison, fewer than 3,300 doctoral dissertations were defended in Pakistan between 1947 and 2002. While the HEC can lobby for funds for higher education, the ultimate decision on how research dollars are spent is made by academics and university administrators.

It is rather sad that while Pakistan lost almost 100,000 people in the devastating earthquake in 2005, which also left thousands more injured and millions without shelter and livelihoods, Pakistani academics has since then produced only seven doctoral dissertations on the structural damages caused by earthquakes. Five of the seven dissertations were supervised by my former professor, Dr. Akhtar Naeem Khan at the engineering university in Peshawar.

If the nation’s brightest and smartest remain busy staring into test tubes or trying to determine how Arabic language developed in Bangladesh (how many Arabic speakers are there in Bangladesh anyways?) who would address the questions about what concerns ordinary Pakistanis. Who would research the societal and health impacts of the devastation caused by earthquakes and floods? Who would determine how to rebuild villages, schools, water supply systems, and hospitals in areas devastated by natural disasters? Who should Pakistani victims of natural disaster turn to for research in reconstructive surgeries, physiotherapy, trauma, and prosthetics? And who will find innovative strategies to find jobs for the unemployed, shelter for the homeless, and affordable health care for the poor? More importantly, who will find ways to put the sectarian and fundamentalist genies back into the bottle?

Pakistanis will be well-served if its academics and intellectual elite focus their research on finding answers to what country needs today. One would hope to see academics align their research interests with the needs of their fellow citizens and that the limited research budgets are devoted to immediate needs rather than speculative research that may bear fruit in the decades to come.

It is quite possible for researchers to shift their focus from the esoteric topics to applied research that may deliver results in the short run for Pakistan. I wish a few years later when I draw another graph for research in Pakistan it would show the nation’s brightest focused on devising plans for affordable health care, eradicating poverty and hunger, and improving literacy and security.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.  He can be reached by email at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.