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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.

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Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of

He tweets @regionomics

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (51) Closed

Akhlesh Nov 02, 2011 02:21pm
Murtaza, all that Pakistan needs is a set of about 200 hundred theses focused on the restoration of internal peace, with the abstracts published in all Urdu newspapers. The rest would follow.
Kaafir Nov 02, 2011 02:31pm
Well presented article Mr. Haider.
BRR Nov 02, 2011 02:36pm
Strange as it might seem, conducting research into esoteric problems and in domains alien to the life styles and environments one is typically accustomed to has the effect of making that person superior to others in their surroundings - something that one can boast about. Unfortunately, problems that are prevalent in one's immediate surroundings do not seem that interesting or worth pursuing. Thus the skewed nature of such researchers.
Azra Raza Nov 02, 2011 02:55pm
Murtaza's point of view on relevant research is noticed, however if he visited some of these institutions he would understand that the funding is limited in Pakistan, more so in this government for the universities to carry out international quality research. Between 2001-2006 there was an effort by HEC to upgrade research quality and to forge links with well reputed top ranking international universities with Pakistani institutions to facilitate researcher to us the foreign laboratories, libraries and develop a jointly supervised PhDs. In this process the infrastructure of the Pakistani universities improved, teaching/learning processes streamlined and quality of research was far better. All this has seized due to cuts in HEC funding...we are back to square one. Today, it is a pathetic scenario, our research students cannot even write a decent research proposal.
Kashif Nov 02, 2011 03:05pm
This is one of my favourite article and you have really touched the hardcore issue of Pakistan. Further to add, wouldn't it be interesting if Government should pass a law that every industry should spend 5% of its profit in Research & Developement of their choice (I suppose West does like that). Once our industry will start getting ideas or products from research, I am sure they will be more interested in research & development and may be then we may no longer need Government funding (which current govt has already stopped doing it). On the downside, your article doesnt reflect the Phd's/research done by Pakistani's overseas.
Shafiq Khan Nov 02, 2011 03:07pm
A delightful thought and inspiring piece of writing. Thank you. However, It is nothing new . I recall a friend who joined the Punjab University for his masters degree and left soon after saying," the world has moved on to the Einstein's work and our professor is insisting on rote memorizing the workings of the Radar.Well that was early 50s. Later in the day I was fortunate enough to meet Zafar ul Husnain Ziadi at the Leeds (UK)university, who later on became a professor of chemistry at the highly praised institute of chemistry and later the vice chancellor of the Karachi University. He always used to bemoan the lack of funds available for research in Pakistan. The rich people in the USA and Canada leave enormous amounts of wealth for the advancement of learning and thousands benefit from it for ages.Mr Gates wife was interviewed on TV in UK the other day. She was asked about her ambition for the future. She said, she would like to see her husband's name is not in the world's richest people in the coming years,because she is going to spend like mad on helping social well-being in the stricken communities in Africa. In our unfortunate country the rich like to buy property in the foreign countries for their own luxury or insecurity. They like to deposit large amounts in the foreign banks for unknown reasons, which they never get to use. They send their urchins to foreign universities to come back to Pakistan and be appointed to highly prestigious jobs (without merit) with large salaries, without any experience or expertise in the field. Then spend all their time to pass laws to make their appointments permanent. You can see where their thought processes are leading us. The thought processes in the country are not altruistic but focuses on the advancement of personal status. They talk about God but they protect themselves if God does not see their way. Unfortunately the status is being rich and not generous. It is the aspirations of the parents and ignorance of the rich which shows up in the scenario you have so aptly sketched out. Unless we educate the young in our primary schools to become good and decent human beings we will not see Pakistan which the Quaid wanted. Shafiq
Sharma Anil Nov 02, 2011 03:15pm
University / Academic Research needs qualified guides. You cannot ask a professor with Ph.D in Urdu Literature to help you do research in Physics. If the PhD population is skewed towards the subjects mentioned above, the future researchers also will follow the suit. Unfortunate.
Junaid Kamal Nov 02, 2011 03:30pm
Very well written article. We need to focus on current issues (such as poverty, safety and health issues etc.) that our nation is facing instead of aiming at getting a secured job (of lecturer) in Govt universities.
JAVED AGHA Nov 02, 2011 04:10pm
Excellent article. Keep it up Haider.
Agha Ata Nov 02, 2011 04:50pm
Muslims tend to spread themselves to thin. That, too, on the least important priorities. No doubt the subjects like 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 are of paramount importamnce.
shahid Nov 02, 2011 05:55pm
A Doctor Nov 02, 2011 06:36pm
A poorly researched and poorly written article. The author seems to suggest that research in chemistry and the sciences is of little immediate need to the people of Pakistan. However, he fails to recognize or understand the indirect impact of pure sciences research and how it transforms lives, economies, sectors and so forth. To give a few examples: the space research program in the US was of no immediate need or value to the US. However, it led to development and production of as varied items as the Microwave oven and Velcro. Not to forget the development of the transistor, IC, microchips, and numerous other things. If not for basic sciences, we would not have had computers, and I wouldn't be reading this DAWN article and replying sitting thousands of miles away in an instant.
Reza Nov 02, 2011 07:02pm
There is clearly a problem, when so few PhD's are being produced in Pakistan. However, the solution is not to deal with meager resources by shifting emphasis, but to increasing funding for higher education. As well, the author clearly does not understand academia or the manner in which it contributes to society. To claim that Arabic/Islamic Studies is useless in a society riven by Muslim sectarianism is a case in point. Is not a population better educated in Islamic thought and institutions vital to address this pressing social conflict? As for physical sciences and research, the example of Canada's spending is entirely misunderstood. Canada's spending is not dependent on it being rich, it is rich because it spends on research. A nation of engineers - which is what this author seems to want - can not address social dysfunctions or lay the basis for productive and profitable applied sciences.
W Larik Nov 02, 2011 07:03pm
Instead of criticizing and discouraging research academics working on the priority list, author of the article should encourage relevant subject specialists in health and social sciences to focus on current issues faced by Pakistan. For instance, a person currently working in Chemistry will not be able to research on poverty or health issues. The direction of the article would have been better, if it had focussed on encouraging new social sciences researchers to focus on Pakistan relevant issues, rather than criticising the list of subjects not dealing with these issues. My suggestion would be to, let the Chemistry and Zoology people strive for a top quality research and produce other research along with these to cater for our social issues.
Fazil Nov 02, 2011 07:47pm
This is not essentially a question of money or resources, but a questioin of priority and focus. Pakistani researchers prefer the safe areas of reinforcing the statut-quo rather than challenging the statut-quo.
Sardar Uddin Nov 02, 2011 07:56pm
Interesting article but i beg to differ. I am not expert on academic research in Pakistan but the topics suggested by the author in particular Poverty and hunger doesn't make sense. Every one knows poverty and hunger is direct result of unemployment and bad economy of a country. To improve the economy of any country you need to drive in industry and to make a country attractive for any industry you need skilled workers and academics in that field. Thus if Pakistan want to develop it needs to attract or develop different industries which includes pharmaceutical, heavy and light engineering and others. For these companies we need chemist, biologist and engineers not poverty analyst who can talk for hours. What make western countries developed is there technology, the reason for the recent rise of Germany is advance research and technology in Germany. The kind of research that is carried out in a country guides the future industry of that country. I am disappointed that there is only been app 7000 PhD in Pakistan in last 64 years. We need more PhD in technical fields who will enhance our ability to progress.
Rehman Siddiqi, Aust Nov 02, 2011 08:37pm
I could not agree any more with you Mr. Shafiq Khan.
Rehman Siddiqi, Aust Nov 02, 2011 08:49pm
I could not agree any more with Mr. Shafiq Khan. Dr. Haider's article is well directed towards current needs of higher education but unfortunately, nothing is going to change in Pakistan unless we change ourselves as Mr. Khan has pointed out in his comments. Nation will soon see a new leader in the form of Bilawal Zardari, and current saga of Pakistan will continue in the hands of corrupt politicians. It is very sad situation but we have to remember one thing, unless whole nation stands up for the wellness of country no one else including USA could change it. God bless Pakistan.
Asim Nov 02, 2011 09:35pm
I wonder what our politicians have to say about this article... "PHD is PHD, whether its in Urdu/Arabic or Chemistry/Physics/Maths/Biology or any of the advanced science" LOL
enigmametal Nov 03, 2011 02:25am
You do not get why people spend so much on Islamic studies and Arabic. This will help them identify and research all the scientific miracles in the Quran which has answers to all problems in the world. Don't you know modern science owes its existence to the Quran? If the Quran was not written we would still be in the 6th century. So please do not blame people people who are sincerely studying Islam, Arabic etc.
Jamila Nov 03, 2011 03:14am
I wonder what's Imran Khan's strategy on research and education in Pakistan. That is, if he even has one!!
Falcon Nov 03, 2011 06:49am
As always, I am better informed after reading your article. Thanks for putting this together.
umer Nov 03, 2011 07:45am
Pakistani state has knowingly perpetuated a system of education which is does not encourage students to think critically and independently.
amtul Nov 03, 2011 08:18am
I agree with the author that the government of Pakistan should set their priorities. Having a focus on those PhD which do very little to remove many of the challenge nations is facing. It is not too late to se the priorities and to keep on revising the priorities every 5 years. I must be sympathetic for those who had PhD in botany, Zoology and chemistry. I would underline that w/o doubt the election of these subject is a cause of concern, the most critical dilemma is serious lack of coordination among the academic of these discipline. It is very important these disciple must interact and develop new technologies. For example, Pakistan is facing serious challenge of dingo fever and it is certainly a topic where all three discipline can interact and solve it successfully, but unfortunately, the quality of PhD and the iron minded commitment is lacking.
Shakeel.Quddus Nov 03, 2011 08:27am
Of all the questions raised, the hardest question to address is to find employment for the unemployed. Employment assumes a market place. Do we have a market place? Do we have a law and order? Do we practice fair play and that meant selection based purely on merit? Long before you have the answers, lets round up the basics. Do we have a sound basics? Do we know how to read and write coherently? Do we know the basic history not just of the Indian sub-subcontinent but also of the European and American civilizations? Do we have a clue of who were the Greeks and who were the Romans? We swim in a sea of ignorance fast and hard but pretend to do the research. Research to do what? An over populated country with textile factories depended upon remittance as well as hand out from the super power's helping hand. This all sounds way too exotic.
aftab Nov 03, 2011 09:20am
Thanks...for such a nice presented article, focusing hardcore issue of education in Pakistan. Unfortunately we as a nation have non serious and sell-fish leadership specially towards education but still we are hopeful radical changes in this sector will be certainly happened. Thanks once again please carry on to guide us.
Hassan (Australia) Nov 03, 2011 11:02am
Education system of Pakistan is designed to destroy the focus of a child, too many subjects with no practical use, most importantly our eduction doesn't provide awareness; infact it dwels very much on past theories and past glory. Pakistan needs fast track education for all where all the basic problems of life are addressed like road rules, communication, computer and any language that one wants to learn. if one has know how of above mentioned subjects then one can be trained for a suitable employment with short courses; but first of all the attitude of "beating about the bush" needs to be eliminated.
Tahir Nov 03, 2011 11:25am
Nice effort to highlight the problem. Only a visionary, competent and sincere leadership can divert the potential of education towards solution of problems. We all have to play our role in bringing such leadership.
Qasim Nov 03, 2011 12:25pm
Interesting.... Murtaza put his own research interests in the second graph. Why not come back to Pakistan and supervise PhD dissertations in the areas you are suggesting???
Qasim Nov 03, 2011 01:00pm
conferring honorary PhDs to your friends is a great way to ensure proliferation of research and education in Pakistan.
Awais Khan Nov 03, 2011 01:39pm
We have to set our priorities straight for the country to pass through these difficult times.
Shah Nov 03, 2011 04:10pm
Hi, a nice article. I agree with you. One point which is missing from the article is that Pakistan has failed to attract highly skilled researchers from abroad. I am also a student of Prof. Dr. Akhtar Naeem Khan. Now i am doing PhD in United Kingdom. As far as my observation is concerned, good research can only be produced if you are working in a good team of professors and researchers. The problem is that everyone is leaving Pakistan. I have came across many PhD scholars from Pakistan. Many of them wants to stay and work in Pakistan but only if they are provided with good salaries, good research environment and above all they need a sense of security. You can only produce a useful research if you have international linkages. I saw many of the Pakistanis like working in United Kingdom and North America. What is the reason for that? I myself saw the arrival and then departure of many PhDs from abroad in my University when i was studying in Pakistan. If you browse through the faculty list of North American Universities you will see many Pakistanis like you. Why are they not coming back when there is such a huge potential for them to do research. Although i am not yet a doctor i can pinpoint hundreds of useful research topics related to my field. So, in my opinion first step towards a useful research is to provide a good platform for the PhDs returning to Pakistan. If govt provides that platform i hope you would see a huge difference.
Qasim Nov 03, 2011 04:48pm
Qualified guides are sitting abroad and writing such articles, always criticizing what goes on in Pakistan but not willing to come back and make a difference.
Benish Nov 03, 2011 05:18pm
Research themes you have mentioned in 2nd graph mostly pertain to Economists or other social scientist. However, when it comes to the question whether one should go for doing PhD or not, the situation is complexed. Where natural scientists can excel in professional development with PhD, this is not the matter with social sciences. Social scientists including Economists having PhD degree have no different job market than the guys without PhD, hence these areas remained un touched. Need is to create job market for the PhD social scientists.
Pankaj Nov 03, 2011 05:20pm
Ha haha......... you mean Pakistan should reinvent the circle. Very funny
AKhan Nov 03, 2011 05:44pm
Sitting in Canada and writing about flawed research interests of Pakistani academics....... Set an example, come to Pakistan and contribute first hand to your country's future.
Rehman Nov 03, 2011 06:23pm
Most of the Ph.D's recipients are tenure professors who require the Ph.D or Master's to jump up the tenure ladder in faculty positions. The intent is to get a raise and secure the spot. Some are competent and others are just job-seekers who could not get a break through and got into myraid of Govt. jobs. The competent ones in applied sciences dont go back to Pakistan and become luminaries in west as pointed.
Rao Nov 03, 2011 06:40pm
Qasim Yaar: If the country provides any reasonable sense of security and good governance, they will come back. Don't blame them and no body is going to be patriotic if their lives are in danger.
Sara Nov 03, 2011 09:34pm
I agree with Rehman. The policies are good but we should change ourselves. We should be fair enough and judge ourselves first and then critisize others !
hanif -ur-Rahman Nov 03, 2011 11:19pm
my self is a PhD student in Pakistan and do not agree with witter on the ground that PhD or research in any field is every bit as important as it is highly difficult to weigh knowledge on the scale of priorities. after all Plato, Aristotle, Kautiliya, Machiavelli etc were not medical doctors or natural scientist. the proliferation of knowledge must be our priority in Pakistan. As knowledge is power, freedom and security
Qasim Nov 04, 2011 11:02am
Naa... we'd rather wait for divine intervention. Angels would descend from the skies and supervise and advise students on research topics which our dear author wants them to research on.
Navaid Nov 04, 2011 11:30am
Very strange article. The problem pakistan is facing can only be solved by a government genuinely representative of the people of pakistan. It has nothing to do with what topics are being researched by academics.
Kamran Zia Nov 04, 2011 05:57pm
V thought provoking article indeed. I would ve rather liked to see 3 things. a. A comparative data of research done by Pakistanis in foreign universities b. The research subjs have been presented in a graphical format, which is ordinarily easier to understand but the type of graph style chosen makes it a touch hard to clearly identify the areas which lacked attention (font too small) and c. A comparative analyses of research subjects before and after HEC was created, must have made more interesting reading..
Amit-Atlanta-USA Nov 04, 2011 06:05pm
Dear Friend AKhan: The truth is both in India & Pakistan, nobody ever listens unless you speak from a phirangi land, and a phirangi accent. Also, while not discounting many accomplished people back home, the fact remains that for a majority of educated people there are only limited opportunities for realizing their full potential in our homelands. While those things are certainly changing in India (even though not as fast as in the Tech areas where there is some amount of reverse brain drain), Pakistan never seems to get out of the hole they have created for themselves. Amit-Atlanta-USA
Sudy Nov 04, 2011 09:03pm
The writer did very well by writing about the research status (and he did his research for that) in Pakistan. He doesn't have to be physically present in the country to do a research. We should be proud of people like him who continues to think about their country even when they don't really have to!!
JPositve Nov 04, 2011 09:05pm
Well said Jamila. I also doubt if he even has one.
Mustafa Kamal Nov 04, 2011 10:39pm
Brilliant Article as always Sir!!!
Arif h. Nov 05, 2011 11:52am
Infact those who got the degrees in western and American style, they will offcourse go there and will feel comfortable there only. No other environment will ever suit them. As they are trained for such things. We should not worry about those who escapes from our homelands just for excuse , as these ppl are employee oriented, they don't have any capability to do things what r required in a society. Basically they are incapable, lazy and dull minded and like comfort rather than working hard, so let them them there , no need to call thm back The biggest reason why these happense is universities and institutes where teachers only represents the American and western sciences. And the fact is that other than this they don't know anything.
Dr. S.A. Hyder, Ph.D. USA Nov 05, 2011 04:58pm
It is not that only one person is doing research. Research can be done in several fields by several persons AT THE SAME TIME.
Cyrus Howell Nov 07, 2011 01:46pm
" The questions of the day are not decided by speeches and majority votes, but by Blood and Iron." PRINCE OTTO VON BISMARCK
Cyrus Howell Nov 07, 2011 02:30pm
Very well stated. Let us not forget that in the United States most of the research at universities is provided by grants and money from major business corporations, the department of defense and the federal government. Debt the pockets of political leaders and generals and credit the pockets of trustworthy university presidents.