KARACHI, Feb 20: The Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco) has been undertaking numerous development projects and joint ventures but its work suffers from co-ordination failures at the local government level, the agency's chairman has told Dawn.
During his 17 months in the position, Major-General Ahmed Bilal said he spent most of his time campaigning to the government and the private sector, raising awareness about what Suparco could offer.
"The capacity is available but the issue lies in generating demand," he said. "The next 10 to 30 years will be crucial in this regard."
Suparco's efforts received a shot in the arm on Feb 9 when the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) responded positively to a request that it encourage joint ventures between universities and industry.
During that meeting, KCCI President Mian Abrar Ahmed said that the joint venture would offer final-year university students with employment opportunities, or assistance in establishing their own small and medium enterprises.
According to the Suparco chairman, there are many pockets of high-quality technological research but the challenge is to create applications for these in order to create a product line.
He gave the example of the Institute of Space Technology in Islamabad, which had been working on developing a cube satellite and ring wing aircraft, in collaboration with Stanford University.
Launched last year, the "STAND (Space Technology Applications for National Development) with Suparco" initiative was trying to achieve that objective through programmes focusing on education and development, the major-general said.
"In space technology a great deal of research is based around molecular genetics. One of the challenges in education is to promote the importance of life sciences in space studies, along with material sciences," he added.
'Think, conceive, deliver'
He said that Suparco was also looking into refurbishing laboratories at Karachi University, as well as providing them with professors on loan in order to develop programmes relating to space science. Suparco was also working on establishing a virtual, interactive platform for Pakistan's rural areas in collaboration with Allama Iqbal Open University.
"The importance lies in building solid institutions," he added, "We don't want the feather in our cap, we want the feather in everyone else's cap." He said the fact that Suparco fell under the National Command Authority, a federal body under the direct purview of the prime minister, allowed it to function more effectively.
He added: "The National Command Authority just has a different work ethic. There are stringent requirements when it comes to both recruitment and performance. We think, we conceive and we deliver. This is why the government supports us."
Suparco, along with various other research organisations, was placed under the authority of the NCA in 2000, he said.
For the chairman, it was this decision that allowed "real development" to begin. "Over the last decade, the organisation has boomed."
During this period, he said, the organisation's objectives had been two-fold: to focus on socioeconomic development and to develop the capability to launch satellites into space.
While Pakistan does have functional prototypes, it does not currently have the technology to launch its own satellites, due to the associated expense.
"We must first attain the capability and then plan further when the commercial venture has taken off," he said. "I believe that this is the best model for a third world country to follow."
Over the next 15 years, Suparco has big plans. One of those, aimed at helping in governance at the local level, is the mapping and digitisation of land-holding records. "It is a complex task, given that it will require the interpretation and systematisation of records from as long ago as the 18th century."
Another project on which work is currently under way is the development of new lock systems for the country's rivers, making the transport of goods easier by employing 'staircase locks'.
"We do a lot of gratis work for the government," the chairman admitted. "By Sept 1, 2010, we had done about $4 million worth of gratis work." Given that much of Suparco's work was aimed at achieving development goals. But he said he expected that the costs accrued would be recovered.
The monthly agriculture bulletin, started in May 2010, is one such "self-inflicted casualty", as the major-general put it.
The bulletin, detailed and rather technical, is available for download on Suparco's website. It provides agricultural indicators such as crop situation, irrigation water levels, recession of rainwater, meteorological conditions, fertiliser situation and others for farmers. The inherent problem, however, is dissemination, given not just limited internet access in the country's rural areas, but limited literacy as well.
The bulletin will be useful to millions of farmers if government at the local level is able to disseminate the information contained in it to those who need it, in a form that they understand. It is here, however, that Suparco faces its biggest hurdle.
He said: "Vertical communication is very good in Pakistan, but it's the horizontal communication which is bad. You can get the attention of the federal government, but communicating with local government is harder."