Published Sep 11, 2018 06:40am

Reviving science

Athar Osama

AS our economic situation (particularly the exchange rate parity and balance of trade) has worsened over the last few months, everyone feels an expenditure squeeze. There is likely to be a tightening on money available, not just for luxuries, but basic necessities. An austerity programme has already been announced.

While it is important to not be wasteful in public expenditure, it is also important to not restrict the flow of money to productive uses that may hold the key to us getting out of our current economic quagmire. Pakistan’s economic challenges are of a structural nature and cannot be addressed by short-term measures. We must make sure that we continue to invest in the long-term capability of our economy to grow.

Building real competitiveness of our industrial platforms will require working on the scientific and technological capability of our industries: enhancing our surgical exports with value-added goods; move towards producing high-value garments and performance textiles; modernise our sports goods sector to embrace composites; and create new high-value exportable chains. Investing in science and technology as a means to economic prosperity is a critical (though not obvious) part of our response to the erosion of our national competitiveness.

Should Pakistan choose to go down that route, it will not be alone in this shift towards greater accountability and return on investment from science. In fact, for a while now, the trend has been quite unmistakable in Pakistan, where universities have been asked to do more — societal engagement, community service, and most important of all, entrepreneurship — for the communities around them.

National prosperity demands investing in new technologies.

But directly linking science with future economic prosperity would radically change the narrative and create the clearest set of obligations thus far. Achieving this will require a lot more than what has been done in the past — most notably, a fundamental rethink on two important counts.

The first is the shift away from our ‘no-questions-asked’ approach to funding science (and technology) in this country to a much more focused and goal-oriented paradigm. This is not something entirely new to Pakistan. Some sections of the scientific community has had a fair bit of success in doing so: the Green Revolution of the 1960s, the nuclear programme of the 1980s, and the missile programme in the 1990s have been tremendous success stories of goal-oriented research.

Why have our public labs failed to deliver in such an abysmal fashion then? Why do our universities not produce much of value for the industry? The clear answer to these questions is that, with few exceptions, there has never been a worthwhile goal before them.

In academia, for instance, the race for publication in impact factor journals has hampered the ability for even the most talented of our researchers to actually focus on national development. High impact journals mostly focus on cutting-edge science and technology which, more often than not, has little or no relevance to our national needs. If we were to focus, instead, on national problems, they must engage in goal-oriented research regardless of the ability to get published.

The recently approved national centres of research and innovation in emerging sciences and technology such as artificial intelligence, robotics, cybersecurity and big data are steps in the right direction. As is the quest to identify Grand National Challenges in Science for Pakistan to help address critical barriers required to achieve breakthrough performance in a range of areas such as climate, water, energy, industry and agriculture.

The second, perhaps equally important, problem is the revival and revitalisation of our public lab system. This is in many ways an even more challen­­ging institutional problem than the first. Our public science infrastructure is stuck in a vicious cycle of low performance, low expectations, low aim, and low investment. When you put peanuts into the system, you get peanuts in return.

Unfortunately, and largely because of the above, what we are left with is a hodgepodge of organisations in our public science system with no zeal or motivation that a worthwhile goal or mission brings. And there is no political will, yet, to do anything about it — even though our current economic challenges and circumstances demand this. We cannot grow our exports to $50 billion or $100bn by selling grey yarn, unprocessed mangoes, or cheap surgical instruments even if we try for all eternity.

A new social contract with the scientific community — the precursors of which are already in the works — can help bring the clarity, selflessness and vision needed to engineer a turnaround and make science and technology the cornerstone of national prosperity.

The writer is a member of the Planning Commission and the author of Pakistan Science and Innovation Review.

athar.osama@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2018

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