RANDOM THOUGHTS : Science for Development - BY: Dr. A.Q. Khan

Science for Development
Dr. A.Q. Khan


No one can deny the importance of science and technology in national development. Every aspect of our existence depends on advances in these fields. However, there can be no scientific advancement without education. The healthy growth of S&T in any country depends on the availability of trained manpower. In fact, human resources with relevant competencies build the socio-economic and cultural profiles of a country. This is primarily governed by availability of facilities and public awareness of the need to acquire technical skills. Governments, past and present, have embarked on a number of socio-economic reforms including efforts to accelerate human resources and infrastructure development in S&T in order to achieve self-reliance in vital areas.

During the last century we saw how those countries which established a sound S&T base became economic giants, while those which did not, or could not, lagged behind, both socially and economically, despite having enormous natural resources. Japan, China, France, England and Germany, though devastated by war and/or famine, they became superpowers within a few decades, partly by dint of hard work by the people and partly through systematic and effective S&T policies. Compared to the above-mentioned countries, there are many others in the world that are rich in natural resources such as oil, gas, gold or diamonds, but due to a lack of scientific base, they remain dependent on the technologically advanced countries for their needs, including defense. The GDP of almost all of the Middle Eastern oil-rich countries put together is no comparison to the GDP of a medium sized European country able to sell a few dozen aircraft, thus earning more in one year than those supplying crude oil, minerals or ores would in many years.

The establishment of an S&T infrastructure – the tool to achieve our national objectives – needs to be a national commitment. This infrastructure includes appropriate scientific education centres, sophisticated scientific research organization, state-of-the-art equipment in laboratories, expert and well-trained manpower in these laboratories, library facilities, provision of a suitable working environment, etc. The over-all educational scenario in our country is quite dismal with a ranking of 127th in world literacy. Statics indicate that of those entering schools, only a fraction finish High School and of the 17 to 24 year-olds, only 3.5% are in universities. Compare this to 60% in the USA, 32% in Korea and 10% in India. This is not surprising considering the minimal amount successive governments have allocated to education in general and science and technology in particular. We are amongst the lowest countries in the world with regard to allocations to education. There needs to be a minimum of 5% of GDP expenditure in order to raise the standard of science education to acceptable levels in the country. If we want to come on par with India, we require at least 200 top-class universities by the year 2050. The number of schools and colleges would have to be increased by a factor of four with a double shift system. One can well imagine the amount of funding, etc. this objective requires. Due to the inadequate educational facilities, there is an acute shortage of trained experts and other high level manpower in existing S&T organizations. The number of active researchers is even smaller. There are only about 5,000 Ph.Ds in all science subjects, most of them working in education. There is also a lack of support staff as there are hardly any technical training institutions in the country. This situation was further aggravated by the ban imposed on fresh recruitments during the past years leading to brain drain.

Presently, science is advancing at a very fast rate. Enormous amounts of data are generated every day and everyone working in a particular field needs to be aware of this. For this, all scientific organizations need to acquire specialized journals and periodicals. This is also the age of informatics through elaborate computer networks and every scientific organization should have access to these facilities. Without the latest information, no meaningful research can be done.

The path of scientific development is not an easy one. In the words of Sir Michael Foster, “progress may not be in a straight line, there may be swerving to this side and to that. Ideas may seem to return to the same point of the intellectual compass but they always will have reached a higher level.” All this requires a conducive environment, but this concept has not been stressed in our society. It is simply assumed that scientists will deliver, whatever their environment. It is disheartening to see what the average working environment of a scientist in Pakistan is. There is also a wide gulf between the service structures, promotion and facilities given to other services as compared to that of scientists. How can science flourish under such conditions?

Everyone knows that science and technology have invaded our homes – processed foods, television, etc. – and our professional lives – machines, electronics, computers, etc. Even our leisure, health, travel, etc. are influenced by it. Great advances in science have not always been accompanied by equal progress in human relations and social order. This gap needs to be bridged because it can create social and moral disorder by eroding traditional values. The assimilation of science into culture has been a slow and difficult process.

Even though the number of universities and institutes have multiplied over the past 70 years, the qualitative aspects of such institutions remain neglected. Most alarming is the fact that not a single Pakistani university is listed in the 500 top universities of the world. Affluent youths have gone abroad for higher education or attended expensive universities at home, while poor and middle class families have no option but to send their children to mediocre institutions. The Higher Education Commission was set up to bring in viable reforms. The vision of this Commission is to transform institutions of higher education into world class places of learning. I am confident that, by strengthening our infrastructure of S&T and by providing the requisite resources, we can perform well in the years to come to strengthen our fragile economy and the development of the country.

Posted on Jul 31, 17 | 11:26 am