The State of Our Sciences
By Dr A Q Khan
Our country is going through a very difficult time. Besides the law-and-order situation, the biggest problem at the moment is the financial crisis. With a lot of effort, after significant canvassing and agreeing to stringent IMF conditions, we managed to get a loan of $7.6 billion. How long this will keep our heads above the water is hard to say.
There are many reasons for this situation and the newspapers are full of explanations, both from the government's financial wizards and from independent experts and analysts. While both are justifying what they are saying, the boat is slowly sinking. As a layman in the financial field, I can only ponder over what is happening. Whenever our import and export figures are announced, it is always striking that the gap between the two keeps on widening. The biggest amount spent on imports is on oil. However, quite a large sum is also spent on importing items that we could easily manufacture or produce domestically.
Unfortunately, we even have to import such items as wheat, sugar, pulses and vegetables. Shame on us! There was a time when we exported farm produce.
As for my own field, being an engineer and a scientist, I was aware of the problem of unnecessary imports of engineering products. In the early eighties I had suggested to the late Gen Zia-ul-Haq that the automobile industry being the backbone of our industry, we should devote all our resources to manufacturing cars, trucks, tractors, jeeps, bulldozers and motorcycles. If you are a metallurgist, you know that a car uses a variety of materials that have to be molded, cast, shaped and so on, ranging from metals to synthetics (plastic and rubber).
Also, the ignition system, engine, electronic control devices and others are all high-technology items. This would not only have created jobs for thousands of engineers but would also have saved billions of dollars per year in foreign exchange. Unfortunately, nothing came of it. Years later, while visiting Japan, I met the managing director of a well-known industrial company. He told me he had visited Pakistan many times and was surprised that considering the length and breadth of our country and the requirements of the population, we did not have our own automobile industry. Other industries could benefit in the same way as the nuclear plant at Kahuta which enabled us to produce many defense products of high value.
Science and technology once again bring me to the comments made by former minister Ishaq Khan Khakwani and me about the HEC. I had stated unambiguously that my remarks were not meant as criticism of the person of Prof Attaur Rehman but on the functioning and achievements of the HEC. He was a friend whose academic achievements I acknowledged. He belonged to a highly respected family from Dehli and his relatives played an invaluable part in the Pakistan Movement. It was at the personal request of the late Prof Salimuzzaman Siddiqui that I had Prof Attaur Rahman's name approved by President Farooq Leghari for the award of Hilal-e-Imtiaz. When Gen (r) Musharraf asked me to become minister for science and technology I declined and suggested Prof Attaur Rahman's name and he was duly appointed. Does that sound like I had a personal grudge against him?
The purpose and spirit of the establishment of the HEC was commendable. However, after eight years of its existence and the spending of hundreds of billions of rupees, there is little to show for the money spent. Making available international journals on the Internet to scholars in Pakistan or giving scholarships for PhD studies were commendable steps, but not great achievements.
Deputy secretaries and section officers had been providing PhD scholarships for decades, though perhaps not in such large numbers as the HEC has begun doing. I am convinced that Prof Atta himself never benefited by any of the work done by the HEC.
My aim was simply to point out that, despite tall claims, nothing much was achieved at the national or international level by the HEC, despite the praise from the World Bank, the EU and Nature.
Again, on a tangent, I would like to draw attention to the excellent work done at the George Mason University in America by Prof Abul Hussam, a Bangladeshi academic. A chemist by profession, and still relatively young, he invented a purification system for removing the deadly poisonous metal, arsenic, from groundwater in Bangladesh, making it potable. The system for a village costs only $35. Millions of people in Bangladesh and other Asian and African countries have benefited from this invention. And for his invaluable work, Prof Hussam was given the Grainger Challenge Award by the US Academy of Engineering – it came with a cash award of one million dollars and a gold metal. Now that is what I call an achievement! Something the HEC or any other scientist or institution could be proud of.
Another invention/development of similar importance of similar importance is ORS (oral rehydration salts), also the brainchild of Bangladeshi scientists. ORS saves the lives of hundreds of millions of people, especially children, all over the world who suffer from diarrhoea and dehydration. Similarly, a small pharmaceutical company in Singapore has developed oral medication for Alzheimer's disease, which, over time, destroys brain cells. This again will help millions of people all over the world. Yet another example is that of a Canadian company developing a water purification system that can remove all impurities by the use of screening with extremely fine holes – ranging from 1,000 microns to one-ten thousandth of a micron (one micron being one millionth of a millimeter).
Then there is the example of Cuba. Despite being subjected to harsh economic sanctions by America and with hardly any cooperation with Western countries, it has nonetheless made tremendous progress in the field of biotechnology and genetic engineering. It may perhaps surprise one to learn that Cuban companies in this field export products worth $500 million a year, which is an important part of its foreign exchange earnings. We could, and should, have this kind of expertise too. All these examples are of real achievements of great use to the people of the world.
We are lucky that this country has been able to produce the likes of Prof Abdus Salam (we are not likely to produce another like him), Dr Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, Dr I H Usmani, Prof Attaur Rahman, Dr Baqai Beg, Prof Raziuddin Siddiqui , Prof Asghar Qadir. We are rightfully proud of them.
It is good to consider what was said once by a British scientist: "The progress and prosperity of a nation is the reflection of the competence and achievements of its engineering profession." Rather than sending so many students abroad for PhD studies, many of the subjects quite irrelevant to our needs, it would be better to have thousands of highly skilled technicians and engineers. The secret to the advancement of the developed countries lies in the availability of a highly skilled technical work force. All technological universities abroad also have advanced courses in the basic sciences – these are not ignored. I would like to write more about technical education at some other time.
I once used to write informative articles in British Journals on the subject of engineering education at technical universities in European countries.
For those who would like to criticize or comment on the above discussion, let me quote the following:
Kitnee aasani say mashhur kiya hai khud ko; Tum nay apne se baray shakhs ke gali de di. (Courtesy The News)