the Editor: Akhtar
July 25, 2008
Science, Higher Learning and Democracy
“It is indeed possible that the psychological factors working against science development will become more intense in the ACs (advanced countries) but will lessen in the LDCs (less-developed countries). If so, the LDCs would have an exciting opportunity indeed… From a historical point of view, there is precedent for a reversal of roles. Civilizations rise and fall… the opportunity is so momentous and exciting that this task deserves the primary attention of the whole scientific community of LDCs …”
- Science Development: The Building of Science in Less-Developed Countries by Michael J. Moravcsik, International Development Research Center, Bloomington, Indiana, Indiana University, 1973.
Professor Moravcsik makes this observation in 1973. As China, India, and some of the Pacific Rim countries take a quantum leap in the realm of science in the post-1973 era, his buoyant optimism about the future of science in developing countries does not appear to be wholly misplaced.
Viewed from a historical perspective too, his observation is well justified. The world’s four earliest civilizations - Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley, the Indus Valley, and the Yellow River Valley - sprang up and flourished outside the geographical boundaries of Europe and America. They nurtured scientific enquiry and sustained the creative impulse. The march of science in the regions now forming parts of the Third World was religiously sustained throughout the early ages.
The universities of Cordova and Toledo in Spain formed the hub of scientific enquiry where scholars from the rich East - Syria, Egypt and Iraq, to name a few - dabbled in science, and prospective researchers from the poor West looked askance when told to go back to clipping sheep because their teachers “doubted the wisdom and value of training them for advanced scientific research.” (Prof Abdus Salam, Developing countries need more scientists, Nature, 13 December, 1979, pp. 666-667).
By the time North America was opened up, “much of North Africa, South and East Asia were both densely populated and highly organized politically, culturally, and for the time, technologically.” (J.P.Cole, Geography of World Affairs, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin Books Limited, 1979). China appeared decidedly more innovative than Mediaeval Europe, and better poised to stage a renaissance in Asia than was Italy in Europe. Its multifarious scientific successes today are a confirmation of its earlier promise.
There is thus a message in Moravcsik’s observation. Science is by no means the exclusive preserve of the ACs as Pakistan’s nuclear science successes testify. Given continued governmental patronage, the country’s nuclear scientists accomplished the cherished goal. Denied this patronage, Pakistani scientists in other disciplines were left to fret and fume. They were hardly rewarded for their demonstrable verve and zest in various research undertakings.
Not so anymore. The picture has blissfully altered as we discovered during a visit to Pakistan in 2003. A wholesome change had taken place, thanks to the vision of an enlightened group at the helm in Islamabad. Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman was a member of the visionary group.
An outstanding chemist known internationally for his research accomplishments, Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman was then Federal Minister in-charge of Science and Technology and Chairman, Higher Education Commission (HEC). I have vivid recollections of the 2003 visit.
We meet in the idyllic surroundings of Islamabad. The August evening is unusually warm and batters my fragile frame but Dr Atta’s words seem to have a soothing effect. An outstanding researcher and academic, he displays no airs. In fact, he is unassuming and modest as he addresses us in his clipped British accent, furnishing proof of his education at Cambridge. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, outstanding researchers have been rewarded - monetarily - for their research successes, he breaks the heart-warming news.
His words are music to the ears. But I am aghast, nay, flabbergasted. For I am familiar with the formidable failings of Third World science: concern is often voiced for upgrading the status of R&D, plans are enthusiastically drawn up, priorities exuberantly defined, reappraisals eagerly made, and commissions frequently formed. But at the critical stage of implementation the urgency and enthusiasm disappear and the task is entrusted to the next generation of planners!
The cycle continues as bureaucracy stultifies scientific enquiry. Much to the chagrin of the researcher, bureaucrats and economists act in conjunction to seriously distort the priorities of a research program. They adopt an even more high-handed approach in parts of the Third World where democracy, a friend of science, makes only an elusive appearance and bureaucracy enjoys a freed hand.
How did Dr. Atta succeed in the face of such familiar impediments? I ask. He smiles. “I have the support of the President.” General Musharraf is the Patron Saint of science, a firm supporter of all developmental strivings.
His government accords high importance to higher education, information technology, and scientific research. It has drawn up elaborate blueprints and implementation of various schemes is already underway. Scientists, researchers, and academics have found a messiah.
Returning from the President’s Rawalpindi Camp Office, a group of IT experts from California seem to endorse Dr Atta’s views when I elicit the group’s comments about the President the next day. They found the General favorably disposed to well-meaning schemes based on sound scientific reasoning and insightful evaluation. We may not have an ideal democratic dispensation in the country today but we certainly have the ideal men at the helm to ensure Pakistan’s sustained march in the important sectors of education, R&D, and IT. Advances in these sectors indisputably serve as a nation’s passport to modernity and all-round progress.
As the interview with Dr Atta proceeds, he enumerates the recent successes under his stewardship: 25,000 teachers have been trained in the IT sector, the number of cities with access to the Internet has shot up from 29 to 1600,UNCTAD representatives concede Pakistan is way ahead of India, international experts testify we are the ninth IT manpower-producing country in the world. The use of mobile phones in the country has also seen astronomical growth - from 220,000 to well over one million.
Dr. Atta talks of the 300 projects running under the Higher Education Commission. In a later interview, he furnishes an update on the program in greater detail: “We are encouraging teachers to do their PhDs under three different programs. One, where the teachers go through an entire PhD program abroad. Two, where their program is divided into two parts, one to be completed in Pakistan and the other to be completed abroad. Three, where the entire program is to be undertaken in Pakistan.” Forty students have left for China, 50 are leaving for Austria and another 50 for Germany. “Many others are bound for France, Australia, Japan and the Scandinavian countries,” he informs. “For the local PhD program the government has approved Rs. six billion.” Impressive developments indicative of the government’s sincere strivings to promote higher education.
There are other well-meaning initiatives: “We have changed the syllabi in more than 80 subjects. Salary structure of the teachers has also been improved to make it more market-compatible. We have introduced a new tenure-trek system of appointment wherein faculty members will be appointed on contract and their performance will be reviewed first after three years and then after six years by a panel of international experts. The starting salary for an assistant professor is in the range of Rs 30,000 to Rs 35,000 and a professor at the top level is to get Rs 120,000 a month. We are also selecting some of the distinguished professors to reward them so that they can act as role models in their respective fields.”
Is Pakistan availing of the exciting opportunity that Moravcsik points to in his 1973 observation? There are catalytic forces at play to breed optimism. The opportunity is so momentous and exciting that the task deserves the primary attention of the whole scientific community.
This piece was written towards the end of 2003. Today, as Pakistan grapples with challenging domestic and international problems, the importance of science and higher learning should not be lost on the new government. Democracy is a friend of science. Pakistan’s march in the important sectors of higher education and R&D undertakings should continue – with an added momentum – under the present democratic setup.