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Wake up or be forgotten

The plight of science and technology in Pakistan was recently highlighted by Federal Minister for Science and Technology Rana Tanveer Hussain during a meeting of Senate Standing Committee on Science and Technology in Islamabad on February 1 under the chairmanship of Osman Saifullah Khan.

After carefully examining the funds allocated by the government to promote science in Pakistan, the chairperson of the committee, Osman Saifullah, issued a wake-up call to Pakistan, saying that expenditures on a kilometre of the metro road are more than the whole national budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology of Pakistan. This is an alarming situation in a country which professes to be a nuclear state. A similar situation is largely true for education where the combined budget of all our public sector universities is just one-third of the budget of a good university in South Asia, such as the National University of Singapore.

In sharp contrast, the tiny state of Singapore – with no natural resources and a population that is of one-fourth of Karachi – announced last year that it will spend $13.2 billion on R&D from 2016 to 2020 under its Research Innovation Enterprise 2020 Plan, which represents an 18 percent increase over the previous five-year cycle. “The impact of RIE 2020 overall will be very positive,” commented Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the National University of Singapore and deputy chairperson of the government-backed Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). “This is an assurance of sustained support for research in Singapore.”

The major share of spending – 21 percent of the budget – will go to health and biomedical sciences. The budget represents a boost for one of Singapore’s best-known science initiatives: A*STAR’s Biopolis research complex.

The two contrasting policies on science are reflected in the corresponding states of economic development of Pakistan and Singapore. Pakistan has within declining exports over the last few years, now amounting to only $22 billion. However, Singapore – which has a population that is about 2.5 percent of Pakistan’s populace – has exports which amount to approximately $380 billion, some 20 folds higher. These figures highlight the fact that in this day and age what matters is the state of education, science, technology and innovation and not the size or population of a country. Nations are not built just by investing in roads and bridges. It is investments in our real wealth – our human resources – that are the most important and, yet, mostly neglected in Pakistan.

Another country that we can learn from is Malaysia. Malaysia decided 30 years ago to allocate about 25 percent of its total national budget annually on education. The astonishing result is that today about 86.5 percent of the total high-tech exports of the Islamic world come from Malaysia alone. The remaining 56 countries including Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and others collectively contribute only 13.5 percent of high-tech exports of the Islamic world.

The Republic of Korea represents another success story for us to learn from. Its economy has grown at an average of above 10 percent over the last 30 years. This is primarily because of the vision of General Park who gave the highest national priority to education and science. It is today the world’s largest spender on scientific research and development as a percentage of its GDP. In 1960, only about five percent of the youth in Korea between ages of 17 and 23 were enrolled in higher education institutions – which amounts about the same as the number of youth who were enrolled in higher education in Pakistan in 2000 – and Korean exports amounted to only $30 billion annually at that time.

By 2016, the percentage of Korean youth between the ages of 25 and 34 who have graduate degrees jumped to almost 70 percent, the highest in the world. The result was a corresponding, steep rise in its exports of high-value products and services which have risen to $548 billion.

Pakistan’s problem is a lack of understanding among successive governments that the production and exports of natural resources is now of little consequence. The global trends in manufacturing and exports over the last four decades have a sharp rise in high and medium technology goods and a sharp, consistent decline in low-technology goods and in natural resources. Countries that have realised this have invested in knowledge-based economies, leading to the manufacture and exports of high-tech products, such as engineering goods, biotech products, computers, softwares, automobiles, aircrafts, defence equipment electronics, pharmaceuticals, alternative energy products and many other such items.

About 60 percent of Pakistan’s exports are confined to low-value textiles which contribute little to our national exchequer. In order to change gears and move into the high-tech area, we need to have a visionary government that understands the key role that knowledge plays in today’s world. Pakistan is lacking in a highly specialised skills and world-class research centres.

We have less than 10,000 PhDs in our universities. With an enrolment of about 1.5 million, and a desirable PhD to student ratio of 1:20, we need to have another 60,000 PhDs to uplift our faculty. Our expenditure on education as a percentage of our GDP is one of the lowest in the world, ranking us among the bottom 10 nations.

We need to launch a national emergency with the focus on transitioning towards a knowledge-based economy. A 320-page document, entitled ‘Technology-based industrial vision and strategy for Pakistan’s socio-economic development’ – the blueprint of what this nation must do in the short, medium and long term – was prepared under my supervision after considerable effort. It was approved by the cabinet in August 2007 and has been gathering dust in the government archives since then.

Our government must drastically revise its national policies and focus largely on education, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship – as Korea and Singapore did. For this, Pakistan needs to have a technocrat government so that the feudal stranglehold that is presently suffocating our economy can be released and we can launch ourselves with dignity into the 21st century.

Artificial intelligence will control industrial production and fight our wars in the future. Stem cells and tissue engineering are changing the face of medicine. More powerful batteries are bringing in a revolution in electric cars and, within a decade, petrol-based cars may become history. The blind can now see through images transferred to their brain through the nervous system in the tongue.

Anti-aging compounds have been developed that not only slow down the aging process, but reverse it. Objects can be made invisible by cloaking them with metamaterials. Exciting advances in renewable energy promise to eliminate fossil fuels as the main source of energy on our planet. These and other such advances are rapidly changing the face of the globe, propelling several countries on the path of social and economic development and leaving others behind. We must either wake up or forever be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Rahman, Atta. Wake up or be forgotten. The News, February 8, 2017.

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