By Dr. Atta Ur Rehman

IN THIS day and age, the single most important factor that determines the fate of a nation and its state of socio-economic development is education. It is the scientists and engineers that are changing the world today. This is evident from the new technologies that are seen in a large number of emerging products, ranging from cell phones to automobiles, and from pharmaceuticals to new materials. Indeed it is the quality of education that eventually determines the stature of the leadership and the success or failure of democracy in a country.

Our countrys current problems may be attributed to the criminal neglect of education by successive governments. We spend only about 1.7 percent of our GDP on education, putting us among the bottom seven countries of the world. Most of our children grow up without a proper education, resulting in massive joblessness. The resulting frustration is leading thousands of youth today, particularly in cities like Karachi, to indulge in street crime as they see that as the only path available for survival. Phone snatching at gunpoint marks the beginning of careers in crime. The easy money from these crimes leads them to the next step: car theft. And from there they alleviate to serious crimes like robbery and kidnapping.

This is the road that we have paved for our youth; all the major political parties share the blame for their role in the neglect of education that has made Pakistan a living hell for many.

If an international vote was taken today for the worst country to live in due to crime and lack of opportunities, Pakistan would probably emerge as a winner. The reckless theft and plunder of those who have been in power for the last six decades, with few exceptions, has brought this country to its knees – to a point where many now doubt if it will survive.

Our salvation lies in quality education, but first we need to change our priorities. The exciting ways in which science, technology and innovation are changing the face of development can offer opportunities for us to leapfrog and emerge from our present miserable state.

A few recent examples of new technologies are illustrative of what is happening.

It is now possible to grow cells on a large scale in bioreactors; meat cells may one day be produced and processed to offer “meat” without the slaughtering of animals. Recently, a company Organovo based in San Diego, California, announced that it had developed a commercial 3D printer for manufacturing human organs. The 3D printer is claimed to be able to place and organise cells of any type on to a template in a predetermined manner. This will, one day, allow surgeons to have access to human tissues of various types on demand.

About 130-170 million persons worldwide are infected by hepatitis C. Hepatitis is a common viral disease found in Pakistan and many other countries with poor quality water supplies and sub-standard sanitation services. In an exciting development, Michael Houghton and his co-workers at the University of Alberta have developed a vaccine from a single strain of hepatitis C that was found to be effective against all known strains of the disease.

A Madrid-based designer, Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez, has developed “smart luggage” that follows you wherever you go automatically. The suitcase or carry-on bag is fitted with a caterpillar track system and a small battery that allows it to roll along in any direction. It can be connected by blue tooth to a smartphone carried by the passenger. A microprocessor calculates the position of the smartphone and directs the suitcase to follow the passenger carrying it.

These are only three examples of recent developments in technology around the world. Technologically advanced countries are progressing rapidly through thousands of such discoveries and inventions every week that soon become commercial products. These researches are taking place either under the umbrella of universities or in research and development (RandD) centres of private companies. The governments of these countries have played a major role in boosting research activities by strengthening universities, establishing technology parks and venture capital funds to promote new start-up companies.

In Pakistan, we have paid little heed to science, technology, education or innovation since its inception and the little that had been achieved has been systematically destroyed by the government in recent years. Biotechnology is changing the face of agriculture and medicine. India established a full-fledged department of biotechnology under the central government in 1986 and has funded major programmes to strengthen biotechnology due to which the biotechnology industry has been growing by leaps and bounds.

On the footsteps of the Indian IT industry that has already grown to $60 billion, the biotechnology industry has grown to over $3 billion and is expanding at a rate greater than 25 percent per year. The famous Nobel Laureate Arthur Kornberg had once stated and I quote: “Much has been said about the future impact of biotechnology on industrial development, but this does not yet apply to the less developed countries that lack this infrastructure and industrial strength. In view of the current power of biotechnology and its even brighter future, there is no question that the less developed countries must now position and strengthen their status in biotechnology – what a tragedy it would be if these enlarged concepts of genetics, biology and chemistry were available only to a small fraction of the world population located in a few major centres of highly developed countries.”

When I was the Federal Minister of Science and Technology in 2001, I had established the National Commission of Biotechnology. The commission started a large number of programmes and was beginning to lay the foundations of biotechnology, when the enemies of Pakistan came into action. The government that followed not only closed down the National Commission of Biotechnology but also closed down all its programmes.

Another fast emerging field in science is nanotechnology. China, India and many other countries are investing heavily in this and it is already beginning to impact a large number of industries in different fields of engineering, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, transportation, electronic and computer sciences. Accordingly, I had also established a National Commission of Nanotechnology in Pakistan and provided funds through the Ministry of Science and Technology to promote this fast growing field. Alas, it met the same fate as the biotechnology commission. The National Commission of Nanotechnology was closed down by the subsequent government and its programmes abandoned. The attempts to destroy the HEC by corrupt politicians are a part of the same sad story. Its budget is about half of what it should have been and many of its programmes have been severely curtailed or abandoned.

The greatest enemies of Pakistan lie within our country. They are desperate to make sure that Pakistan does not progress in any field and becomes a failed state, while they loot and plunder all its wealth and pile it in the form of foreign assets and foreign bank accounts before fleeing abroad.

The writer is a former federal minister and former chairman of the HEC. Email: ibne_

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