Let science save the day in Pakistan

Pakistan is without a national policy for the development of science and technology (S&T) since October 2012. This poorly reflects on the government’s lowest priority, if any, to this strategic sector that has revolutionized the lives in modern world.

Let science save the day in PakistanThe last “National Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy 2012” remains just a paper, unfortunately, as it failed to achieve its objectives of the projected scientific and technological developments.

In fact, there has not been any meaningful achievement by the ministry since 1984 when the first S&T policy was launched and implemented. For long, the performance of the ministry has remained lackluster, to say the least. Consequently, Pakistan continues to lag behind the world of scientific research, and thus ranks low in terms of spending in this area. The 2012 policy had focused on the innovation as a driver of economic activity along building up the S&T capability. The lack of success of the Policy is demonstrated in the fact that, in 2019, Pakistan ranked 105 out of 129 countries on the Global Innovative Index (GII).

The functions of the Ministry of Science and Technology or the Scientific and Technological Research Division include initiating and launching scientific and technological programmes and projects as per national agenda. The Ministry has more than a dozen organisations mandated to be engaged in basic and applied research and development (R&D).

These include Pakistan Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (PCSIR), Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), Pakistan Council for Science and Technology (PCST), Pakistan Council for Renewable Energy Technologies (PCRET), Council for Work and Housing Research (CWHR), STEDEC Technical Commercialization Corporation of Pakistan, Pakistan Science Foundation (PSF), National Institute of Electronics (NIE), and National Institute of Oceanography (NIO). Sadly, most of these organisations are working without their permanent heads for long.

Similarly most of them are unable to develop, promote, absorb, adapt or adopt technology for commercial utilisation. This is mainly due to poor governance and financial constraints these organisations continue to face, or, more importantly, because of lack of thrust on linking activities with the industry’s technological requirements. Funding has always been a major issue for the ministry.

Total expenditure on PSDP (Public Sector Development Programme) projects in 2018-19 was a meager Rs2.042 billion, whereas the government has released Rs228 million until September 2019 under the 2019-20 PSDP. Total budgeted allocation under 2019-20 PSDP is Rs7.407 billion, which is almost two percent of total PSDP outlay of about Rs328 billion. However, the Minister for S&T has recently claimed that there has been a six-hundred percent increase in the development budget of the ministry. None of the 12 new projects, such as Mineral Resources on Assessment for Energy Storage Materials, National Centre for Research, Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Artificial Intelligence & Allied Technologies, and National Centre for Industrial Biotechnology etc., could take off physically as yet due to paucity of funds.

PCSIR, with its well-established and well-equipped laboratories across the country, is the foremost industrial R&D organisation. Some of its other units include the Institute of Industrial Electronics Engineering, Leather Research Centre, Fuel Research Centre, and Cast Metals & Foundry Technology, besides various training institutions. Nonetheless, there has not been a single R&D project taken up by the PCSIR since 2016-17.

In fact, most of the organisations under the ministry could not perform after 2017, and simply rely on their past performance and successes as the results of projects undertaken in later years are not visible. Alas, the last PCSIR Annual Report was published in 2014-15. Another example of gross negligence is that of the PCST, another R&D body, which had adopted the “National Research Agenda 2017” that was somehow never implemented.

Pakistan has an advanced industrial base and a growing domestic market which requires a renewed focus on development of new technologies, high-value addition and export-oriented industries. The world is witnessing major improvements in product design and processes, advancements of new materials, higher degree of automation, efficient production systems, and modernisation of environmental equipment. Higher technological level would result in enhanced productivity and quality production that could stimulate the exports, besides promoting import substitution. On the other hand, there is a need to identify the existing and new sciences and technologies globally to meet the key challenge of the futuristic advancements in other fields too, including agriculture, communications, transport, health systems, infrastructure, human resources and investments.

The government should enhance the national capability in S&T and accord high priority to integrated technological and industrial restructuring. Imports of plant machinery without access to technology should be discontinued forthwith, and, instead, investment, ensuring technology transfer, be encouraged. Utilisation of indigenous resources to the development and promotion of industrial sectors need to be accelerated. Also, strong information networks linking domestic and international sources of technology need to be set up, optimising local engineering design of industrial projects.

At the same time, the capability and capacity of the consulting firms be strengthened to involve them effectively in all industrial and infrastructure projects. We need to have access to R&D activities in other countries sharing with their industrial experiences and actively pursuing technology transfer and assimilation. Unfortunately, we are not utilising the available opportunities. The last meeting of the commission (COMSATS, the Commission on Science and Technology to Sustainable Development in the South, the Secretariat of which is permanently located in Islamabad) at the level of the ministers from 27 developing countries was held in April 2012. What a pity!

A major reason for the declining state of the S&T is the fact that the ministry was never given due recognition and importance by the successive governments. The ministry has seen as many as 44 ministers during the 57 years of its existence. For decades, the ministry top has never been from the professional engineers or scientists or acclaimed professionals. In the olden days, the legends like Ghulam Faruque and Air Marshal Nur Khan served as the ministers for S&T. Now for many years the minister is always a politician unrelated to the subject though almost all political parties have engineers and scientists in their folds. The federal secretary is always from among the bureaucrats, invariably without any professional degree or background of S&T.

Time and again, Prime Minister Imran Khan has emphasised the need for merit in the selection of ministers and other top brasses, but without earnest implementation. Earlier, he had Azam Khan Swati as the minister for S&T who was replaced by incumbent Chaudhry Fawad Hussain (the PM’s office shows the cabinet minister’s name as Fawad Ahmad). The present government has appointed internationally known Prof Dr Atta-ur-Rahman as Chairman of Pakistan Science and Technology, who was the federal minister for S&T during two tenures of 2000-2002 and 2003-2004, but, ironically, he has no role to play in the affairs of the ministry.

Even his name does not appear on the ministry’s website, what to mention of his activities, which are otherwise full of speeches and statements of the “Honorable Minister for Science & Technology in Pakistan” as Chaudhry Fawad Hussain would prefer to refer to himself. Interestingly, news and events of the ministry on its website also relate to the period during 2013 to 2017 as, obviously, it is void of current activities related to S&T.