What do you think is the factor behind our backwardness in the country?
Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman: The first thing to understand is that we live in a knowledge driven world. The nations which have realized this have invested in strengthening their human resource through education and have made rapid progress. There are four pillars of progress in the modern era, education, science and technology, innovation and entrepreneurship and good governance. At present we are in the bottom seven countries of the world that spend less than two percent of their GDP on education. Implementing the four pillars requires commitment from the top leadership. A special interest from the President and the Prime Minister is required to keep a continuous watch whether specified targets of the strategic transformation plans from agriculture to knowledge driven economy are being achieved or not. Imparting education of science and technology and engineering is very important as it allows better utilization from machines and making new machines to enhance output and its quality. We have to create opportunities for the young population to tap their potential. Private sector too has to play an important role as they are currently not funding research initiatives of the universities.
Why do we always end up with strategic plans on the table without bothering to implement them?
Yes actually, this is the main question. We have no dearth of experts in every field but somehow we fail to implement strategic plans. As I have already said it requires commitment from the top leadership. We have already done a grave mistake by abandoning the National Commission on Science and Technology. It was the only science and technology forum chaired by the Chief Executive of the country. Such kind of forum exists in every country and even in India it is chaired by the Prime Minister. But alas we have lost science and technology as our national priority; in 2002 we have utilized a budget of Rs. 6 billion for the sector which sadly was only Rs 600 million in 2010. We have reduced our spending 10 times in last eight years. You can well imagine the loss inflicted to the national economy if the government spending in the science and technology sector reduces. The higher education suffered the most with the massive cut in its allocation in the federal budget. In November 2010 an attempt was made to divide Higher Education Commission (HEC) and disperse it to provinces. What HEC had accomplished had even threatened the Indians, as a newspaper article titled, “Pakistan’s threat to Indian Science” in Hindustan Times in 2006 said that Pakistan would soon overtake India in the science and technology due to the efforts of HEC. Advisor to Indian Prime Minister on Science and Technology C.M.R. Rao was quoted to have told the PM in a briefing. In December 2011, the Indian parliament approved setting up of the National Commission for Higher Education and Research. They got this idea from Pakistan’s HEC and it will be replacing their university grants commission. India is following us while we are disbanding our most successful institution.
What are the reasons for less funding by the government?
According to Transparency International, in Pakistan Rs. 8,000 billion have ended up in corruption since 2008. We can accept this to happen year after year, but, we could not allocate Rs 8 billion for the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). This clearly reflects our national priorities. During the year 2002 to 2008, when I was heading HEC we increased the total number of higher education enrollment from 275,000 students to 803,000 students. The output of 500 publications in research journals was enhanced 10 times to 5,000 by 2010. We increased the research funding of the universities and now many of our universities are in the international top ranking lists. The Royal Society of London has recently recommended Pakistan’s HEC as a model for adoption for other developing countries if they want to bridge the gap. We managed to put country’s first satellite, PakSat in the orbit by spending only $4.5 million. The point I am trying to stress is that you need professionals and professionalism to move forward. There is no scarcity of financing. The scarcity of will can stop your progress but not the lack of funding.
How the Ministry of Science and Technology could be made more effective?
As I have said already that the promotion of science and technology could only take place in the society with the commitment of the leadership. We require professionals in the ministry to draft a national plan to promote science and technology in all sectors and fields. When I was Minister for Science and Technology I used to invite applications from all ministries for specific science and technology projects that used to be funded by the ministry.
What in your opinion is the best way to promote academia-industry linkages?
In my opinion the best approach in this regard is a demand-driven approach. Instead of public sector universities themselves coming up with research projects they should seek suggestions from the industry. Under such a program launched by the ministry under my tenure, projects used to get 80 per cent financing from the government while industry used to bear 20 per cent cost. It is an important program as it establishes a relationship between industry and academia. The reposing of trust in academia by the local industry enhances its research prospects.
Do you think that universities should have reverse engineering boards?
Yes, I think the universities should have facilities for reverse engineering. It is very important to train students. It should be at least in every engineering university so that the students could have a better understanding on the product design and its operations and functions. If such facilities are provided in some of the government departments involved in manufacturing then they could utilize it to upgrade quality of the existing products and also for the import substitution.
Don’t you think that many universities are doing same research work?
No, this is not true. What you consider duplication may not be duplication as it may appear they are researching on same things but a close look will show that the research is on different lines. Even if they are researching on similar products there is no need to worry as even one discovery will be in the benefit of the whole mankind.
Do you foresee any scientist from the Islamic world getting Nobel Prize in future?
So far we have no scientist from the Islamic world, who has achieved the prestigious Nobel Prize. We have two Muslim scientists who have won the honor but they are from the developed world. Only four Muslims are currently members of the Royal Society London, and I am the only one who has worked altogether in the Islamic world which has been awarded the fellowship.
Do you think that teaching science and technology in our mother tongue can be beneficial?
Yes it can be but only at the primary to middle level, for higher learning you need to learn English as more than 90 per cent of scientific literature is available in this language only.
Any message for the readers?
I have been thinking for a number of years on how to bring Pakistan out of its crisis. The first conclusion in my opinion is that we should take steps to immediately abolish the feudal system from the country. Secondly, I have come to the conclusion that the remedy for many of Pakistan’s problems lies in converting to a Presidential form instead of a parliamentary form of government. It has many advantages as a directly elected President would be free to choose his own ministerial team consisting of professionals. I advised General Pervez Musharraf during his tenure, to hold a referendum with this question and that he would get an overwhelming response from the people. The autonomous bodies should select the people from the same department or people having relevant experience and it should have complete powers for hiring and firing.