Dr. Manzoor Hussain Soomro is playing a vibrant role as Chairman PSF with initiating multiple research programmes in collaboration with other organizations. Winner of the Presidential Quaid-i-Azam Scholarship for PhD. and the ‘Overseas Research Students Award’, Dr. Soomro, during his stay at PARC, played a leading role in developing disease management technology to control potato disease. He has launched a nationwide programme to create awareness among students and general masses in rural areas through arranging four Mobile Science Exhibitions. Dr. Manzoor Soomro is associated with Pakistan Science Foundation for the last 17 years while remaining on various senior management positions including Chief Scientific Officer, Director General Pakistan Museum of Natural History and PASTIC.
What is PSF’s mandate and how much you have achieved till now?
DR. MANZOOR HUSSAIN SOOMRO: The Pakistan Science Foundation, established in 1973, has the mandate of popularizing and promoting science in Pakistan. We have been emphasizing to continue to fund basic and fundamental researches as it promotes and supports the scientific community to explore and break new grounds. For this, we need to support exploratory research. At the same time we also allocated some funds for projects of applied nature, because if we totally leave it to scientific community-scientists and engineers to find it themselves, then that becomes rather slow and very often ineffective. Thus to expedite that process, we get projects prepared in consultation with industry and researchers together for addressing the issues of industry and thereby ensure utilization and commercialization of research results right away. I strongly feel that scientific thinking must be inculcated in children at the earliest possible age, thus we ensure promotion of science at school level. Since 1986, a number of science caravans and other popular programmes have been arranged for the promotion of this non-formal education system. But, during the past two years, I personally took the responsibility, emphasizing more on it. We have joined hands with some international partners to promote this system. We have also signed an MoU with the French Academy of Sciences after setting up the inquiry based scientific knowledge generation system. We have also arranged several exhibitions for awareness of our people and to enhance their understanding of scientific concepts around them. Generally, in our country, the senior scientists and/or officers are selected for training abroad. But we have also provided the same facility to technicians. We are not in any competition with anyone. We are a national organization and we catalyze, motivate and facilitate other institutions, communities and groups for contribution to development of society and economy through promotion of science and technology. The National Academy of Young Scientists (NAYS) can be the best example of it. This organization basically consists of students who have organized themselves to perform various activities. We are supporting them, patronizing them, sharing our experience with them, involving senior scientists and engineers.
We are lacking in research commercialization. How do you address this issue?
In our model, we have demonstrated that researchers should not simply do it for the sake of research. We think this is the best way, that the researcher should involve the industry or the end-user while planning for it. When the industry shares with us that they have issues where R&D is required, then we invite them and the researchers to work together with us and at that stage the Pakistan Science Foundation provides financial support and an environment of need-based research can is established. We also encourage industry to co-finance the R&D in their own interest. This programme is going on reasonably well.
Generally we found a distance between scientists and society. Do you agree this? If yes, what steps you are taking to bridge this gap?
Yes, this is an important point to ponder over. Since the start of specialization era, there were many famous Muslim scientists such as Al-Beruni and many great mathematicians and scholars who belonged to the time of 700 A.D. to 1000 A.D. But if you notice them, they were specialists in almost every field. There is a trend in our society that when an elder person orders us to do some work, we start doing it right away without thinking as to why this task has been given to us! Same example is for a teacher in a school, a senior officer in an office or for a boss of a company. While performing the given task, our mind is not used, rather we are just doing it mechanically like a machine. Whereas we are humans- the “Ashraf-ul-makhlooqat” and we must go for the critical thinking of which I talked previously. I think this approach will give way to advancement. My field may be medics but I should think not only about it but for other fields as well because if you practically notice, you will see that there is nothing in isolation because everything in the nature is working together, practically all sciences together in harmony.
I think the only method to address this issue is to discuss that we should practically think, ask ourselves questions and then perform an action.
PSF have funded many industrial research projects, which have benefitted the country. How many patents PSF have filed yet?
This is also very interesting that no record was kept for the patent files. Around two years before, when I took over as Chairman PSF, I decided to not only qualtify patents through PSF funded projects but also promote filing of patents by the researchers. However, some applied nature projects of ours implemented in the previous two years have obtained over 10 industrial patents. It may not be a great deal but it is an important step and this is only the start. Now, we have started conducting workshops giving answers to all related questions. Now Pakistan Science Foundation has started awarding R&D gold medals named after the founder chairman of Pakistan Science Foundation Dr. Z. A. Hashmi, in which we have put forward the criteria of patents as well.
Science clubs plays a key role to promote science culture in society. What services PSF is offering to supports these clubs?
In fact science club is a voluntary setup and if it’s a school club, then there is a continuous process; children will come and pass and the club will keep running but in this whole process teacher plays a big role. We are promoting science clubs in schools and since the last year, we are going steadily because there is a financial impact involved. So, we have strengthened the inquiry based science education programme by linking science club initiative with IBSE. First we train the teachers and then they go for practical exercises and experiments to teach the students. For the skill enhancement of students, we again call teachers to the Foundation and conduct a session followed by repeated visits to the relevant schools. This activity was done with 30 schools and 25 science clubs have been established in 25 out of these 30 schools and are now registered with the Foundation. Not like the NGOs where they get registered with the community welfare department or a company. I think they do not require joining any voluntary or nonprofit organization which promotes education. But for clubs such as National Academy of Young Scientists (NAYS) which has a lot of networking but no registration, I encouraged them to register because they are doing an excellent job and they have been registered very recently as per the company act of 1860. Now they can ask for donations and perform audits and Pakistan Science Foundation will continue to support them.
As far as financial support is concern; some seed money is also given to the science clubs started in schools, they can arrange for their basic needs. Frankly speaking, teacher or the mentor of the club has a big role in these clubs. Money is not a big issue as you don’t need much for this activity. Besides, school funding can also help although it is a bit less in remote area schools. But the teachers, parents and the students can handle this. Nevertheless, Pakistan Science Foundation has provided Rs. 25,000 seed money to each club and in terms of training and acknowledgment, we are giving an incentive to the teachers as well so that they can patronize it.
Presently, we are only patronizing the government school clubs. But in the private sector, some people have approached us and we can at least provide them guidelines and the material & literature.
Education in general, and specailly Science education in rural areas is very low. How PSF is popularising Science Education in these areas?
Generally, it is thought that there is less talent in rural areas. But I think these areas have much talent with fewer opportunities. Though there is an issue of opportunities, yet in such environment, our science caravan programme along with other initiatives such as the science essay competition and the science poster designing competition are highlighted and children are encouraged through it. When it comes to opportunities then they are very less. But if you notice the science and technology disciplines and organizations, the success stories would mostly relate to individuals from rural areas. Here comes a big role of government, the education, the teachers as well as the parents to see which opportunities are being provided to the children. So there is a lot of hidden talent in rural areas we just need to discover it.
Although we have talented youth but today there is no big name from the young scientists. What is reason?
I think there are two reasons. One is that there has been a gap for quite some time. In early times, people used to opt for science subjects but now they prefer commerce, management sciences, bureaucracy and politics. Even many engineers and medical students, on which a lot of money is spent by the government, move to other fields. I think there is nothing wrong in this but the good researchers having excellent basic qualifications, skills and qualities, move to other fields to gain the necessities of life. Consequently, many people began to lose interest in scientific activities. However, I think it is wrong to say that there are no young scientists. Through the National Academy of Young Scientists (NAYS), we have started an award programme in which we award very young scientists (probably below 30) who have done some pretty good works. On this, we want to encourage them to advance and move ahead. The senior scientists should interact with the children so that they could get encouraged at a very early stage. Industries should not only teach and give exposure to the students of universities but they should also give exposure to the students of schools so that the talent in youth and their interest could be channelized. I think research is a key solution, no matter what field you choose to go to. At the same time, we interact with similar organizations around the globe and take advantage from programmes of each other. One thing we did was that we started our work on inquiry based education with France which is going on successfully as I mentioned earlier. I have also declared the Pakistan Museum of Natural History as secretariat for the UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme and we have set up a programme of action with the UN agency. Seeing the long term friendship between China and Pakistan, we signed an MoU with the National Science Foundation of China in 1992. Lately, under the 17th S&T Protocol signed between the two countries PSF has initiated two collaborative projects, one for development of indigenous biopesticides.
What are the benefits of ECO Science Foundation to Pakistan?
Pakistan can benefit from this in two ways. We can reach those science brains which had played a vibrant role in making the Soviet Union the super power of the world. The second is that they have some weak sectors which I think can be filled through our scientific community. Our scientific community can get engaged in their activities. When it comes to the relation with Turkey then this country is the gateway to Europe and it has great strength. In cases of disaster management, earthquakes, medical treatment etc. we can benefit from them. We can also benefit from Iran’s biodiversity, ecology, climate change, science popularization, technology parks, cognitive science and many more areas.
In developed world Academia-Industr liaison is the key of their progres. Why we didn’t concentrated on it?
Yes, this is absolutely right. In fact, the scientific and industrial research organization – PCSIR (Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research), which had run its operations for many years, did interact with the industries but it treated academia and industrial research separately. Throughout its earlier years, it continued supporting the industries, and in my opinion, some PCSIR scientists and engineers still support industry but off the record! Realizing the need, PSF took this initiative in recent past and begun the activities by involving the industry right from the planning stage and we have demonstrated that it is very much possible to work together with industry. There can be seen some positive signals especially from entrepreneurs to engage and collaborate with researchers for enhancing efficiency of their industry. However, we have been badly constrained by lack of funding as industrial research requires more funding. Nevertheless, our defense related R&D has done excellent job but the need is now to use that expertise and facilities for civil economic development as has been done around the world. If you look at Europe, the defense production research work was diverted for civil economic development after the World War II and establishment of United Nations in 1945. They based their industrial and other sectors on the experiences and expertise gained for defense R&D. And the overall society got education in all fields leading to economic development. I think we can do even better that the Europe as we have a huge wealth of “human resource” in Pakistan. But a strong political will with financial resources would be a key requirement to engage the huge human resource for economic development. One other point I would like to say is that our defense R&D showed great success for two reasons: one, the institutions like PAEC were trusted and given required funds and the other, scientists and engineers of PAEC do not have to worry about their career and salary/perks enhancement as they have an excellent system provided. I think the perks and privileges of other S&T organizations should also be brought at par with PAEC and you can see the progress.
PSF science media cell activities seems stagnant. What is your opinion?
No, it is not true. If you see, the science promotion unit of PSF, it was established only two years ago. It is a small unit having only two people. There is hardly any iota of doubt that media plays a very strong role in highlighting the science research. Our unit has now started working. We have recently held a science media forum for which recommendations were obtained after many years. Then a workshop was held where journalists were trained about scientific reporting. Then scientists were trained how they can write their research findingsfor the media.
We have already signed some MoUs with media outlets to promote our activities taking place not only in Pakistan Science Foundation but also any activity related to science and technology in many other organizations. We have plan for instituting some Science Journalism Awards and for popular scientific writings by the scientists but that requires more funding and that is little handicap!
What are your comments about Technology Times?
No doubt, it is a significant addition in the national publications. I would rather say that it is the first sole newspaper in the country which widely covers science and technology sector activities and research in addition to other sectors like agriculture, environment and information technology. It is a marvelous effort by all the team members of the publication and I wish them good luck.