Dr. Muhammad Ashraf was the predecessor Chairman of Pakistan Science Foundation (2015-2018). He believed in non-formal education for the development of science and technology knowledge and applied research. He developed a strong partnership among academia-industry, public-private sector, and other members of the civil society which are fundamental prerequisites for promoting science in the country. In an exclusive interview with Technology Times he shared his experience of three years tenure at Pakistan Science Foundation.
What are major achievements of your chairmanship tenure?
In my opinion, progress of any organizations is considered as achievement. My predecessors work according their capacity and their vision. When I joined Pakistan Science Foundation PSF, I found large room to work at PSF and both its sister organizations Pakistan Museum of Natural History PMNH and Pakistan Scientific Technological Information Center PASTIC.
There were administrative loopholes, working environment was not suitable, national and international projects were not focused, MoUs were not implemented, knowledge was not shared and so on.
That is why I mainly focused on restructuring and then internationalization. Since, we all knew that financial resources are one the main hurdles for progress, specifically when you talk about science organizations in Pakistan. Due to shortage of funds, I concentrated more on international collaborations and coordination to seek their resource sharing.
I worked on this mission with the knowledge that we should collaborate with technologically advanced countries like China, Turkey, Iran and others. We have joint venture projects with them in which they support major part of the project. Right now, we have 85 international projects with sharing of 1.5 billion rupees.
My second target, when I took charge of PSF was Science Popularization – which is very close to my heart. There were outdated science caravans with obsolete equipment and knowledge. We refurbish old caravans and made them modernized and digitized, and transformed them into mobile science labs and hub of knowledge.
We have 9 science labs, installed with learning management system, which is very helpful for science students. Complete syllabus of practicals are installed in the labs. In’sha Allah, 10 new science labs will be included in the science caravans with in next six months.
Specifically, what projects you initiated for science popularization?
We started National Talent Farming Scheme in year 2015, in which we provide scholarship for 300 students from remote background. It’s a two-part scheme, matric to intermediate – which PSF is administrating, and then higher education – which is on part of Higher Education Commission. In its first part, matric students are inducted through a very tough and transparent system, and gradually they will be promoted to next part. Till today, we inducted 900 students in this project.
We strengthened International linkages programs, previously there is only one Olympiad program where Pakistani students were taking part, but now PSF is supporting five programs. Alhamdolillah, our students are performing very well, there isn’t a single event where they didn’t win any prize or reward on their knowledge base.
We started first ever Science Popularizer Award along with Science Journalist Award. This will encourage other than scientist community to come forward for science popularization. And will help to bridge the gap of scientist and journalist community. Actually, I believe that a wholesome relationship of scientist and journalist will lead to popularize science in the society.
At the same time, we strive hard to increase the number of visitors at (PMNH) now they are double in comparison to 2015. There are new exhibits are at PMNH that include fish and geology. we also renovated the building, now you feel it a live environment.
Modernization and digitization of PASTIC is also on its way. The two very effective Public-Sector Development Programme (PSDP) projects, are ongoing; one “Women entrepreneurship in SAARC countries”, and other is “National Consortium of S&T libraries”. Our objective is to convert conventional libraries into digital one, not only at our centers but across Pakistan. So that, we can revive the role of libraries in our study culture.
To make PMNH more effective, it should be a separate organization. What do you think about this?
In my opinion, there are fifty-fifty chances, it may decline or may rise. It’s a matter of administration, if there is competitive person in frontline then it will rise otherwise it will decline. I gave freehand to both the organizations and devolved the powers to their own administration.
As far as, making PMNH separate entity, it is not possible at this time because of a technical reason. Museum is still in its development phase as a project. After completion it will definitely be a separate entity. We have initiated the completion process and instigated a technical study for structural support of old construction, which will lead to its completion. But certainly, it will take time and regular efforts.
With the passage of time, libraries trends are fading, in this scenario how would you see the future of PASTIC?
Libraries are the elementary part of study system, they are there, and always will always remain there, they will never-ever dead, but yes libraries need modernization. As far as PASTIC is concerned, we have strengthened the ICT (info-communication technology) department of PASTIC, and assigned task to:
- digitize all the books, journals and researches;
- developed data of all the organizations related to science and technology (S&T), individual scientists and engineers;
- develop database of all research and development (R&D) projects which have been done throughout the Pakistan since its independence (1947).
I must congratulate PASTIC team, they did very well on all given tasks. The foremost task was not only lengthy but very hectic, like sorting out projects (not only PSF funded, but each and every) done in past since 1947, and I’m proud of PASTIC team that they delivered. Now, these projects are easily available on PASTIC website.
What is the effectiveness of National Science Linkage Programme? And how it is growing?
Dating back in year 2007, when PSF received the Endowment Fund of PRs. 500 million, it was established that this fund will only be used for research funding and mutual cooperation in the field of Natural Sciences; and, PSF can only utilize the profit earned on the Endowment Fund for funding of research projects in Agriculture and related sciences for sustainable agricultural production with emphasis on enhanced benefits to the producers/farmers. This was start of National Science Linkage Programme (NSLP).
It is pertinent to mention that we are doing applied nature projects or demand-oriented projects which can directly benefit the society rather than basic research projects. I’m not against the basic research, but it is the time that a common person should harvest the benefits of the scientific and technological R&D.
About the growth of Endowment Fund; the volume of endowment fund was 500 million in 2007, but now it is 880 million. It is a great strength of PSF. During my tenure we used it very smartly, which resulted in many applied nature project, soon you will see the benefits of these projects.
What do you suggest for PSF?
I believe that adoption of scientific knowledge and appropriate technologies is a key to success I’ve left behind the legacy of societal change; my aim is to establish science centers in each province. In this regard PC-I is ready, it’s a matter of regular follow-up to achieve this.
Secondly, my target was to establish science museum in each province. Moreover, I have a wish-full dream to establish National Science School in Pakistan just like the chains of cadet schools. I’ve initiated the process, and hope that this dream will come true in future.
Don’t you think that National Museum of Science and Technology, Lahore should also be the part of PSF? Because it is more like old fashion, obsolete collection of exhibits.
Well, as per experience of PSF, we don’t have any kind of issue; rather we welcome this thought. Because, PSF have vast expertise of managing museum, as well as, we have qualified and trained staff. The liveliness of PMNH is the proof of their professionalism. But in my opinion, Museum of Science and Technology staff is sitting in a comfort zone that is why until now they are working as separate entity, and the Museum is not imparting effectively.
What is an ideal environment for Science Popularization? How much PSF is contributing?
Well there is a big room for PSF to popularize science currently only ten percent PSF is contributing. With the arrival of 10 new labs portfolio of PSF will be strong. With the time things will improve. For general public we are organizing popular science lectures in each center of PSF. We also organize national fairs which are increasing our outreach.
What are your comments for Technology Times:
I am the advocate of Technology Times everywhere. This publication is purely on Science and Technology knowledge, whereas in other newspapers Science and Technology doesn’t exists.
When I was in academia (previous to PSF), used to read every single word of Technology Times. And still go through all the pages. Its my firm believe that this is the first ever newspaper in the history of Pakistan who is imparting S&T in general public, effectively and efficiently. I wish you team all the best.