It is important to demonstrate to the wider public why science is relevant to their daily lives and to engage them through debate and dialogue on related issues, helping to establish a relation between science and society.
Media engagement for building awareness among the masses is among the most daunting challenges of Science popularization in Pakistan. Some important resolutions require addressing the ailing S&T sectors of nations of the South for adopting a scientific culture, and benefitting from the outpour of knowledge economy could be as below.
Higher investments in science
The most profitable venture is investing in science. Countries that have invested heavily in Education and Science reaped benefits of fast economic growth, a fact which is now an open secret for the rest. Pakistan needs to push for bigger investments in riskier new areas for bigger returns. Some of the key areas have already been identified in the current S&T policy including nanotechnology, computation science and renewable energy. However, the gross spending on R&D (GERD) is an important marker which can help track how much is being invested in the future of science. It is shamefully low at the moment and needs generous review.
Priorities relevant areas of S&T
In order to capitalize on its meager financial commitments to the sector and its immense human resource, it is imperative for Pakistan to identify and achieve consensus over its priority areas that are most pertinent to its development and economic needs. While a focus on applied sciences and technology is required, this must not be at the cost of abandoning excellence in basic scientific research. After all innovation is strongly linked with knowledge creation capacity in basic sciences.
Aim for an innovation-based economy
Leaders of the global economies innovate and draw the fruit of invention through intellectual property enforcement, and move on to innovate further. Countries that lack this capacity have to buy innovations from advanced countries and have to put them on the production line. Our focus must also be on innovating and generating patents in our priority areas. This makes the role of universities that are the true centres of innovation in Pakistan ever more important. A weak patent enforcement, offers the least reward for innovation, particularly in the area of ICTs, where Pakistan has immense potential to catch up with the rest of the world.
Encourage entrepreneurship in science
Gone are the days when science remained just in the lab or in theory books, today science is creating value that can be sold as products and solutions. Instead of trying to create jobs, the government should enable people to create jobs for themselves as well as others. Industries that once used to house, expensive R&D laboratories, now hunt for ideas in colleges and universities through various competitions.
Science Parks are places where industry comes close to the lab, or where the labs open up to the industry. Such initiatives of scientists doing R&D in the private sector, with labs affiliated with universities have still to take off in Pakistan. Moreover a comprehensive tax rebate policy is required for promoting spin-offs or startup businesses emerging in incubation centres created by the HEC in various universities.
Expand science media for Science Communication
In order to educate the masses, and to present a softer image of the country to the world, science media certainly needs the patronage of the government. In a Seminar on Science Communication and Journalism, held in April 2015, the then Federal Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, urged the media to allocate at least 5% of the media space to scientific news. This was a welcome step, for the scientific community, however it was not followed up by commitments from the Media regulatory authorities to urge electronic and print media to give time to science communication. Moreover encouraging dialogue through these media among the scientific community would help nurture confidence in scientists for solving real world problems.
Science at the center stage of Public Diplomacy
Pakistani politicians are faced with huge challenges in public diplomacy, despite being essentially required, issues like the Kalabagh dam, nuclear or coal based power plants, routes of important road networks, water distribution among provinces and land reclamation, tend to get shrouded in political controversy. Science offers viable solutions in all these potential conflict scenarios, which may be acceptable for all, and so deserves to be put on the center stage in matters of public diplomacy. While office bearers can be trained in simple scientific advancements, a nexus between the scientific community and public policy officials can also be created by creating official forums for consultation on important development matters.
Use science for national integration
Science can attract human resource regardless of their background, provincial ethnicity, creed or caste, therefore has an important role to play in creating harmony within the country, through scientific exchanges. In Europe for instance, researchers design cross-boundary projects, according to a European framework so as to promote harmony within their member countries.
Scientific resources and centers of excellence must also be diffused geographically on these lines rather than concentrating them in dense population centers. This will not only help in bridging differences but also enable wider understanding of human issues beyond geographic boundaries between provinces. In the long run such established bridges will cement national harmony, reduce resentments to the equitable access of these resources.
Patronize Science Diplomacy initiatives
The leadership role of Pakistan in Science advocacy came right from the time of Abdus Salam, and over the years, Pakistan has held the flag of promoting science based diplomacy in OIC countries, ECO and SAARC regions, as well as countries of the South at large.
Due to its visionary scientific leadership, Pakistan drew several fold benefits from its early interventions, and knowledge sharing exercises, with both developed as well as developing countries. This enabled participation of its Scientists to get exposed to Big Science ventures like CERN and SESAME as well as address its security needs through the linkages developed over years.
The fact that Islamabad hosts secretariats of three international scientific diplomatic organizations, including COMSTECH (57 member states), ECO Science Foundation (10 member countries), and COMSATS (24 member states), is not only a matter of distinction for a developing country. A strong scientific community in the country will help keep Pakistan connected with the rest of the world.
In order to continue this leadership role, it is imperative for the government to increase support for these “Science Diplomacy” initiatives, which are silently working towards achieving our foreign policy objectives and promoting a peaceful and progressive image of Pakistan. While Pakistani Engineers and Scientists have remained prominently placed on ‘Big Science’ projects like CERN, it’s time for us to enter into new Big Science Projects like the ITER, which offer unlimited clean energy, making it relevant to our problems with producing energy.
Promote partnership among scientific organizations
Despite having several organizations with distinct mandates, there is very little cooperation within the scientific community, governed by the Ministry of Science and Technology. Most organizations like PCRET are suffering from a lack of technical manpower, others with a lack of initiative or resources. While some of these issues can be overcome through engaging in partnership, the organizations need a heavy dose of investment followed by accountability to get back into business. The organizations must resolve to initiate at least one new collaborative project every year where their expertise and capacity can be put to test.
Pakistan has been endowed with immense resources within its geography, but its biggest asset is perhaps the diaspora that rests outside. In order to turn around their scientific sectors and economy, China in the 80’s and 90’s and India most recently effectively mobilized their diaspora.
The HEC in Pakistan also started a program to attract foreign professors, which was later shelved due to lack of resources. This program also came under immense criticism due to lack of review and accountability. Despite its shortcoming the program successfully invited many world class professors to join Pakistani varsities in a time when these institution were fast growing under the dynamic leadership of Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman. Although some very successful examples came from this foreign faculty program, it was sadly abandoned.
Pakistan spends around 3.5% of its GDP on Defense, while only 2.5% on Education, the spending on Research and Science & Technology is far less, yet it was these scientists in 2015, who based on sound scientific data, were able to extend the Pakistani continental shelf claim, giving Pakistan sovereign rights over additional area of 50,000sq km beyond Pakistan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Thus increasing Pakistan’s maritime area from 240,000 sq km to about 290,000 sq km. Something that could not have been accomplished through military means.
The direction we take today, while repositioning Pakistan in the new world order, will largely influence the lifestyle of our people in the coming decades. Science and Technology have been fundamental in the growth and progress of all nations and we must use this day to appreciate that the link between Science, Policy and Society is one that holds the key to the bright future of our nation.
Abdul Majid Qureshi is an Islamabad based S&T Management Professional with an interest in Science for Socioeconomic Development. He is currently working as Assistant Manager at the Office of Research Innovation and Commercialization, COMSATS University Islamabad, and was formerly associated with COMSATS Secretariat. He tweets @amqureshi83.