A personal tribute to Dr. Ishfaq Ahmad, N.I., H.I., S.I.
WITH PASSING away of Dr. Ishfaq Ahmad on 18th Jan. 2018, Pakistan lost an iconic scientific leader, who had been associated, directly or indirectly, with every significant development on Pakistan’s scientific scene for well over half a century. In particular, his name was synonymous with Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), where he served for more than four decades in various positions. Significantly, he started his service in PAEC in 1960 as a ‘Group Leader’ and subsequently occupied various posts of the rank of directorship or higher. So, it can be safely stated that he played a leadership role throughout his career in PAEC, although he was entrusted with the top-most slot of Chairmanship when he had already crossed 60. His dynamism as Chairman PAEC during a ten years’ tenure speaks volumes about his enormous energy and drive. In spite of an absolute lack of inclination for self-projection, his impact on the scientific community of Pakistan has always been conspicuous. Some of the stalwarts of science and technology in Pakistan owe their successful careers to his direct patronage or indirect support.
I first saw him when he interviewed me as an applicant for the post of Senior Scientific Officer in PAEC in 1980, resulting in my appointment in PINSTECH(1). With his second highest-most status in PAEC and my considerably junior position I could pay my respects to him only from a distance whenever there were occasions to see him in PAEC functions. Many years later, he got to know me personally, perhaps because of some good words that he heard about my work in Theoretical Physics Group at PINSTECH. As my career progressed and I occupied senior positions in PINSTECH, there were more and more occasions at which I could interact with him personally and observe multifarious aspects of his charismatic personality. He too, perhaps became more appreciative of my research work, leading to a mutually respectful bond of mentor and protégé. He encouraged me to play a role in CERN(2)-PAEC collaboration programmes, nudged me towards doing computer programming related to a classified project, backed me along with Dr. Aslam Baig(3) to get NCP(4) going during its nascent phase, confided me with his desire to enhance the presence of Pakistanis at ICTP(5) which gave me the confidence to get elected as President ICTP-Pakistan Chapter, welcomed me as a member of International Nathiagali Summer College organizing committee, endorsed my participation in a delegation to China for discussing broader research collaboration, and finally, even long after his retirement from PAEC, played a crucial role in my appointment as Executive Director COMSATS(6).
Apart from his tangible patronage, I found out that sometimes his mere words of encouragement were sufficient for someone to get energized. His mildly uttered suggestions starting with, “why don’t you…..” have made many to spring into action and achieve something substantial. I too had the occasions of being subjected to these alluring words, as in the case of organizing a seminar to celebrate the then newly adopted ‘World Science Day’ for the first time in Pakistan – a day which was included in the calendar of United Nations activities at his behest. During my visit to CERN at a time when major financial contribution by PAEC to CERN was being deliberated, he advised me to consult Dr. Muhammad Afzal, Minister (Technical), at the Permanent Mission of Pakistan to the United Nations in Geneva. Some years later I myself occupied Dr. Afzal’s post and played my role in advancing CERN-Pakistan collaboration. There were also occasions when I could not achieve what he desired; one of which was to establish a liaison office for Pakistan-IIASA(7) collaboration at COMSATS Headquarters. Considering that he influenced the working lives of hundreds of scientists in PAEC and in other organizations during his long and illustrious career, it will be no exaggeration to regard him as the ‘Master Mentor’ of Pakistan’s scientific elite. His uncanny ability of seeing far into the future and indefatigable spirit of getting things done was responsible for remarkable scientific programmes within PAEC and beyond. Perhaps no single person is fully abreast of his entire spectrum of contributions in the progress of science and technology in Pakistan. To get a glimpse of his far-sightedness imagine that at age 40, as Director Pakistan Atomic Energy Mineral Centre in Lahore, he initiated work on uranium processing that would form the basis of fuel fabrication and uranium enrichment. He strongly believed in acquiring all aspects of nuclear technology, both civil and military, and worked tirelessly to achieve these goals. With remarkable ability to create synergy among teams of workers engaged in diverse projects, he provided critically important leadership for completing required tasks with minimal resources. Pakistan was lucky to have him as Chairman PAEC when in 1998 the ultimate strategic threat to country’s survival knocked at its doors. A calm and composed custodian of nuclear deterrent assets did his job without making any ‘fatherhood’ claims.
Perhaps Dr. Ishfaq had more of a ‘motherhood’ instinct of caring, providing and protecting, both the ‘homes’ comprising of scientific institutions and the ‘children’ constituting scientific manpower. He never seemed to lose interest in listening to what was being done in academics and by whom, while constantly thinking about what could be done more and how. I witnessed him sitting in a restaurant at the foot of Adriatic Sea in Trieste(8), with the aroma of gourmet food all around, what he was engrossed with was not the barbequed fish in his plate, but the opportunities of research in the nearby Elletra Synchrotron(9) that had opened its doors for experimental research work through the good offices of ICTP. He asked the host of the dinner, Dr. Faheem Hussain(10), to arrange my visit to the facility so that I could disseminate relevant information to researchers at PINSTECH. He was ever ready to meet Pakistani ICTP Associates(11) when he happened to be in Trieste, and to hear about their research work with keen interest. The easy-going blend of his questions, remarks and advice, would visibly create an aura of confidence among his audience of all age groups. When it came to making speeches in a big gathering or narrating an incident to a few individuals, there was hardly any change in his style. With enviable memory and remarkable ease with words, he would recount long past events in a mellow voice, interjected by caution, stress or comments that would absolutely mesmerise the listeners. With a treasure trove of information locked in his mind, it was not surprising that he was prone to digressing into secondary topics, but never failing to recover his main theme in an effortless manner.
I have very little knowledge of how he interacted with his seniors but I guess he must have been very respectful to Mr. Munir Ahmad Khan(12). Speaking at the farewell function of Mr. Khan, organized in PINSTECH auditorium, he paid rich tributes to the departing Chairman and added that he would always be “our Chairman”. However, what he expressed most openly was his admiration and regard for Prof. Abdus Salam. He also shared with me a couple of incidents in which Salam admonished him for some reasons, but he recalled these occasions with full understanding and respect for Salam’s feelings. He took strong exception to the much touted narrative that Salam is denigrated in Pakistan because of his faith. In a lounge conversation, Dr. Ishfaq noted that the actions of a few fanatics or the opinions of a relatively small group of people cannot be construed to define the attitude of the entire nation. Pakistan has conferred its highest civil award on Salam, issued commemorative stamp with his portrait, awarded honorus causa degrees, his birthday is celebrated every year, and there is hardly any scientific activity in Pakistan which is not accompanied by eulogizing his colossal status in the world of science. With an air of satisfaction, he added that Prof. Salam had four major wishes with respect to scientific progress in Pakistan, and all four have been materialized. First, he wanted that renowned scientists from across the world should be invited in an annual summer college. That came to be in the form of International Nathiagali Summer College, which has been held with great regulatory, with ever new themes, since 1976. Second, he wanted a permanent ICTP-like institution in Pakistan that could provide the physicists of Pakistan a base for training and research at the cutting edge of science and emerging technologies. This advice was realized in the form of National Centre for Physics located in the vicinity of Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. Third, he wished that a prize be given annually to outstanding physicists out of the proceeds of his Nobel Prize money. Thus ‘Salam Prize’ for physics and mathematics was instituted and is given to Pakistani scientists every year. Finally, he wanted Pakistan to play a leadership role for the promotion of science and technology in developing countries. Pakistan lived up to his expectations and successfully launched COMSATS. The Secretariat of this international organization focussing on sustainable development in the South is hosted by the Government of Pakistan, which also bears its recurring establishment expenses. These are the most significant and enduring tributes paid to Salam by Pakistani scientific community, and these are the ones that should define Salam’s status in Pakistan. With characteristic modesty, Dr. Ishfaq Ahmad did not mention that he played a significant role in all these achievements.
In general, Pakistanis lack the psyche of glorifying individuals who make exceptional intellectual and scientific contributions. Dr. Ishfaq Ahmad has to his credit an unmatched array of outstanding achievements in his different roles as Chairman PAEC, Advisor to the Chief Executive, Advisor to the Prime Minister, Senior Advisor to the Planning Commission of Pakistan, President of the Pakistani Academy of Sciences, and he is the recipient of numerous honours and awards including the highest civil award of Pakistan, Nishan-i-Imtiaz, but his unassuming nature and shyness of media exposure had prevented him to be idolized as a scientific hero. May be, now that he is no more, his contributions to Pakistan would be adequately highlighted; thereby, projecting him as a role-model par excellence, for younger generations.
The author is Former Chief Scientist, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), and Former Executive Director COMSATS.
- Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology at Nilore near Islamabad, is the R&D flagship facility of PAEC.
- European Organization for Nuclear Research, with its French acronym CERN is located at the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland.
- Dr. Baig has been the Chairman, Physics Department in Quaid-i-Azam University.
- National Centre for Physics, Quaid-i-Azam University campus, Islamabad.
- The ‘International Centre for Theoretical Physics’ founded by Pakistani Nobel laureate, Prof. Abdus Salam. Now it has been named after him as ‘AS-ICTP’.
- COMSATS is the acronym of ‘Commission on Science and Technology for Sustainable development in the South’. It is an international organization with 24 developing countries as its Member States.
- The ‘International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis’ (IIASA) is a non-governmental research organizations based in Austria.
- The Italian City of Trieste in northern Italy is the home of AS-ICTP.
- Elettra is an Italian third-generation synchrotron radiation facility located on the outskirts of Trieste, which has been operational since 1993.
- Professor Fahim Hussain served as staff scientist at AS-ICTP from 1990 to 2004. He was initially associated with Diploma Programme and later became Head of ICTP’s Office of External Activities.
- ‘Associate’ is a designation used for a scientist who has been selected to visit ICTP periodically for a certain number of years.
- Mr. Munir Ahmad Khan was appointed as Chairman PAEC in 1972 and served in this capacity for 19 years.