By Dr Saleem H Ali

THERE IS much to lament about the state of education in Pakistan and concerns have rightfully been aired in these pages about the decline in primary education and the radicalization of the curriculum. However, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel for Pakistan’s scientific development, and particularly its leadership in science within the Muslim world – especially since Islam is likely to remain an inextricable part of the national identity.

My cautious optimism in this regard was prompted by a presentation I attended by Dr Felicitas Pauss, the head of International Relations at CERN (acronym from Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire). This is the same organization where the famed “god particle” – the Higgs boson – was tentatively observed earlier this year. In one of the slides being presented by Dr Pauss, there was a demographic of all the countries who are users of CERN’s facilities. The largest number of CERN users was expectedly from places like the United States, Russia, and European countries. What surprised me, however, was that there were 38 registered users listed as Pakistani nationals within the approximately 10,000 or so CERN users.

Despite being a low number on a per capita basis, this was an astonishingly high number in comparison with most other Muslim countries, which is a sad commentary on the state of basic science in Muslim societies these days. For example the world’s largest Muslim country Indonesia had only one researcher. Turkey, which has official ‘observer’ status under the CERN charter agreement because of its European proximity had 127 users – the largest of any Muslim majority country. Pakistan had the next highest number (indeed Pakistan had the highest among states which are officially Islamic – since Turkey is officially a secular state).

At the face of it Pakistan’s “score of 38” seems like a superficial statistic but if we think about what this means more carefully, it is a remarkable number. Training a physicist to that level of expertise so as to have affiliation at CERN suggests some level of accomplishment within our higher education system. Flawed for sure that it is, there are tenacious senior academics such as Dr Asghar Qadir and rising young stars such as Dr Sabieh Anwar who have committed to stay in Pakistan and train young Pakistanis in science.

The legacy of Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate Dr Abdus Salam also continues to attract young Pakistani physicists through the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) which is housed at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste Italy.

Whatever the motivating factors, Pakistan’s leadership as a centre of relative excellence in scientific productivity within the Muslim world, should be leveraged more directly by the country through organizations such as the Islamic Scientific Educational and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). Thus far ISESCO has been poorly resourced and has been largely a conference forum. Inordinate amounts of money are instead being spent by Muslim nations such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to attract foreign universities to open campuses in Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Education City in Doha itself has cost the Qatari government at least $33 billion.

In comparison, even relatively small donations of a few million dollars, under the auspices of ISESCO, to specific science research centres at Pakistani universities that possess the human capital to excel, could get far more efficient mileage than opening greenfield campuses. Students from other parts of the Muslim world could be encouraged to gain training at these centres, with specific focal areas of applied research, that could be most consequential for Pakistan’s development needs – for example, renewable energy research; efficient electrical grid design and development; and wastewater treatment technologies.

The Pakistani diaspora could be involved in fundraising for such an effort, particularly the numerous entrepreneurs who now live overseas and have the resources to leverage research projects related to their industries. Research in Pakistan could have the same low-cost competitive advantage that has spurred our neighbour’s India’s university establishments in recent years. Indeed, scientific collaboration between India and Pakistan should also be a seminal part of such an initiative – specially noting the enormous population of Muslim scientists within India.

Science can be Pakistan’s salvation from its current turmoil. Each time I visit the country, I am just as impressed with many brought young students who greet me with probing scientific questions; as much as I am troubled by many closed-minded “scholars” who still hold sway at the behest of theological primacy in the country. Finding a productive path to channel Pakistan’s religious fervour towards scientific advancement is desperately needed. The good news is that we already have a head-start if we only get motivated to run the race for scientific excellence.

The writer is a Professor and Research Director at the University of Queensland, Australia.