Proper funding can make science and technology turnaround in Pakistan: Dr. Qureshi
Brief our readers about COMSATS?
Dr. I.E. Qureshi: COMSATS stands for the Commission on Science and Technology for Sustainable Development in the South. The Commission is a high level autonomous inter-governmental organization with 21 Countries in 3 Continents as its Members. There are commissions that work under the United Nations and also under the national authorities but COMSATS is an independent international Commission. Its members include heads of states or governments; of course they can nominate their representatives for the meetings. The idea behind this was to have a very high level body in which the developmental issues of the member countries could be discussed and relationship for scientific and technological cooperation could be developed. The countries who joined the Commission considered the capacity building in SandT sector as the essential component of socio-economic development agenda.
I would put it in a very broad perspective to let the readers understand. The history of mankinds development is based on the juxtaposition of knowledge about the material world and useful implements necessary for human survival or improvement in quality of life. In modern parlance, the knowledge component is called science and the application of this knowledge to devise useful gadgets is called technology. The 18th Century industrial revolution was a turning point when institutionalized SandT activities started making major impact on the lives of the people. The nations at the leading edge of this revolution were able to control the natural resources not only in their own countries, but throughout the world by virtue of their dominance of the globe. Those nations who missed the opportunity to master SandT were left behind, leading to the present-day disparities.
I was looking at some figures available on the web-site of United Nations Population Fund according to which out of current world population of 6B, the poorest 20 per cent use only 1.3 per cent resources of the world while the richest 20 per cent consume 86 per cent of all goods and services. The population in the countries that have mastered science and technology are living comfortably while those who have made little progress in knowledge cannot properly utilize their own resources. The only solution available for them is to invest in education and science and technology infrastructure.
The Pakistan Nobel Laureate Dr. Abdus Salam was an ardent advocate of science and technology and used to advise every developing country to allocate their resources for scientific and technological development. COMSATS is actually the realization of Dr. Salams grand vision where the developmental gap between the North and the South was to be bridged by capacity building in science and technology in the developing countries. Dr Salam firmly believed that the world is inhabited by two species of humans – the developed and the developing. The difference lies in their mastery over science and technology. He had set up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste Italy so that the scientists from the developing world could come to the centre and do research. He felt very strongly for Pakistan and used to wonder why this sixth largest nation in the world was not doing enough to develop its science and technology capability for achieving economic progress. There was a need for an organization to promote science and technology cooperation and advancement in the developing countries. In 1994 a meeting was held to establish this organization. Initially, there were 16 countries but now it has 21 member countries from three continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
What are the major objectives of COMSATS?
In the foundation meeting of COMSATS held in 1994, there were a number of objectives outlined, which can be broadly distributed in three categories; (i) advocacy for resource allocation to develop SandT sector, (ii) SandT capacity-building through human resource development, and (iii) facilitation of SandT cooperation among Member States.
COMSATS has been sensitizing the leadership of Member Countries to accord a central role to SandT in their development programs and try to achieve a target of 2 per cent of GDP expenditure on RandD.
For COMSATS international programmes, a superb mechanism was devised in the Foundation Meeting; namely, the creation of a Network of Centres of Excellence in Member States. These Centres are reputed RandD organizations in their natural capacities, however, by virtue of their affiliation as COMSATS Network Member, they agree to participate in scientific exchange programmes, training and technology-transfer whenever feasible. COMSATS affiliation provides impetus to the Centres to enhance their standards and attract local and international funding in view of their international role.
COMSATS has started an ambitious plan of undertaking research on key scientific issues relevant to socio-economic development, by constituting International Thematic Research Groups. As part of COMSATS five year strategy, it is envisaged to launch 10 groups with the participation of our Centres of Excellence.
What is the relationship between COMSATS and government of Pakistan?
COMSATS is an inter-governmental organization with Pakistan having a special status of being the host country of the organization. As per International Agreement, the COMSATS Secretariat will remain permanently in Pakistan, where as the Chairperson of COMSATS can be the Head of State/ Government of any Member Country. Pakistan has provided land for the building of Commission Secretariat and made a commitment to bear all recurring expenses of the secretariat. So Pakistan has a very strong role. As far as our interaction with other countries is concerned, it occurs through relevant ministries. Head of the member states nominate a relevant ministry, called focal point, to interact with the Commission. The head of the focal ministry is member of the consultative committee of the Commission. This is where we get political patronage and administrative support from member countries. Ministry of Science of Technology (MoST) is our focal point in Pakistan. Secretary MoST is the convener of the consultative committee. The Government of Pakistan had a very important role as until a month back Prime Minister of Pakistan was Chairperson of COMSATS. Now chairpersonship has moved on to Ghana for the next three years. We rely on MoST being our focal point while they rely on us for international scientific contacts.
How COMSATS paid back to Pakistan?
The Government of Pakistan has been generously funding COMSATS since its inception. In April this year, the Prime Minister of Pakistan while inaugurating 2nd Commission Meeting announced the establishment of a $ 10M Endowment Fund for COMSATS with Pakistans contribution of US $ 1M. It was a great gesture by the Government of Pakistan. In the early 1990s, IT had started transforming the developed world and Pakistan was far behind. COMSATS decided to establish an educational institute called COMSATS Institute of Information Technology (CIIT) to start producing properly trained manpower. And for introducing Internet, we had decided to set up COMSATS Internet Services (CIS). The basic aim was to introduce ICT in Pakistan. We have achieved overwhelming success as CIIT, in less than a decade, has turned into a degree awarding public-sector university, at present having more than 20,000 students. The CIS has played a major role in the promotion of Internet services. I think, these two initiatives are very successful and have contributed in the development of Pakistan. Both these projects are financially and administratively autonomous. CIS has been helping in the promotion of education and information exchange and is now running projects in telehealth. Last year, a new telehealth centre was inaugurated in Zhob, Balochistan. As an example of their various social service activities, I can quote a recently held training programme for visually impaired persons in which 30 people were trained for various kinds of internet-based jobs. CIS is also planning to establish an Internet Research Centre.
Does Pakistan require a long-term plan for development of science and technology?
In Pakistan, science and technology have maintained a mixed trend. In 1960s we set up many institutions like Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) but then in 1970s and 80s there was no focus on this sector. The countries like Korea have been learning from us on how to make plans for development. In 1960, the GDP of Korea and Pakistan was around $4 billion and now Korea has a GDP of over $1 trillion while we are around $200 billion. This phenomenal change occurred as Korean realized the importance of science and technology in the economic development. At present Korea is spending 3 per cent of its GDP on research and development activities. If you calculate the 3 per cent figure it would be more than the entire budget of Pakistan. The lesson is; the countries realising the importance of science and technology make rapid progress. Let me give you another example of Finland, a country of 50 million people. There, only one company Nokia earns $ 50 billion per annum which is more than twice the annual export earnings of Pakistan. There is no short-cut or easy solution for progress. It requires right policies, political will and consistent hard work spanning decades.
COMSATS participated in the preparation of the SandT policy for Pakistan. What is the background and what are the main points of this policy?
The Government of Pakistan formulated its first SandT Policy in 1984, after almost a decade of deliberations. This was followed by a National Technology Policy and Technology Development Plan in 1993. Unfortunately, not enough resources were provided to execute these policies. Meanwhile, the SandT landscape has enormously changed and Innovation is being recognized as essential component of this sector.
In 2009, COMSATS was invited by the Ministry of Science and Technology to assist in the formulation of a new policy based on the first draft prepared by the Pakistan Council for Science and Technology. The new draft entitled National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy – 2011, was prepared by getting inputs from various stake-holders such as Planning Commission, Higher Education Commission, Strategic Organizations, Civil Society and Private Sector.
The basic feature of the policy document is its holistic, cross-sectoral approach, whereby the role of SandT in all aspects of socio-economic activity is emphasized. It aims to achieve a paradigm shift, underscoring the role of innovation, demand-driven RandD and strong participation of private sector, to achieve development targets that are sustainable and equitable.
Strong policy oversight is recommended while making it clear, at the outset, that policy implementation through political consensus and guarantees of continuous financial support will be inevitable for any degree of success emanating from this policy. It was estimated that about 1 per cent of GDP spent on RandD by 2015, increased to 2 per cent by 2020 with almost half coming from Private Sector, would be necessary for achieving the desired results.
Did you also recommend any action plan for the policy implementation?
We have made a list of required actions and their number is around 113. All of these are very important but the final decision regarding prioritization will be made by the government. In my opinion if only 10 actions in a year are taken it will bring about a positive contribution to the economy. I believe if 1 per cent of GDP is provided in one go for the implementation of the policy then it could act as a catalyst to bring about a visible transformation and advancement in science and technology resources leading to the economic growth of the country.
Does public private partnership (PPP) possible in research and development?
Yes. The industrial sector in a country develops through the process of innovation, in which research and development play an important role. It is difficult to translate the basic research directly into an economic activity. It is done through incubation and that is where the PPP comes in. If collaboration between the public sector research institute and industry exists then it could create many success stories. In Pakistan; NUST is working on these lines and our Centre of Excellence, CIIT has established a similar project. We did an analysis of our member countries and found out that there are 134 technology parks, out of which 80 are in China alone. In some countries including Pakistan there is no park but some have a good number like Iran that has 15. Despite all the gaps Pakistan can develop very fast if patronage is provided by the Government of Pakistan and Private Sector plays its due role.
How do you rate Technology Times?
I highly value the service Technology Times is providing through the propagation of science and technology news. Your publications started appearing a couple of years back and now I see that it is very popular in the science and technology establishments. You are doing a very challenging job and providing information to the people about the advancements made in various fields of SandT, especially the work of local scientists, technicians and research institutes. Providing the scientific information in Urdu is another major achievement on your part. I have great regard for your work.