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Barriers to innovation
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
From Print Edition
The Global Innovation Index (GII) report, jointly produced by Cornell University, Insead and Wipo every year, has become a leading source of reference on innovation.
The theme of GII 2014, released on the 18th of July, is ‘Human factor in innovation’. The report covers 143 economies around the world and ranks them on a score of 0-100, using 81 different indicators to gauge innovation capabilities and results. Consistent with the rankings of the past GII reports, the top ten economies in the global innovation index 2014 are Switzerland, UK, Sweden, Finland, Netherland, USA, Singapore, Denmark, Luxemburg and Hong Kong (China), all high income countries, hence pointing towards a clear income-innovation link.
Sub-Saharan Africa has shown significant improvement in the GII rankings. Among the Brics countries, China continues to improve on the rankings while India has slipped ten places and is the worst performer among Brics nations. Pakistan is at position 134 among a total of 143 countries, with a score of 24. Only Angola, Nepal, Tajikistan, Burundi, Guinea, Myanmar Yemen, Togo, and Sudan lag behind Pakistan. Countries like Kazakhstan, Uganda, Kenya, Bhutan, Nigeria, Cameroon and Ethiopia score better than us.
Innovation is one of the most significant drivers of economic growth. Economists hold faltering innovation as the major factor for the current low global growth trajectory. For example, Prof Robert Gordon of Northwestern University in his paper, ‘Is US economic growth over?’, has argued in detail that innovation was the main driver of high growth in the US. And that faltering innovation is responsible for the current economic slowdown. Similarly low investment in skills and innovation, among other things, is responsible for low growth of the UK according to LSE’s Growth Commission Report.
The fundamental aspect behind innovation is the human factor. Technology and capital also influence innovation but these factors are directly linked to the human factor. The report also emphasises that the major reason for the disparity in the innovation prowess of different nations can be found in the variation of the human capital associated with the innovation process in their countries. The human factor can also explain our low GII score.
The key question, however, is: how can human capital be developed? There are broadly two ways to nurture human capital in society. First, by making huge investments in schools, colleges, and other research and development institutions to enhance the knowledge base of the population in technological and non-technological fields and second, by attracting talented human capital from other countries by providing an appropriate set of incentives.
We lack on both counts. But this does not complete the picture in our case. The reasons run much deeper. On the top of the list is a misplaced educational system. Our education system lays more emphasis on rhetoric and niceties of language. Analytical skills, mathematics, econometrics, modelling and logic, which are at the heart of the modern education system, are least emphasised in the curricula, classroom and professional training sessions.
So the first step towards the promotion of innovation culture in Pakistan is the reform of the curricula and the education system. Instead of burdening students with additional subjects, a more appropriate policy option would be to induce a clear positive bias towards subjects that are instrumental in honing their cognitive faculties. Learning skills should become a major component of curricula and training in schools and colleges.
The second prerequisite for promoting innovation in the country is quality education, especially at the tertiary level. Without bringing in quality at the school level, the standards of tertiary education cannot be improved. It is a pitiable fact that none of the universities of Pakistan is ranked in the top 500 universities of the world. Very few educational institutions compete even at the regional level.
You would hardly find a research publication, despite all the efforts and good intentions of the HEC, that has originality and high impact in the subject area. Plagiarism and cut-and-paste research papers are common. PhD degrees are pursued, especially by teachers of the public sector educational institutions, just for a few increments in salaries. The reasons for low quality in education are many but in Pakistan the low quality of the teaching faculty and perverse incentive system seem to be the prime culprits.
Lack of collaboration between research institutions and the industry is another area of concern. Innovation does not take place in a vacuum. Research is no more considered an individual endeavour in the developed world. You can write a masterpiece on Ghalib or Iqbal at the individual level but hardly even a genius can come up with a new drug by dint of sheer individual effort, hard work and devotion. Innovation requires huge investments in the R&D sector which can either come from the public sector or from the industry and financial institutions of the country. This is an age of collaboration where industry, financial institutions and the universities work together for innovation. In our case such collaboration is completely lacking.
The problem with innovation is that you need an innovation ecosystem to attract and retain innovators and researchers. The ecosystem works like a magnet for innovators. They are like capital and move freely. If appropriate incentives and innovation ecosystem are missing, you cannot confine them to national boundaries. The United States is a case in point. The US has successfully built an innovation ecosystem by attracting the best brains of the world. Steve Jobs is reported to have told President Barack Obama shortly before his death, “We should staple a green card to the diploma of every foreign worker who attains a graduate degree in science or engineering”.
A country can hardly stop its brains from moving to the developed world unless it develops an innovation ecosystem. Tax, surety bonds, and undertakings cannot stop innovators from migrating to countries with better incentives and environment. Our own experience confirms this.
Pakistan initiated several schemes for enhancing the skills and knowledge of its students and researchers by providing them scholarships to study abroad. But the unfortunate part of the story is that once these researchers leave the country, they hardly ever return to Pakistan.
We need to to develop an ecosystem for researchers and innovators through well-coordinated and holistic policy initiatives. But to do that, there is a need to promote a culture of inquiry and critical thinking. Religious bigotry, intolerance, and dogmatism only make our Abdus Salams leave the country. What we need is a tolerant society, which respects dissent and encourages free thinking, inquiry and reasoning. An innovation ecosystem can be developed only in such a society.
The writer is a graduate of Columbia University. Email:
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