Saturday May 28, 2022

The STI vision

March 23, 2016

The magnitude of the knowledge gap between the Islamic world and the West can be judged from the fact that 90 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to faculty members of just one university in the United Kingdom, the University of Cambridge, and 32 Nobel prizes have been awarded to just one college of that university, Trinity College. By comparison, not a single Nobel Prize has ever been awarded in science to any scientist in the Islamic world for research work carried out within an Islamic country. We live in the darkness of ignorance and superstition.

In an earlier article I had quoted the case of Singapore, a country with hardly any natural resources and a population of about 5 million, (one-fourth of that of Karachi), which now has exports of $516 billion, 22 times higher than those of Pakistan, which stagnate at $23 billion only. The National University of Singapore is now ranked 12th in the world, according to an international ranking of universities.

The tragedy of Pakistan is that it is trapped in a low value-added, largely agricultural economy. About 60 percent of the industry of Pakistan is confined to manufacture and the export of low value textiles, even though Pakistani textiles only account for about 6 percent of the world market. A simple analysis of the world trends of manufacture and exports over the last 50 years shows that the total export of natural resources and low-technology goods has gone down, while that of medium technology and high technology goods has shot up. That is where the big money lies, and that is where visionary countries such as Singapore, Finland and Austria are focusing. That is the secret of the rapid growth of China in the last three decades.

The long-term vision for STI for equitable and sustained socio-economic development needs to be supported by a strong and visionary leadership. The preparation and regular review of STI strategies needs to be institutionalised and regular “Foresight” exercises, based on the UN-recommended “Delphi” pattern, must be regularly conducted and integrated across all ministries. The whole process needs to be fully backed by the opposition parties and involve consultations with all stake holders, including civil society, non-government organisations, the private sector and experts to ensure sustained long-term implementation.

A vision, strategy and action plan was prepared under my supervision during 2004-2006 and approved by the cabinet in August 2007. It laid out the key steps needed for Pakistan to transition to a knowledge-based economy. The implementation is, alas, missing. It is vitally important to allocate appropriate funding for the implementation of STI policy in national development plans – including a sizeable allocation for R & D, which should be at least 2 percent of the GDP.

The quality of the knowledge workers is a vital component of a knowledge economy. Therefore, the improvement of educational standards and educational systems in schools, colleges and universities are critically important – to expose students to problem solving skills, critical thinking and innovation, with particular emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Our government must bring in radical reforms in the manner that we impart education and in the way that we examine the students. The current system encourages rote learning, with little heed to the development of problem-solving skills. We must commit at least 6 percent of our GDP to education, about a quarter of which should be allocated to the higher education sector. This would allow the establishment of world-class research institutions and the production of high quality professionals (scientists and engineers) and technically trained manpower. There should be at least 2500 to 3000 highly qualified professionals involved in R & D per million population.

The private sector is the key player in a knowledge economy. Pakistan needs to boost key sectors through appropriate policies, investments in industrial clusters and incentives. This should include underwriting the risks taken by private firms in high-tech industries. The government should also increase the absorptive capacity of industry to use external and internal knowledge by hiring highly skilled personnel, including management consultants, encouraging on-job training and building facilities for experimentation and R&D. It is necessary to develop industrial knowledge clusters to generate positive synergies from proximity and the pooling/sharing of mutually useful knowledge, reduction in transactions and gains from collaborative work.

Two examples are the steps that I took when I was the federal minister for science and technology, which included the Telecommunications and Information Technology Division under the same ministry. There were only 0.3 million mobile phones in 2001. At that time, one had to pay to receive calls. The common man was therefore reluctant to have a mobile phone as he would need to pay for calls received from others. So we decided that only the person calling should pay the call charges and not the person receiving them. We also decided to launch Ufone (a subsidiary of PTCL) into the market to increase competition and lower charges. The result was an explosive growth in mobile phones in Pakistan, which grew from 0.3 million in 2001 to about 150 million presently, becoming the hottest sector of the national economy.

The second decision was to boost the IT sector by establishing many high quality IT institutions in universities, creating endowments of Rs80 crore for IT promotion and sending about 2000 students for PhDs in computer science and related fields. A 15-year tax holiday was given to the IT industry, which will run out this year.

According to an article published on August 10, 2015 in The New York Times, the IT sector in Pakistan has grown from a lowly $30 million in 2001 now to $2.8 billion. The revenue of $850 million, generated by freelance Pakistani programmers annually, ranks the sector as third in the world, behind only the US and India. These two examples indicate how careful government intervention can boost economic growth.

The writer is a former federal minister, former founding chairman of the HEC and presently president of the Network of Academies of Science of Islamic Countries.