Saturday May 28, 2022

Innovation driving economies

May 18, 2016

The world economic scenario has changed dramatically in the last century, with knowledge replacing natural resources as the major pillar for socio-economic development.

The extent of the knowledge gap between the West and the Islamic world is that there have been 92 Nobel Prize winners at the University of Cambridge, 82 Nobel Prize winners at Columbia University, 85 Nobel Prize winners at MIT, and 89 Nobel Prize winners at University of Chicago. Just these four universities have had about 350 Nobel Prize winners awarded to their faculty or associated researchers. In comparison not a single Nobel Prize in science has ever been awarded to a scientist working within the Islamic world.

We still live in the dark medieval ages surrounded by ignorance and superstition. Our economists and planners have still not realised that nations are not built by roads and bridges but by unleashing the creative talents of our young through a highly competitive and challenging education system. The world therefore stands divided between the ‘knowledge masters’ and the ‘knowledge slaves’. We alas belong to the latter category.

Some nations in Asia have, however, tried to change their role from slaves to masters. Singapore is one such nation, although it is a tiny country with a population that is a quarter of that of Karachi. The annual budget of the National University of Singapore is presently about $1.8 billion. This is about three times more than the recurring and development budgets of all Pakistan’s public-sector universities taken together. The results of such investments at school, college and university level in Singapore are spectacular, to say the least.

Tiny Singapore with no natural resources had exports about 22 times greater last year than those of Pakistan. Clearly we don’t understand the importance of knowledge in the process of socio-economic development and our rulers and planners cannot see beyond their noses.

How innovation is transforming economies is borne out by a few examples given here. ‘Sada Bahar’ is a common plant that grows in our gardens, bearing pink or purple flowers. Its leaves contain a powerful anti-cancer drug vincristine. One milligram of this drug, extracted from the leaves of this common plant, delivered as an intravenous injection to patients of leukaemia costs about $44. This works out to a price of $44 million (Rs4.5 billion) per kg.

Similarly, thermal ‘cracking’ of one dollar worth of crude oil can afford $30 of valuable raw materials which can be converted into $10,000 worth of agricultural chemicals. It is all about knowledge and technology.

Let us focus on some recent exciting developments in the area of health. Why do many of us have to take so many pills each day? Is it not possible for us to take a pill that will slowly release the active ingredient over a week or even a month, and obviate the need for talking daily pills? Researchers from MIT have developed a new type of pill that slowly releases its contents bringing ‘one pill a month’ closer to reality. Startling developments are taking place in the field of regenerative medicine using stem cell and other technologies. Parts of human kidneys have been produced by 3D printing and engineered urinary bladders have already been produced and used in humans.

The chemistry behind the ageing process is beginning to be understood and compounds have been discovered which not only slow down but actually reverse the ageing process. Professor David Sinclair, a professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School, reported about three years ago that when a chemical called NAD was given for only one week to two-year-old mice, it caused a dramatic reversal of ageing, making their tissues comparable to those of six-month-old mice. In human years this would be equivalent to transforming a 60-year-old’s cells into those of a 20-year-old person.

Mitochondria are the energy dynamos in our cells and compounds such as resveratrol, nicotinamide riboside (NR) or NAD may work by firing up these energy engines so that they start behaving like those of much younger persons. So the elusive ‘elixir of youth’ may be just round the corner. Such developments are earning the investing pharmaceutical companies billions of dollars in profit each year and contributing to the respective knowledge economies in those countries.

Let us turn to the energy sector. With the development of new technologies, there have been startling reductions in the cost of solar power plants. On the 1st of this month five international companies bid a rate of 2.99 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) at the world’s largest solar plant being established at the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum solar park, about 50 km south of Dubai.

This set a new record price, 15 percent lower than the previous one of 3.5 cents per kWh from Italy’s Enel Green Power for a solar project in Mexico. At these rates we should set up a 5000MW solar plant in the Cholistan desert in Bhawalpur, as it is even cheaper than hydroelectric plants. We could then sell energy at 4 cents per kWh to our industry and this, in one shot, will give a huge boost to industrial development in Pakistan.

While the UAE is establishing solar plants at 3 cents per kWh, we continue to wallow in corruption. According to TV reports, the rates that we will produce power from the 100MW Chinese solar plant at the Cholistan desert are 10 cents per kWh. The corruption in the energy sector since the 1990s has brought Pakistan’s industry to its knees.

Another development in the energy area is that of new battery technologies. Cars are now becoming commercially available that can travel for more than 200 miles on a single charge. Tesla Model 3 is one such car announced recently and before long we will have new battery technologies available that will give electric cars ranges of 500 miles and battery charging times of 10-15 minutes. This is a huge ‘disruptive technology’ that promises to put petrol cars, vans, buses and trucks out of business within the next 10 years, badly affecting the oil industry.

If Pakistan is to progress, it has no other option but to invest in its real wealth, its youth, so that it can escape from the clutches of a low value added agricultural economy and migrate to a powerful knowledge economy. However for this to happen we need a visionary, honest and technologically competent government.

The author is chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology & Innovation, former federal minister, and former chairman of the HEC.