Saturday May 28, 2022

Positive developments

November 02, 2016

There was great news for science in Pakistan in September 2016 when Thomson Reuters, the world’s leading organisation that provides reliable statistical data on the status of scientific research in the world, came forward with a report focused on Pakistan.

Commenting on the revolution that has been brought about by the Higher Education Commission in the status of university research in Pakistan, it stated: “Pakistan has emerged as the country with the highest percentage of highly cited papers as compared to the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries“. It went on to state and prove with graphs that there has been a 400 percent increase in science papers in leading international journals from Pakistan and a ten-fold increase in highly cited papers over the last decade, which indicates the emphasis on quality rather than quantity of publications from Pakistan.

This assessment from the world’s leading institution also puts to rest criticisms from those who have vehemently criticised the HEC since the very inception of this organisation.

The change that occurred in Pakistan in the higher education sector was so spectacular that ‘Nature’, the world’s leading scientific journals, wrote four editorials about these positive changes. The article in ‘Nature’ published on September 22, 2010 stated: “Rahman’s strong scientific background, enthusiasm for reform and impressive ability to secure cash made him a hit at home and abroad. ‘It really was an anomaly that we had a person of that stature with that kind of backing’, says Naveed Naqvi, a senior education economist at the World Bank, based in Islamabad. ‘Atta-ur-Rahman was a force of nature’.” By my side at the time as executive director of the HEC was initially Dr Akram Sheikh and then for most of the period of my tenure Dr Sohail Naqvi. The present chairman HEC, Dr Mukhtar Ahmed, was also a part of my team. They deserve all praise for their dedicated and hard work that led to this transformation.

What were the key measures undertaken that led to these changes? First, it was realised that the heart of a university is its faculty and the creativity of the faculty determines its world rankings. Therefore, about 11,000 scholarships were awarded to the brightest students of which some 5,000 scholarships were for PhD degrees at top universities of the world and others for post-doctoral training or for sandwich PhD programmes. Several measures were undertaken to attract students back after completing their studies abroad.

A new contractual system of ‘tenure track’ appointments of faculty members with international review of productivity was enforced under which the salaries of the faculty members were raised to several times of those of federal ministers in the government. Tax rates for all faculty members in public and private universities were reduced from 35 percent to only five percent, thereby giving a boost to their take-home pay. Students returning with PhD degrees from abroad were given the opportunity of applying for research grants of up to $100,000 one year before their date of return, so that even if they joined a weaker university with little facilities, they would be able to initiate research.

A digital library was established, providing free access to 25,000 international journals and 65,000 textbooks from 220 international publishers, facilities that were not available to most universities in the US, Europe and Asia at that time. A system of ‘Open Access Instrumentation’ allowed them to have free nation-wide access to sophisticated instrumentation with the analytical charges being paid by the HEC. To benefit from high quality academics abroad, a foreign faculty hiring programme was launched. Some 600 top academics came to Pakistan under these programmes.

The results were nothing short of spectacular. When the HEC was established in 2002 not a single Pakistani university was ranked among the top 500 universities of the world. When I resigned in protest in 2008 as chairman HEC (due to suspension of grants of some 5000 students studying abroad on HEC scholarships), several universities were ranked among the top 400 and 500 of the world according to the Times Higher Education UK Rankings with NUST (Islamabad) at 273 in the world, UET (Lahore) at 281 in the world and Karachi University (in natural sciences) at 223 in the world.

The research publications in journals with ISI impact factors went through an amazing increase from only about 800 per year in the year 2000 to 6,250 per year by 2011, and about 10,000 by 2016, equalling those from India if the output is compared on a per million population basis. Alas the PPP government that followed blocked HEC funds in 2008 forcing me to resign. We have slid back so that there is now not a single university in the top 700 of the world.

Another important recent development has been the decision by Unesco to recognise the top science institution in Pakistan as the Unesco Regional Centre of Excellence in Chemical Sciences. The centre chosen for this honour is the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Karachi. The world famous H E J Research Institute of Chemistry and the Dr Panjwani Centre of Molecular Medicine and Drug Development are an integral part of this institution. The formal ceremony in this connection will be held on November 21, 2016. It will be presided over by Director General Unesco Dr Irina Bokova. This is a huge honour for Pakistan, and will help to bring us in the world spotlight.

Located within the University of Karachi, the centre comprises 17 buildings and has about 500 students enrolled for PhD, the largest doctoral level training program in the country. Recently the Jamil-ur-Rahman Centre for Genomics has been established within it through my personal donation. This centre has state-of-the-art facilities for genetic engineering. The institute has previously won international recognition by winning many international Prizes including the Islamic Development Bank Prize (2004 and 2010) and being selected as the WHO, TWAS and OIC Centre of Excellence.

Another major development that will help to promote science in the developing world is the formation of a UN Advisory Board on Science, Technology and Innovation for the South and Central Asian region (UNESCAP) covering 62 countries. Prof Abdul Hamid Zakri (Adviser to Prime Minister of Malaysia) and I are co-chairing this board which also has representatives from Japan, Australia, Canada and other countries. Within a short period of six months the committee has produced an excellent and comprehensive document on the measures that these countries should take to transition to strong knowledge economies. Pakistan needs to implement the recommendations in this UN document if it wants to emerge as a strong knowledge economy.

The writer is chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology &
Innovation and former chairman of the HEC. Email: