Saturday May 28, 2022

Centres of excellence

June 19, 2019

Pakistan has taken the first important steps under the present government to transition from its low value added largely agricultural economy to a strong knowledge economy.

This correction in its vision and strategy for socio-economic development was apparent from the formation of a National Task Force on ‘Technology Driven Knowledge Economy’ that the prime minister himself chairs. I was appointed as its vice chairman and its members include the federal ministers of finance, planning, education, science & technology, IT/telecom as well as advisers to the government on industries and many key secretaries as well as eminent educationists and representatives of the private sector.

The first meeting of the task force was held on January 29, 2019. Within a period of about four months, projects valued at about Rs283 billion were submitted by various ministries for approval. It is heartening to note that we finally have a government that is willing to go beyond lip service and commit substantial funds for education, science, technology and innovation.

One of the first projects that the task force took up was to increase the national tax base by linking Nadra to the FBR database. My first attempt to do this dates back to the year 2001 when I was the federal minister of IT and Telecom and I met the chairman of Nadra at that time to identify non-tax filers and low tax filers. This could be done by linking all personal transactions, (such as purchase of property, automobiles, air tickets, school fee, hospital expenses etc) to a single national identity card number that will readily allow tax assessment. Unfortunately, this could not be done at the time as I took up an assignment as the founding chairman of the Higher Education Commission.

The project was taken up again in close collaboration with another eminent member of our Knowledge Economy Task Force, (who wishes to remain anonymous). We were convinced that one could readily have access to a huge number of non-filers if the FBR data was made available to Nadra and suitable algorithms to identify non-tax filers and low tax filers could be developed.

Following several meetings with the present chairman of Nadra, and then meetings of senior FBR and Nadra officials with the prime minister, the project was begun in earnest in February 2019, and its first phase completed in May 2019. This has led to the unearthing of hundreds of thousands of persons with significant annual expenditures who pay little or no tax. The amnesty scheme may be a blessing in disguise for them as all important data is now with the government, and actions against tens of thousands will take place in July if they fail to benefit from this opportunity.

A second major project initiated under the task force was to benefit from the vast mineral resources of Pakistan. One key aspect of this is the field of gems and jewellery. The world market of this sector is about $292 billion, and it is growing at 10.6 percent, with China and India being the main drivers of growth. Out of the total world market of $292 billion, $120 billion is for jewellery while the remaining $172 billion is in form of sales of diamonds and coloured gem stones (rubies, emeralds, sapphires etc). India has a lion’s share of this market, estimated at US $ 76 billion that is expected to reach US $ 110 billion by 2021/2022.

As in many other sectors, Pakistan has been a laggard, with exports reaching $1.62 billion in 2012, but then declining to $431 million in 2013, $118 million in 2014 and $8 million by 2015. It is hoped that with the new initiatives undertaken by the task force, major world players will be attracted to Pakistan to invest in this sector so that we can become a major international player in this lucrative field.

A third major project undertaken by the task force is to establish a number of top class centres of research, innovation and entrepreneurship in artificial intelligence and allied technologies across Pakistan. The field of artificial intelligence and associated technologies is expected to have a market of about $15 trillion within a decade and so it presents a wonderful opportunity for Pakistan to place itself in a leadership role in this fast-growing sector. We produce about 25,000 graduates each year in computer science, and if we can divert even 10 percent of them into this field, by training them at leading world institutions, it could pay huge dividends.

A mega national project has therefore been formulated which the prime minister is expected to launch next month at a special function. This is likely to play a critical role in lifting Pakistan out of its present economic mess. The programme is likely to cost about Rs162 billion over the next eight-year period and lead to the training of about 100,000 professionals which can have an impact of several billion dollars annually on Pakistan’s IT exports.

Another important project being initiated relates to the use of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) at school, college and university level. These courses are internationally available from leading educational institutions such as MIT, Harvard, Stanford etc, and their large school use in our educational institutions can result in a significant improvement in educational standards. This approach of ‘blended learning’ is being increasingly adopted in many countries as it provides a wonderful opportunity to students to benefit from the best teachers in the world, instead of just relying on their own teachers that may not be adequately qualified.

The prime minister had announced that that the PM House would be converted into a university. My proposal that it should not be a policy institute but a full-fledged engineering university focused on new and emerging technologies was accepted by the prime minister, and the project is now under development under my guidance.

The university will initially comprise five large postgraduate centres of excellence. These will include: (a) Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (including big data, cyber security/Internet of Things/quantum computing/cloud computing/telehealth); (b) Industrial Biotechnology/Next Generation Genomics; (c) MicroelectronicsEngineering/Mechatronics/Industrial Design; (d) Advanced Materials/Nanotechnology/Composites; and (e) Energy Storage Systems/ Renewable Energy. The centre-piece of the university will be a technology park that will allow academia and industry to come together for new product development.

These bold steps by the present government are important initiatives for Pakistan to develop a strong knowledge economy. It is only through massive investments in education, science, technology and innovation that we can expect to tackle the major economic issues faced by the government.

The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).