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Saturday May 28, 2022

New directions

July 08, 2019

Despite severe economic challenges, the present government has embarked on a visionary initiative to transform Pakistan to a strong knowledge economy. All credit for this change of directions after 70 years of zigzagging goes to our Prime Minister Imran Khan who agreed to my proposal that the country needs to change directions and focus on education, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship.

As a result, the Knowledge Economy Task Force was constituted and Pakistan embarked on a historic initiative to develop a robust economy, based not on natural resources but on our human resources. As a result, projects related to agriculture, engineering, energy, biotechnology, education, and entrepreneurship have been carefully prepared, in close consultation with top experts in Pakistan and abroad. The selection criteria were to ensure that the projects led to an impact on the lives of the people of Pakistan and resulted in industrial development, export enhancement and creation of national self reliance, leading to the manufacture and export of high technology (high value) goods.

These projects are being processed after careful vetting and peer review through the ministries of agriculture, science & technology, IT, industries, education, Atomic Energy Commission, Pakistan Academy of Sciences and other important institutions. As a result, there will be an increase in the development budgets of several ministries by up to 400 percent.

The major economic problems faced by Pakistan at present are the direct result of successive governments failing to realise that the new economic order demands that we focus on our human resources and adopt the path to a strong knowledge economy. About 60 percent of our exports are low value added textiles, while in the overall global scenario textiles constitute only a tiny fraction of the world market.

Many of the key projects being developed are concerned with improving the quality of education at school, college and university levels. The National Online Teacher Training Program (costing Rs13 billion) will train 50,000 school teachers leading to improved primary and secondary education. The project on blended education costing Rs10.7 billion will be directed to improve the quality of college and university education through provision of online courses available from Khan Academy, MIT, Stanford and other leading universities. An excellent beginning in this respect has already been made by the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences at University of Karachi through free provision of such courses (www.lej4learning.com.pk).

An area of particular interest for Pakistan is that of information technology. It is expected that Artificial Intelligence alone will have an impact of about $15 trillion over the next decade with a myriad applications in agriculture, industry, health, transportation and defence. So many programmes are being launched in this fast growing field, in close consultation with our diaspora in Europe and the US. Major training centres are being established across Pakistan. About Rs160 billion will be spent on this field alone under projects of the Knowledge Economy Task Force over the next four years.

To promote innovation and entrepreneurship and help in the establishment of new start-up companies in cutting edge fields, it is critically important to provide venture capital, mentoring, legal services, financial services and suitable policies. A major national project has been developed by senior faculty from the Lahore University of Management Sciences in close consultation with stakeholders.

Emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is critical for laying the foundations of a knowledge economy. Under a pilot project, 20,000 students will be trained in these fields by establishing 100 STEM labs for grades 8-12 in schools. A project on e-learning support to 2500 schools in 152 districts is also being initiated. In the area of technical education, 50 technical training institutions will be upgraded to top-class teacher training institutes in collaboration with Germany, Australia and China. This will involve the training of 2,000 engineers in top universities abroad.

The Punjab IT Board has developed some valuable projects that can be applied in other provinces. One of these projects relates to crime control involving analysis of urban crime patterns with respect to crime rate prediction, criminal network analysis, crime hotspot analysis, and next location prediction. This technology will be provided to the police departments in other provinces.

Other important projects being initiated include the development of Special Technology (Economic) Zones for software companies; production of biologics and establishment of diagnostic services using genomics,; establishment of Centre of Excellence in mineral processing; establishment of a national centre for electric vehicles; creation of facilities for advanced veterinary vaccine development; agricultural functional genomics and biotechnology; yield enhancement of crops through biotechnology & speed breeding; and center for microchip design through fabless prototyping and testing of microsystems chips.

An exciting project is the establishment of a postgraduate University of Engineering and Emerging Technologies that will help prepare us for the 4th Industrial Revolution. These projects will lay the foundations for the establishment of a high-technology knowledge based industry of Pakistan and shape its future directions.

Unfortunately, some people have decided to spread the philosophy that Pakistan should focus only on undergraduate level education and leave the development of high-technology products to foreign masters. There have also been rumours that the present government has allocated lower funds to education, science, and technology. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The approved development budgets of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Information & Technology and Higher Education Commission are between 30 percent and 400 percent higher than those released in the last financial year.

The first major positive change in Pakistan’s higher education scenario occurred after the establishment of the HEC when several universities of Pakistan became ranked among the top 300-500 of the world according to the Times Higher Education (UK) rankings during 2002-2008. Subsequently, due to the myopic policies of subsequent governments, we slipped badly and today not a single Pakistan university is among the top 500. India has decided to follow Pakistan and establish the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) modelled after Pakistan. The second major change is beginning to occur now under the initiatives of the present government.

In order for Pakistan to emerge from the shackles of poverty, hunger and foreign debt, we need to unleash the creative talents of our youth. Our real wealth lies concealed in the 100 million young below the age of 20 that constitute some 56 percent of our population. This is a huge demographic advantage as compared to many nations in the West, and this window of opportunity will disappear over the next three decades. The time is now or never.

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

Email: ibne_sina@hotmail.com

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