Monday July 15, 2024

Experimental sciences

By Muhammad Sabieh Anwar & Naveed Iftikhar
June 06, 2020

Lab-work is an important component of the scientific process and is a manifestation of human ingenuity.

The experimental endeavour is similar to the romance an artist professes with her artwork. Over the centuries, scientific experiments have also changed in their role from mere fact-collection routines to fundamental probes into the biological and physical universes creating the most useful inventions of our times.

In Pakistan’s universities, backwardness in the field of experimental science owes a great deal to the archaic, complex and bureaucratic processes which may sound well-meaning, but start with the premise that practitioners of science are untrustworthy. This premise has led to multiple layers of checks to ensure prudence and fiscal discipline The outcome is the exact opposite and the process itself mars the spirit of scientific curiosity.

Scientific instruments are the tools for research and discovery and come in various kinds. Telescopes probe deeper into the universe, microscopes tear open viruses and pathogens, medical scanners help identify and treat disease and DNA sequencers enable modern forensics. The scientific march forward is shaped by the wedlock between tools and ideas.

Acquisition of resources for experimental research is governed by Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA) rules in the case of public financing. The procurement processes result in inefficiency, wastage, promote extravagance and set up a recipe for failure by frustration. These rules may work slightly better for construction of dams or roads but are a dread for the inventor who works in her lab making ventilators, the physicist who counts feeble clicks of single photons on her photodetectors in long sleepless nights, or the drug designer who carefully pipettes nanoliters of molecules into a petri dish.

Let’s be specific. Scientific tools are routed through local vendors who cause delays in delivery of equipment and also add a layer of insane profiteering. In the next stage, the installation and operationalization of equipment faces numerous challenges. Scientists remain unable to tinker with the instrument for the dread of converting malfunctioning apparatus to complete write-offs. This aggravates due to the lack of appetite and resources for hiring, grooming, and training technicians who usually act as a lynchpin in the experimental process.

It is astonishing how the purchase of small technical supplies costing only a few thousands of rupees is so difficult. These spares could potentially resurrect abandoned equipment which are worth millions. Indeed, penny wise pound foolish, we end up in a vicious cycle of replacing old apparatuses with new ones continually spending more and more money. We eventually build empires of scientific wreckage.

One of the fascinations of lab-work is that the route for scientific inquiry is adaptive and does not follow a pre-ordained pattern. There are surprises along the way. Consider the example of some synthetic organic chemists whose work depends on synthetic chemicals not produced in the country.

What if during the course of an experiment she feels to replace one chemical with another? For this surprising twist, she will immediately require the new chemical for the other ingredients are perishable and are already set up. She quickly scrambles through online catalogues, writes to her department head, who writes to the dean, who relays this to the Office of Research and then to the vice chancellor who repeat-sanctions an already approved budget and finally a clerk will prepare a request for purchase.

An advertisement may then need to be floated in the newspaper and a certain time period must lapse before bids are accepted and can be challenged by competitors. In case of no-shows, a second round is required. The time duration from demand to procurement can easily take anywhere from several months to more than a year. No wonder we see many scientists already give up on experimental investigations, resorting to mediocrity and lackluster teaching, or bid adieu and leave.

Our scientific investigators have become prisoners of this very process. Some fixes are needed. First, the use of credit cards and online purchases should be allowed. Secondly, scientists should be permitted to purchase used equipment which is nominally at a fraction of the cost of new. Third, allowing universities to establish business-to-business (B2B) relationships with original equipment manufacturers will lead to financial savings and expediency. At times, scientific equipment manufacturers are co-discoverers in the experiment and a crucial rapport between the end-user and the manufacturer of the customized instrument becomes useful.

The fourth solution is liberalizing the procedure of ‘off-the-shelf purchases’, allowing the scientific community to build their own hardware, rejuvenate old equipment and participate in the global democratizing do-it-yourself movement of constructing hardware that is accessible to everyone. Fifth, advance payments should be allowed in lieu of letter of credits, which are considered outdated. Ironically, the current procurement rules systematically curtail the spirit of competition and also discriminate against an indigenous product developer.

In summary, we should devise a process that is customized for laboratory life instilling the confidence, joy, and fascination among our scientific community towards the intellectual endeavor. Only then can we expect to see some public good coming out from our universities.

We suggest that the Higher Education Commission take up this matter with the PPRA, the State Bank of Pakistan, Pakistan Customs and the postal authorities and resolve the issues faced in enabling a liberal culture of creating or buying tools for experimental science.

Sabieh Anwar is an experimental physicist and Dean at the Syed Babar Ali School of Engineering at LUMS.

Naveed Iftikhar is an entrepreneur, teacher and economic/urban policy professional.