Pakistan might not be the first country that comes to mind when we think of scientific innovation, but Pakistanis have long made historical contributions to the development of science.
Mohammad Abdus Salam, from the present-day Punjab province of Pakistan, won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics alongside two American physicists for their contributions to the electroweak unification theory. Salam was also the founding director of Pakistan’s first national space agency, called the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO).
Young Pakistani scientists are increasingly following in Salam’s footsteps, including Dr Yarjan Abdul Samad, the first space scientist from Pakistan at the University of Cambridge. Dr Samad, who is a senior research scientist and senior teaching fellow, is originally from Buleda, Balochistan. As well as winning numerous awards for his research and conferences, Dr Samad was among the first to test Graphene, a new material, in zero gravity conditions. He shared his thoughts with me on the opportunities and challenges that space exploration poses, particularly in relation to Pakistan.
In his article entitled ‘Let’s go to space, but slowly’ published in Dawn, Dr Samad describes how national pride was key to the development of space technologies during the space race of the previous century. But he rightly suggests that national pride ought not to be the motivation for Pakistan to explore space, especially given the state of the economy.
Despite the unparalleled challenges and suffering that the Covid-19 pandemic has created, it has emphasised the importance of unity among all humans in efforts to protect and sustain life. Space exploration has the capacity to progress technologies on earth, which, through international collaboration, will benefit humanity as a whole.
“Embarking upon space exploration in general inspires people to build technical competence and capacity,” said Dr Samad. “However, crosscutting technologies solving challenges in space and on earth can prove to be economically and technologically rewarding. Well-thought of crosscutting research and exploration can directly and indirectly bring about economic prosperity, environmental benefits, safety & security and can expand human experience and understanding of the universe.”
Pakistan can certainly reap these rewards as the country has a number of factors on its side, which give the country the potential to be an international leader in a field such as space research and technology. As well as having the fifth largest population in the world, Pakistan’s median age is far lower than most. This means that Pakistan has the capacity to be an international leader by virtue of its youthful population if the potential of its youth is realised. Dr Samad suggests that “outreach activities,” such as forming local chapters of space societies and holding competitions at the local and national level for school and college students, could inspire the youth to foster an interest in space science. He particularly recommends “launching a national competition for building functional microsatellites in collaboration with international space agencies.”
Once the incoming generations of Pakistanis show a strong interest in space exploration and research, the government and educational institutions will have the minds and workforce necessary to support its initiatives.
The importance of internationalising Pakistani educational institutions and academics is an interdisciplinary issue, as Pakistan’s potential could be applied to any sector. There is no reason why Pakistan should not be a country where many international students will seek to be educated at the higher levels.
Initiatives encouraging Pakistan’s international collaboration are becoming more common. For example, Dr Samad and a team of scientists organised an e-conference, “Promoting Applied Sciences in Pakistan (PASP20)”, which was supported by the Pakistani High Commission in London. Some of the most renowned and most cited scientists in the world delivered talks and had discussions with students and scientists in Pakistan. The e-conference witnessed about 2000 registrations and was seen online by thousands of people.
There are certainly challenges that Pakistan faces to achieve this internationalisation. It must not only incentivise foreign students to study there but also provide motivation for its best and brightest who choose to study abroad to return and give back to Pakistan. Dr Samad suggests that this requires a total overhaul of the research culture in Pakistan, from the allocation of funds to the addition of research components within the Pakistani education system.
“Re-envisioning of a long-term research programme on topics, which are of strategic importance to the people of Pakistan, is needed urgently. This can be done with the help of academic institutions, research organisations, industries, as well as overseas Pakistanis who are experts in their fields.”
Despite the necessity of reforms ahead, and the difficulties that may arise, Dr Samad is encouraged by the spirit emerging within Pakistan: “The entrepreneurship culture is prevailing very fast in Pakistan and must be utilized to spearhead space-based, start-up projects. The solutions to some of the most pressing Space challenges may come out from Pakistan.”
The writer has just completed her MTheol degree at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and now works as a researcher.
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