Friday May 20, 2022

An island of excellence

September 15, 2021

Sindh Chief Minister Sindh Syed Murad Ali Shah was the chief guest at the inauguration ceremony of an exhibition on tech-based healthcare devices held at the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences, Karachi University (KU).

He acknowledged the critically important role that the centre has played in the Covid-19 crisis by carrying out 3,000 tests per day. Sindh Health Minister Dr Azra Fazal Pechuho also praised the work being done in the varsity’s genomic and forensic laboratories.

The centre is the finest postgraduate research facility in the country with the largest number of cutting-edge research programmes in fields of chemistry, biology and medicine. With a large number of foreign scientists and students that are being trained here, it represents a truly outstanding facility that the nation can be proud of. It is the regional Unesco centre of excellence, WHO collaborating centre, The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) centre of excellence, and OIC centre of excellence, reflecting the international prestige that it has acquired due to decades of hard work by the leading scientists of Pakistan.

It has produced two fellows of the Royal Society (London), and 32 civil awards including Nishan-e-Imtiaz, Hilal-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz, have been awarded to its faculty members for their outstanding services. It has also received civil awards from China and Austria, and many honorary doctorate degrees from the world’s leading universities including the University of Cambridge, UK. However, what makes it unique in the country and the region is the huge amount of funds that the centre has been able to win internationally -- $22 million from Japan, $8 million from the US, 4.8 million Euros from Germany, and one million pounds from the UK. Many Nobel laureates have praised the quality of research being carried out in this postgraduate research centre.

In his foreword to the book ‘Stereoselective Synthesis in Organic Chemistry’ co-authored by me, British Nobel laureate Sir Derek Barton called the centre a “monumental” contribution to organic chemistry. With over 400 books and some 8,000 international publications, the institution is undoubtedly the country’s most productive research institute.

One striking aspect of this institution is the manner in which it functions. During their visit to the centre in the evening, visitors will often find the lights on and the students at work. On a Sunday, they will find Director Prof Iqbal Choudhary working in the lab with a considerable number of students. Its instrumentation labs that are housed in 17 different buildings are par excellence, with its state-of-the-art equipment being maintained by highly skilled electronic engineers and technicians. It serves as a central analytical centre with samples coming in for analysis from all over the country. The guest house buildings can accommodate over 200 foreign scientists, and the dining hall presents a unique sight in the morning -- Canadian, German, French, Sri Lankan, Turkish and African scientists sit together and enjoy their breakfast.

When the Ministry of Science and Technology decided to carry out an independent review of the institution, it invited eleven eminent scientists from Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Australia. After an intense week-long analysis of its operations, the scientists submitted a comprehensive report which was full of praise in respect of the quality and quantum of the centre’s work, to the ministry and advocated major increase in its funding. The centre has a rigorous international faculty evaluation system, and non-performing researchers are regularly removed. It has trained qualified technicians who are responsible for the maintenance of the sophisticated equipment installed there. The centre has strong links with the industrial sector and has developed an entrepreneurship centre where 40 new companies are being incubated.

Some opinion writers have asked why our research centers haven’t been able to produce any drugs. It is important to clarify that drugs and vaccines are not developed in university research centers, but in pharmaceutical companies. Not a single drug has ever been developed in China, except for artemisinin against malaria which was accidentally discovered 50 years ago. The cost of drug development, even to highly specialised pharmaceutical companies, is several billion dollars (over Rs500 billion) which is far beyond the capability of companies in Asia or Africa. The centre’s current funding is just a small fraction of the funding received by the Indian Institute of Technology or the Indian Institute of Science, in India.

It all started with late Prof Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, who had then recently retired from the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR), in a small section of the KU chemistry department in 1967, where the nucleus of the postgraduate institute of chemistry was set up. I joined the institute in 1968 after completing my PhD degree in organic chemistry from the University of Cambridge, and Prof Siddiqui appointed me as co-director. Prof Viqar Uddin Ahmed and Prof Zafar Zaidi (previously from the PCSIR) had earlier joined the institute, and this small team made the humble beginnings.

I succeeded in winning grants to purchase sophisticated equipment and also arranged a major donation of some equipment from Cambridge University. When the centre was visited by a dynamic German professor, Wolfgang Voelter, he selected it for a strong collaboration with the German government. Soon, Chairman Husein Ebrahim Jamal (HEJ) Foundation Latif Ebrahim Jamal came forward with a magnificent donation with which the HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry building was built.

About 20 years later, Nadira Panjwani selected this institution to set up the Panjwani Center of Molecular Medicine and Drug Research, and the family continues to support the centre in every way. Subsequent donations from Latif Ebrahim Jamal and Aziz Latif Jamal led to the establishment of LEJ National Science Information Center and National Center for Nanotechnology. The generous help and collaborations from these families continue to this day. I handed over charge as director after two decades in that position. Today, the institution is being led by Pakistan’s shining star, Prof Iqbal Choudhary who is taking it to even greater heights.

Pakistan needs dozens of such centres strongly linked to the industrial sector to build a strong knowledge economy.

The writer is chairman PM National Task Force on Science and Technology, former minister, and former founding chairman of the HEC.