Wednesday August 17, 2022

Promoting innovation

November 24, 2021

The fourth Industrial Revolution has led to amazing developments that are rapidly changing the face of the world’s scientific landscape. Various materials that have the amazing property of bending light have been developed, allowing them to make objects that they cover invisible. These ‘meta materials’ are being used to cloak submarines, tanks and other objects.

Graphene, made of pure carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb-like structure, is about 200 times stronger than steel and promises to replace iron in construction materials. Gene editing techniques allow fairly accurate splicing of genes in animal or plant species. The transfer of these genes into other species can now lead to the development of new living species that our planet has never known, bypassing the process of evolution.

Nanotechnology has emerged as a powerful new field, and the use of nanomaterials is finding a myriad of applications including nano-pharmaceuticals, nano-filtration devices for water purification, and durable nano-coatings for strengthening sporting goods and other materials.

Chemical processes involved during ageing are being unravelled, and substances that have the remarkable ability of slowing down, and even reversing, the ageing process have been developed so that children who are born today may reach the age of 150 years or more.

Combustion engines are now taking their last gasps, and cars that run on petrol or diesel will soon be history. Stem cell technologies are coming to the fore, and the repair of damaged human organs using stem cells has already begun commercially. We are beginning to understand the molecular basis of thought processes and the manner in which about 100 billion neurons in the human brain communicate, each interacting with thousands of other neurons.

This understanding is throwing new light on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy and autism. The blending of human intelligence with artificial intelligence will give a huge boost to creativity and lead to a new era of civilisation. Nations investing in these new and emerging technologies by creating centres of excellence and linking the process of discovery with industrial development are now marching forward rapidly.

About 40 miles from Islamabad, near Haripur, stands a gleaming new university which is the first university of its kind in the world. This remarkable institution is the Pak-Austria University of Applied Science and Engineering (Pak-Austria Fachhochschule). The first unique feature of the university is that its major focus is on promoting innovation, and the entire programme has been designed so that students learn to innovate, form their own companies and bring new products and processes into the world market.

The university is not just about teaching and research but also about discovery and developing commercial applications. The heart of the university is a technology park with access to sizeable funds for new technology development. A digital city is emerging next to the university, so that it can contribute in a major way to the development of the IT industry there. Leading experts from Austria, particularly from Johannes Kepler University in Linz, are involved in the development of a top-class centre for artificial intelligence. The Ministry of IT/Telecom has also contributed over a billion rupees for this project.

Top Chinese institutions in Guangdong, China, particularly the Shenzhen Institute for Advanced Technologies (SIAT), a leading institution in China in the field of artificial intelligence, and a member of the powerful Chinese Academy of Sciences, are partnering in this initiative. Guangdong University is another important partner. It is ranked among the leading institutions in China in development. The focus of the centre of excellence that is being developed is the application of artificial intelligence in the industrial sector, agriculture, health and other important fields.

The China-Austria-Pakistan collaboration, which involves three Austrian and five Chinese universities, gives the university a powerful platform for the development of new commercial products and processes and linking industries and academia in the three countries.

The second unique feature of this university is that once the programmes are fully accredited by the eight foreign partner universities, the degrees will be offered by these universities to Pakistani students. It will be the first university where students studying in one department will get degrees from one foreign university while those in another department will get degrees from another foreign university.

The third unique feature of the university is its hybrid nature with a ‘Fachhochschule’ section offering high-quality technical education at Bachelor’s and Master’s levels, a second postgraduate research university section offering PhD- and postdoctoral-level education and training, and a third innovation/entrepreneurship section focusing on new product development and commercialisation in the technology park. There is no other university in the world offering this ‘triple combination’ of training and development facilities.

Another similar university is now under development in Sialkot. To ensure quality, 100 percent of the faculty has PhD degrees and the ratio of faculty-to-student is 1:20 which by far outclasses all other universities in the country where this ratio is as low as about 1:100. The credit for providing financial and other support to this visionary programme goes to Prime Minister Imran Khan who has fully supported the development of these novel universities under my leadership. These hybrid universities are important to develop a strong knowledge-based economy.

We are fortunate to have about 90 million people below the age of 19, which is about 56 percent of the country’s population. These people are our real wealth. Our ministries of planning and finance need to understand that natural resources now have diminishing importance and it is the quality of human resources that determines the future of nations. Pakistan was spending only about 2.5 percent of its GDP on education and about 0.2 percent on research and development, but this situation is now changing under the present government.

The formation of the Knowledge Economy Task Force by the PM and the approval of projects in science and emerging technologies worth over Rs67 billion by the present government marks a radical departure from the past as science has now, at last, begun to receive the high national priority that it deserves.

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