Friday July 01, 2022

Island of excellence

March 23, 2022

One university centre in Pakistan has risen to be regarded among the best in Asia and has won numerous international prizes and awards. The centre in question is the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences in the University of Karachi.

Designated as a ‘center of excellence’ by Unesco, The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS, Italy), OIC, and several other international agencies, it stands out as a beacon of light for many countries around the world. Prof Ernest Wenkert of the University of California visited this institute a number of times and then wrote the following comments about it:

“… it is truly amazing to me what high level of scientific standard the institute in Karachi has attained. It has been possible for me to watch the progress of the institute over the years only to be astounded at the accelerating changes and the seriousness with which scientific endeavor is taken at this institution. In my opinion it has become one of the three best research organization within the region of the Mediterranean to Japan. In view of the ease with which progress can slip, if institutions are not nurtured, it is of the most importance to continue to support the institute in the future to permit it to maintain its present position of science in the Afro-Asian world”.

I led the institute as co-director and later as director for about 26 years between 1976 and 2002 and tried to establish a highly charged research environment in which only the best faculty members could survive.

A system unknown in academia in Pakistan was therefore established in the 1970s whereby all persons appointed after having completed their PhDs were on contract for at least five years, and permanency of tenure was not granted to them till the quality of their research had been repeatedly assessed by international groups of foreign experts. Those found wanting were removed from their jobs, so that an environment was created in which only the best could survive. Also, each faculty member was expected to demonstrate his/her excellence by winning international projects with sizeable funding and failure to do so was one factor that could lead to their removal from service.

A rigorous set of key performance indicators were laid down, and the performance of each faculty member is assessed against them annually while determining their salary increases and job extensions. We managed to win major funding from Germany, Japan, USA and UK with which highly sophisticated laboratories were established which are today the envy of many visiting scientists from the West.

Commenting on our accomplishments, French Nobel Laureate Prof Jean-Marie Lehn wrote: “Professor Rahman is a very active scientist who has produced research work of very high caliber and is internationally recognized in his field of activity. By establishing an institute of high standard, he has contributed most importantly to the development of chemical research in his country and his region of the world. Finally, by his enthusiasm and dedication he has a very strong impact on training, simulating and inspiring young scientists as well as on promoting international relations”.

Prof Lehn and several other Nobel Laureates including Sir Derek Barton (UK) and Prof Richard Ernst (Switzerland) visited the institution several times, and strong research collaborations were also established with the Nobel Laureate Kurt Wuthrich (USA) who trained the faculty of the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences in the field of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy of macromolecules (proteins, nucleic acids etc).

When Pakistan has faced challenges, it is this very institution that has risen to the occasion. For example, even before Covid-19 pandemic attacked the world, it was realized by the leadership of the institute that it was only a matter of time before a viral disease such as the H1N1 influenza or a more dangerous form of hepatitis could cause a world-wide pandemic and Pakistan should anticipate such a dangerous situation. Accordingly, the National Center for Virology was set up within the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences equipped with suitable Biosafety Level 3 Plus facilities for research on dangerous viruses including about 20 PCR machines for detection.\

When the coronavirus attacked Pakistan, four of these machines were loaned to Indus Hospital Karachi,doubling their capacity for testing the virus. The International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences was recognized by the Sindh government as its official testing center, and about 3,500 tests on samples from coronavirus patients were performed on a daily basis. The first clinical trials of the coronavirus vaccine Sinopharm were performed in this institute, and this was the vaccine that was then first provided to Pakistan from China. The centre also has a sizable facility for industrial analysis and is assisting some 600 industries in providing relevant analytical data required by them to meet export standards.

A unique feature of the institution is its Entrepreneurship Center in which 40 new start-up companies are being incubated through provision of space, lab facilities, mentoring and guidance. The university-industry linkages provided have resulted in the development and improvement of many industrial products from various industries including Hamdard, Herbion, Searle Pharmaceuticals etc.

But perhaps the most exciting aspect of this institution is its international character. Visit it at any time on a working day or even on a holiday, and you will find the laboratories functioning with many foreign scientists from all over the world engrossed in their work.

The International Center for Chemical and Biological Science represents just a few of highly advanced centers of training and research in Asia, such as the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST, Daejeon, South Korea), Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore, India) and a couple of others. We need to set up a large number of such institutions, particularly in the fields of emerging technologies, with strong linkages to agriculture and industry.

In my capacity as the chairman of the PM Task Force on Science and Technology, I am trying to do just that. A gleaming new university, the Pak Austrian University of Applied Science and Engineering, has been established in Haripur Hazara which will house five centres of excellence. Construction has commenced of another similar university in Sialkot while a third such university housing centres of excellence in aerospace engineering, artificial intelligence and microelectronics is being established in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s future lies in its youth. It is only through quality education and massive investments in education, science, technology and innovation can we emerge as a powerful self-reliant nation.

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