You cannot survive unless you work together

Print edition : October 05, 2012

Interview with Professor Atta-ur-Rahman, president of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences.

Atta-Ur-Rahman was a force of nature. That was the comment Naveed Naqvi, a senior education economist at the World Bank, made in the prestigious journal Nature in an article it had carried in September 2010 on higher education in Pakistan. He was referring to the remarkable turnaround in higher education and research Professor Atta-ur-Rahman had brought as the Federal Minister of Science and Technology between 2000 and 2008 and as Chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) and Adviser to the Prime Minister in 2002-08.

Between 2002 and 2008, there was a 60-fold increase in the development budget of the Ministry of S&T and a 24-fold increase in the development budget of the Ministry of Higher Education. He introduced dramatic changes in the salary structures of scientists. Under a new tenure track system, the salaries of professors were increased to over $5,000 a month, five times more than that of Ministers. He also gave performance-based incentive of 75 per cent tax waiver for university teachers. With an investment of $1 billion in the PhD programme, 11,000 foreign scholarships were given and each returning scholar was given a $100,000 research fund with a guaranteed job.

In a survey titled A New Golden Age? on the positive changes in some Islamic countries, the Royal Society (London) quoted Pakistan as the best practice model to be followed by other developing countries. Indeed, the reforms in Pakistan led Prof. C.N.R. Rao to remark in 2006 to a journalist, Pakistan may soon join China in giving India serious competition in science. Science is a lucrative profession in Pakistan.

With the change of regime in Pakistan, Atta-ur-Rahman returned to academics at the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences in Karachi, but feels a little disappointed with the somewhat indifferent attitude to the reforms that he brought about under the current regime. Indeed, he wrote recently, The Indian government need not be worried. We Pakistanis, alas, know how to destroy our own institutions. But he has fought and prevented some of the attempted reversals from happening.

A product of Karachi University and Kings College, London, Atta-ur-Rahman is an organic chemist by profession and an expert in the chemistry of natural products. As the current president of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences (PAS), the 68-year-old Delhi-born scientist was in Delhi to attend the first South Asian Science Academies summit organised by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) on September 6-9. In an interesting presentation at the summit, he gave a 10-point proposal to the eight academies that were present on how they could learn from one anothers experience. A man of action, he made an on-the-spot offer of 40 scholarships to spend up to three months in any Pakistani institution.

Atta-Ur-Rahman speaking at the first South Asian Science Academies summit organised by the Indian National Science Academy in New Delhi.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Professor Rahman, you had outlined a 10-point plan for possible cooperation among the science academies of the region. What among these should be the priority areas and which of these are feasible?

All the academies cannot obviously join together in a given programme. But a few can initially join together. Some programmes can have all the academies, but most programmes could be on a bilateral, trilateral or multilateral basis.

I think the easiest programme to implement is that of distance learning where no travel is involved and where we can share teaching by the best faculty members from a distance in a live interactive mode, a two-way process with students asking questions. We have this already up and running in Pakistan.

All our public sector universities have videoconferencing facilities and we have lectures being delivered in real time from the West and also by the best professors in the country. And this can be easily expanded to South Asian countries with hardly any effort.

Another programme that we could do together is on the issue of policies because academies are the think tanks for the government and they should be advising the government on policies. Specially, many South Asian countries do not have very clear innovation policies. A group needs to be put together to help individual countries formulate realistic and meaningful innovation policies and develop self-reliance.

A third area could be agriculture in which we have common problems of trying to improve yields and developing disease-resistant crops. There is a lot of experience in India and there is some experience in Pakistan and other South Asian countries. We could share those experiences and have a working group on specific crops. Information technology is another field. It has grown tremendously in India, and you are already reaping the fruits of the investments. Other countries are realising that this is a fast catch-up solution in many areas. It is a big equaliser. So, in the area of IT also we could share expertise and knowledge. India is now migrating to the higher end of IT exports leaving the way for many other countries in the areas of call centres and other lower value-added ends. This is one thing where other countries can benefit from the Indian experience.

So, proper mechanisms have to be laid down. As the President of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, I will be writing individually to all the academies proposing some programmes and see how many of them show interest in individual programmes and start them.

There have been long-standing political problems between India and Pakistan. In spite of there being an inter-academy memorandum of understanding between the two countries since January 2006, nothing significant seems to have come out of that. Now that the MoU has been renewed in January, what in your opinion lies ahead?

I think there should be much greater people-to-people interaction to pave the way. Be it in the area of commerce, business, education or science, inroads need to be made to develop closer interaction between India and Pakistan so that this concept of a country being an enemy gradually dissolves. Once people realise that we are all the same and genuinely desire cooperation and collaboration, the problemsa lot of them politically built upwill resolve themselves. In this world, you cannot survive unless you work together because our real enemies are poverty, hunger, disease and illiteracy. These are the things that we should be fighting against together as comrades-in-arms. That is why I invited Professor Krishan Lal [president of the INSA] earlier this year. That was the first time the INSA president visited Pakistan, and now I am visiting [India]. I am here in Delhi along with my team of scientists so that we can develop some cooperation and collaboration. I have some wonderful friends [here] such as Prof. [R.A.] Mashelkar, Prof. Goverdhan Mehta and Prof. C.N.R. Rao. I have known them for decades, and it is a pleasure to be here, meet them and talk to them.

Did you initiate any high-level discussions on the sidelines of this summit along which we can proceed?

I was discussing with Prof. Krishan Lal that now that we have signed an MoU, it is time we started doing something on the basis of that because MoU is just hopes and aspirations and unless we start doing something concrete, it is not very meaningful.

Earlier Indian scientists used to go to Pakistan to attend the annual Nathiagali conference initiated by Abdus Salam [the International Nathiagali Summer Colleges on Physics and Contemporary Needs organised jointly by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and the National Centre for Physics, Islamabad]. I dont think that they go there anymore. I dont even know if the conference still takes place

The programme is continuing but obtaining visas has been a problem. For instance, I was invited to the TWAS [Third World Academy of Sciences, Trieste, Italy] meeting in Hyderabad [in October 2010]. I was supposed to give the keynote lecture but I could not get a visa to go to Hyderabad although I am the regional vice-president of TWAS. Similarly, I was invited to go to Bangalore for another conference where your Prime Minister was there. But again I could not get a visa. It is in the last two-and-a-half years that this has happened to me. This time, I have a SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] visa and my colleagues also didnt have a problem getting a visa. So I am delighted that it has been agreed between the two countries that they will ease visa restrictions and they are inking an agreement. This is a movement forward and I hope they make it simpler, easier for people to go across borders. Also the trade links are being strengthened which will help the two countries to interact. So, yes, there has been a problem and we need to realise and tackle that problem so that there is a greater scientific interaction and collaboration.

You have had a long-standing cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and this is quite active. What is the nature of cooperation with China and what has Pakistan gained from this?

China has invested in quite a number of initiatives in Pakistan. For example, it set up the Chasma nuclear power plant, it has been involved in the construction of dams and the Karakoram highway. We have a joint aircraft manufacturing facility. We have placed [in orbit] the second communication satellite, which was built in collaboration with China. So, there are many such collaborations. But these are actually not in the areas of education, teaching or joint research; more in large mega projects. I think that needs to also transform itself to include education and research in a collaborative manner. That is still largely missing and I had invited the President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They also visited us earlier this year and I will be going to China with some colleagues to see how we can further strengthen our cooperation with China just as we are trying to do with India.

Do you have exchange of scientists between Pakistan and China?

We do have some exchange but not at the level that we would like to have. This needs to be expanded significantly. For instance, my own genome was recently sequenced by Chinese scientists. I am the first person from the Islamic world whose genome was completely sequenced in a collaborative programme between my institute in Karachi, the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences, and the Beijing Genome Institute. There is a genome centre coming up and we expect the Chinese scientists to be involved closely. We have a large number of students going to China. I had started a major scholarship programme to send students to top universities across the world and there are already a large number of students studying in top Chinese universities, Tsinghua and others, and we would like to do the same with India.

How do you get around the language problem for the students?

They learn Chinese for a year initially and then go for their education. Now I am planning to start a Chinese language programme through distance learning initiatives, which students in our universities could take, because this has opened up an opportunity that did not exist before. So thats something we can start to facilitate for our students, not just at the university level but also at a lower level.

You are also the Coordinator-General of COMSTECH [Organisation of Islamic Countries Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation for the promotion and cooperation of science and technology activities]

Yes, I have been heading COMSTECH for the past 16 years, which as you know comprises Ministers of Science from the 57 OIC [Organisation of the Islamic Conference] member-countries. My tenure expired at the end of June. But I continue to head the Network of Academies of Sciences of Islamic Countries.

What are your perceptions and perspective on the state of S&T and higher education in Islamic countries?

Generally it is a very poor state of affairs with the exception of Turkey, which has done quite well. Iran, too, has done well. Malaysia is doing well. Pakistan has improved considerably in the past decade. Egypt has a significant science base. Saudi Arabia has also been investing considerably in science in the past few years. But by and large it is still very low. But statistics are very interesting. The investment, as an average of the 57 countries, has increased to 0.46 per cent of the gross domestic product from 0.2 per cent 10 years ago. There is a very positive trend visible within the Islamic countries towards science now, and countries such as Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Qatar and the UAE are investing in a big way in science institutions.

What is your understanding of the phrase Islamic science that one often hears? One heard the phrase used in the presentations of some Islamic countries here.

This phraseology is just a lot of rubbish. There is no such thing as Jewish mathematics or Christian physics or Islamic science. This is all just a load of nonsense. I dont believe in using such terminologies. Science is science. It is religion neutral. Of course, we can talk about the contributions made by Muslim scientists in the earlier era but thats not Islamic science.

It is often said that in Islamic countries there is a clash between modern science and Islamic religious orthodoxy in terms of attitudes towards science.

This could be a perception because there are such people but we dont have conferences on Islamic science in Pakistan and I dont support the idea in any way.

In most Islamic countries finance itself does not seem to be a problem, particularly in oil-rich countries. But still progress in S&T seems to be slow and not commensurate with the available resources.

Finances are a problem because they are not putting the money in S&T. They have the money but they are not investing in science.

Is that due to the prevalent attitudes towards science?

There is an attitudinal problem and this is gradually changing. As I said in the last decade you have more money going in. But there is still a long way to go. Most of the countries spend far more on defence than they do on S&T. And in defence many of these oil-rich countries are buying expensive weapons, expensive fighter planes mainly from the United States and Europe.

Tens of billions of dollars are being spent unfortunately in buying these expensive toys, which will soon become outdated, and they want to buy more toys.

A lot of it is unfortunately corruption driven. Since much of the money in many cases goes to families, to their key people, there are dummy companies owned by various powerful people. So corruption unfortunately is also responsible for expenditure in defence-related materials. .

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