Our primary emphasis is on quality

Print edition : October 19, 2012

Atta-Ur-Rahman: "Pakistan has 10 times more publications today compared with what it had seven or eight years ago."-

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

ATTA-UR-RAHMAN, a product of Karachi University and Kings College, Cambridge, 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. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

You have indicated in some of your writings that there was a fear of the significant reforms that were introduced when you were the Science Minister and the Chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) getting destroyed or eroded owing to the change of regime in Pakistan. What recent developments in Pakistan suggest that?

Yes, there were some unfortunate developments since 2008 when I resigned and left. What happened was that the government decided to fragment the HEC and give the pieces to the provinces and keep some activities at the Centre as a part of devolution. I, at that time, stood up and said that this was illegal and unconstitutional. As the President of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences I held press conferences across the country and then I went to the Supreme Court of Pakistan and I appealed that this step by the government to break up the HEC was unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court upheld my appeal. So the HEC has not been affected as far as its legal entity is concerned. There has been a shortage of funding. The development funding for the universities through the HEC is about 40-50 per cent less than what it was supposed to be. But budgets go up and down with time. I hope this will revive with time.

What is, however, very heartening is that the policies of the HEC have not been altered. Usually when a person heading it goes, the new person who comes in says that everything that was done in the past was nonsense and we will start anew. But this has not happened in the case of the HEC. I was initially replaced by Begum Shahnaz Wazir Ali, who belongs to the Pakistan Peoples Party [PPP], which is the party in power. She was an acting Chairperson for one year. I do not have any political affiliations. I am neutral and I am a scientist. She praised the reforms that I had brought in. She was replaced by another, who was a senator in the PPP, Dr Javed Laghari. He has also continued with the same policies. This is broadly what has happened in the recent past. It is heartening that they are not starting from zero. There is a continuity of policies although there has been a shortage of funds; as a result some of the programmes have been affected.

But it seems that the larger autonomy that the HEC perhaps enjoyed earlier is curtailed because it is now under some Ministry and probably the budget comes from that Ministry.

They tried to do that. They said that the HEC would work under the Ministry of Manpower Development and Training. Then there was an appeal. A case was filed in the Sind High Court. The court stopped that from happening. Now both the HEC and the Ministry have agreed that it will function, as in the past, with the Ministry of Education. Actually, the HEC was never under the Ministry of Education; there was only a collaborative mechanism. So they have agreed that the same collaborative mechanism will now continue with the new Ministry. So I think that has been sorted out.

Has a scaling down of the significantly higher salaries for scientists or the tenure track programme that you put in place been affected?

No. That is all going on. There has been no change in that. There has, however, been a scaling down of the scholarship programmes. Some major development schemes of the universities for new departments and institutions have been affected adversely by the curtailment of funds. But the core programmes are continuing, which include the higher salary structures, the tenure track programme, the research grants programme and the distance learning initiative.

How successful has been this tenure track initiative?

Oh! It has been outstandingly successful. Initially, there was a lot of resistance to it when I brought it in. There is an interesting article by Fred Hayward and there is also a report by the USAID which, in fact, says that initially there was a lot of resistance to much of the reforms, but Professor Fred Hayward representing the USAID was one of a team of five or six. But when he visited Pakistan three or four years later he saw how changed the whole situation was, and people who were initially against the reforms were now totally in favour. This was a neutral international comment being made. Professor Fred Haywards observations are there in this report by the USAID.

One of the people who criticised it was Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy.

I think he misunderstood the whole programme. What I had said was that within my tenure I would increase PhD output from 200 a year to 1,500 a year. I was talking about total PhDs from both within Pakistan and abroad and I met this target. By the time I left in 2008, we were producing about 800-900 in foreign countries and 600 from Pakistan. If you try to expand the PhD output, then quality is affected. So I introduced reforms ensuring that all theses were evaluated by international experts and I also checked plagiarism by distributing software. So our primary emphasis was on quality. But this was not properly understood. Hoodbhoy said that we were just looking at numbers rather than quality.

In fact, if you look at the USAID report, it says that they were very pleasantly surprised that our emphasis was on quality rather than numbers, and this is borne out by the fact that although the PhD output went down initially when we enforced quality, it started going up subsequently. They visited various universities and have made very detailed comments. There are always people who are for you or against you in everything. In the final analysis, it is the neutral international observers whose opinion is more valuable because it is an external peer review that has been carried out. Ultimately, the results are before you. Those are statistics that you can look up in the web of science. These are facts and no one can argue about them.

Pakistan has 10 times more publications today compared with what it had seven or eight years ago. It has 1,000 per cent increase in citations. It has more than a tripling of enrolmentfrom 270,000 we are now about a million students.

Do you have problem in identifying quality teachers?

This is the single biggest problem in Pakistan and thats why we spend most of our money in identifying the brightest for scholarship programmes by having a national examination every three months. Only students who had a good academic career are allowed to appear. Through the exams, we identified the best 500 each quarter, which means about 2,000 every year, and we invited professors from abroad for final selection through personal interviews. This was a mechanism with nobody from the government sitting in and that ensured complete transparency, and so you know it is all done on merit basis. Some 11,000 foreign scholarships were given. About 5,000 of them were for PhDs and the others for split PhD programmes and Masters programmes, and so on, and this has changed the university system to a great extent because people are coming back in 95 per cent plus numbers because we have increased the salaries, and we have increased research grants.

We have to create the right enabling environment and not just legal bonds. So they are making a huge difference to the university system and the set-ups that we have at the moment because the emphasis is on high-quality faculty. Competition and quality assurance have also helped to raise standardsranking everybody; giving research productivity allowances to those who are publishing in international journals; ranking all universities on a regular basis; closing down substandard universities; laying minimum criteria for the formation of new universities, like PhD. level faculty, facilities, infrastructure, library facilities and cabinet approval.

Perhaps the single most important way to implement these programmes and get the muscle that I needed to push this through in such a short period of time was by forming a Chancellors Committee, which had the President of Pakistan as the head; the Prime Minister who is the chancellor of some university; the Governors of the four provinces, who are the chancellors of the provincial universities; and the Chief Ministers of the four provinces, who are the executive arms, along with the Finance Minister, the Finance Secretary and myself, who were also invited.

The committee used to meet regularly and take decisions. Once a decision was made by the committee, bureaucrats at lower levels could not question them. That helped me to push through the reforms. Because people often ask me, how did you do it? In a developing country, who listens to the Minister of Science? The Ministry of Science is usually the weakest Ministry.

Another thing is that President [Pervez] Musharraf was strongly supportive because I was blunt, straightforward; I was not a yes man, I am a scientist. Thats what I have done all my life, and he respected that. I said that I am going to be very blunt with you. Whenever there is a problem I am going to come to you and you have to solve it. I will never ask anything for myself and I must say that he was very supportive throughout. Even when he was not the Chief Executivewe had the democratic system coming in with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and othershe remained the President and was always supportive and whatever I achieved, it was also because of the constant support and trust that I had from the President himself.

You had this Foresight Exercise. What came out of that?

Yes. I had carried out one and it was a 300-page document, which was approved by the Cabinet in August 2006. That had provided guidelines to the provincial governments, but within a year of that there was a change of government in 2008. Unfortunately, while some of the things have been implemented, others have not, because I think it was considered as the activity of the past government. But various political parties have asked for that, they are looking at it very carefully. So I hope in time it will be implemented.

You had also drawn up a 15-year road map for the future of Pakistans S&T and higher education. What about that?

The 15 years were broken into three five-year periods with clear-cut identification of projects in each fieldwhat are we to do, what time frame, what costs, what impact on national economy, etc. This was in 2007. Very few projects have been taken up, but mostly it is not implemented.

Do you think it will be on track some time?

I hope so because the momentum that I had generated is now irreversible. This is apparent from the fact that when they tried to break up the HEC and I stood up and started having press conferences all over, the whole country rose up with me.

All the 72 vice-chancellors unanimously passed a resolution against the devolution of the HEC. The students came out on the streets saying that we would not allow this. Then the political parties, except for the PPP, came out in my favour when they saw that this was the general trend. Finally, the government had to yield because I went to the Supreme Court and got a decision.

Some of the other political remarks in your writings are probably perceived as controversial. You have said that the development process was much better during the military regimes of President Ayub Khan and President Pervez Musharraf.

I was just mentioning the fact that this is a statistical truth and anybody can look up the statistics and the GDP growth rate of Pakistan under successive democratic regimes and military regimes. I am not at all in favour of being governed by the army. I am a democrat. I would like to see democracy come into Pakistan. But the kind of democracy that we have had, unfortunately, has been such that military regimes, in spite of all their shortcomings, have done much better. The reasons are mainly twofold. One is that we have a strong feudal system, which was broken up in India by Jawaharlal Nehru and in Bangladesh by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, this has not happened in Pakistan and we have a stranglehold of the feudal system. And related to this is the massive illiteracy and that means that elections have become a farce. Even in the last elections that took place, the Election Commission said that 45 per cent of the votes cast were fake.

In the case of Pakistan, I am in favour of a presidential system of democracy like the one that they have in France or in the United States, where you select one person and then he selects his own team from wherever he likes and is not confined to Parliament. The way forward is a democratic system, not the army, but a different form of democracy. Rather than relying on the masses choosing a Parliament and then [the Cabinet] being confined to Ministers selected from that Parliament, there should be direct elections of the President who then chooses his own team. So there needs to be a modulation. And also, I believe that bodies such as the Pakistan International Airlines or the Pakistan Steel Mills or other organisations should have their own governing boards, independent of the government. There should be no interference from the government.

But in developing countries, faced with sharp rich-poor divisions, caste structures, poverty and illiteracy, how do you ensure that governance under such presidential democratic systems is inclusive and equitable across all sections of society?

First, the system that I am suggesting is that Parliament should be confined to the process of law-making, which means that it should have a certain level of literacy and not everybody can be elected. Perhaps they should set aside a certain percentage of seats for farmers and people like that to ensure certain representation from all quarters, but the majority of parliamentarians should be highly educated so that they have a certain level of understanding of law and can contribute. Then Parliament should have oversight of all the activities, which also happens in the parliamentary system to ensure that if there is anything wrong, then the parliamentary committees have an oversight of what is going on.

But people who are coming in at key positions of the government should be completely independent of respective governments. I have suggested that there should be a judicial committee of elders, which should screen these people to see if they have clean character and career and if they are suitable. Only then they should be allowed to hold key positions in the government or run large public sector organisations.

Now that Musharraf has also been talking of coming back, are you thinking of getting back into the role of a Science Minister at some point of time?

I am not a politician. I have never contested elections. I am quite happy doing my research in my lab and having fun in my science. I would like to contribute in whatever little way I can through advisories, through consultancies. I have no aspirations of becoming a Minister. I never had in the first place. I was on a lecture tour to Japan when I got this call from President Musharraf that he wanted me as a Minister. When I came back and asked him, Are you serious?, he said yes, and I asked, How serious are you? He asked how serious I wanted him to be and I gave him figures and told him that this was how serious I wanted him to be and said, If you are serious about science, put your money where your mouth is. And as a result we had tremendous support from him.

For me science and education is a passion and that is what I would like to continue to do in whatever little way I can. I write articles for Dawn every Sunday, called The Wondrous World of Science. I have written 162 articles and the first 100 have been compiled into a book and published recently. I also write articles for The NewsI have written about 20 articles so far. I have just started writing for The Herald Tribune. I just like to, at least convey my ideas of the way forward.

Thank you Professor Rahman.

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