Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Will science prosper or stumble under the new government in Pakistan?

Salman Hameed

Ehsan Masood has an article in this week's Nature that talks about the promise of scientific development by the Muslim League, that won the recent elections quire handily. I did not know that, but the Muslim League explicitly placed science at the center of their governing strategy. Alas, the reality has turned out to be a bit different:

Few general-election manifestos devote an entire chapter to promises in science and technology, so the campaign documents from the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League
stood out. In its bid for power earlier this year, this party of landowners and industrialists did something unexpected: it pledged to put science and technology at the heart of its governing strategy. 
It promised one million new high-tech jobs in the next five years. It talked of new funding agencies for biotechnology and nanotechnology, of new programmes in fuel cells and small satellites, and of revamping agricultural research. And it included a promise that the state would not interfere in the appointment of university vice-chancellors. 
If kept, the promises would mark a step in the right direction for Pakistan, helping it to shed its reliance on international aid and edge towards economic independence and stability. But they seemed a little too good to be true.
But Ehsan is disappointed by the choice of the new Minister of Science:

The latest incumbent, Zahid Hamid, is an unpromising choice for science minster. The position was his reward from the Muslim League for switching political sides — and it is questionable whether he has the vision or the experience to effect the changes promised by the league. 
Hamid also faces a political challenge that could see him exit the ministry as quickly as he arrived. He once was loyal to the former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, who is now awaiting trial and may be charged with treason. If Musharraf goes down, it would undermine Hamid and leave him ripe for replacement. 
There is no shortage of candidates to take his place — people who have a record of building successful institutions at the interface of knowledge and commerce, despite the poor track record of Pakistan's science ministry. Any one of these would be well placed to turn the promises of the manifesto into reality. 
Science does have the ear of the new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. The man who was instrumental in placing science at the heart of the league's manifesto, Ahsan Iqbal, is minister for planning and development and a member of Sharif's inner circle. Should Hamid depart, Iqbal would have a golden opportunity to push for a widely respected and heavy-hitting science minister.
I have not been following the details of Pakistani political scene, so I don't know about the potential choices. However, Ehsan has some ideas - and they look good:

One candidate is plant geneticist Kauser Malik, founding director of the National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering in Faisalabad and one-time chairman of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council. Malik has experience as both bench scientist and high-level administrator. He also has plenty of international connections and a record of delivering results. Alternatively, the government could look to the next generation and appoint Muhammad Iqbal Choudhary, director of the HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry at the University of Karachi, which is among the largest such facilities in Asia. 
A wild card would be Asad Umar, former chief executive of Engro, which he grew from a mid-size company to one of the continent's largest conglomerates, spanning agrochemicals to energy. Young, cricket-mad and popular with the public, Umar quit his job to join former cricketer Imran Khan's political party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, which in May came from nowhere to become the country's third electoral force. 
Umar's decision to leave business for politics is part of a bigger trend among younger, middle-class and highly networked voters to become politically active. Unusually for Pakistan, many queued for the best part of a day to cast their votes in May's elections. Even if Hamid stays in his post, the government might consider appointing a heavy-hitter to take charge of the science-for-growth strategy, and have him or her report to Iqbal in the Planning Commission. That person could then get on with the task of dragging Pakistan into the twenty-first century.
Asad Umar sounds like an interesting bet and he may bring some energy to the science policy. Furthermore, it will be good to have a federal minister from outside the ruling party. That will be another sign that the government is taking their words about the importance of science seriously.

Read the full article here.

P.S. I know that Ehsan takes quite a positive view of a past science minister, Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman, who indeed increased the science budget tremendously and reformed higher education. However, the effectiveness of such a strategy, without building a strong infrastructure has also been questioned - and the legacy of Atta-ur-Rehman remains very much in the air (for example, amongst its Muslim cohorts, Pakistan's scientific publications are still way behind Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Malaysia). But I was also dismayed by Atta-ur-Rehman when he wrote a highly dubious article that stoked conspiracy theories about US controlling the weather in Pakistan! There is plenty to critique about the US policy towards Pakistan, but it is a bit problematic when a prominent scientist uses highly dubious pseudoscientific claims to make his point. See my post from 2010: A Prominent Pakistani Scientist is Stoking Conspiracy Fires.


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