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Random thoughts: Science for development

No one can deny the importance of science and technology in national development. Every aspect of our existence depends on advancements in these fields. However, there can be no scientific advancement without education.

The healthy growth of science and technology in any country depends on the availability of trained manpower. In fact, human resources with relevant competencies build the socioeconomic and cultural profiles of a country. This is primarily governed by the availability of facilities and public awareness about the need to acquire technical skills. Successive governments have embarked on a number of socio-economic reforms including efforts to accelerate human resources and infrastructural development in science and technology in order to achieve self-reliance in vital areas.

During the last century, we have seen how countries that have established a sound science and technology base have become economic giants. However, those countries that did not – or could not – achieve these targets lagged behind socially and economically even though they possess enormous natural resources. Japan, China, France, England and Germany – which have been devastated by war or famine – became superpowers within a few decades. This was partly done by dint of the hard work put in by their people and partly through systematic and effective policies on science and technology.

Compared to these countries, there are many others in the world that are rich in natural resources but remain dependent on the technologically-advanced countries for their needs owing to the lack of a scientific base. The GDP of almost all oil-rich Middle Eastern countries put together cannot compare to the GDP of a medium-sized European country that is able to sell a few dozen aircrafts and earn more in one year than those supplying crude oil, minerals or ores would in several years.

The establishment of a science and technology infrastructure – the tool to achieve our national objectives – needs to be prioritised as a national commitment. This infrastructure includes appropriate scientific education centres, a sophisticated scientific research organisation, state-of-the-art equipment in laboratories, well-trained manpower in laboratories, library facilities and the provision of a suitable working environment.

The overall scenario of the education sector in our country is quite dismal as we ranking in the 127th position in terms of world literacy. Statistics indicate that only a fraction of those who attend schools are able to finish high school. Moreover, only 3.5 percent of students between the ages of 17 and 24 are at universities. Compare this to 60 percent in the US, 32 percent in Korea and 10 percent in India.

This is not surprising as successive governments have allocated a minimum amount of funds to the education sector and, in particular, science and technology. We are ranked among those countries in the world that have the lowest allocations for education. There needs to be a minimum of five percent of GDP expenditure in order to raise the standard of science education to acceptable levels in the country.

If we want to be at par with India, we need to establish at least 200 top-class universities by 2050. The number of schools and colleges would have to be increased by a factor of four with a double-shift system. One can imagine the amount of funding that this objective requires. Owing to the inadequate educational facilities, there is an acute shortage of trained experts and manpower in the existing science and technology organisations.

The number of active researchers is even smaller. There are only about 5,000 PhD students in all science subjects and most of them are working in the education sector. There is also a lack of support staff as there are very few technical training institutions in the country. This situation has been further aggravated by the ban imposed on fresh recruitments during the past years leading to brain drain.

At this stage, science is evolving at a fast pace. Enormous amounts of data are generated every day and everyone working in a particular field needs to be aware of this. For this, all scientific organisations need to acquire specialised journals and periodicals. This is also the age of informatics through elaborate computer networks and all scientific organisations should have access to these facilities. Without accessing the latest information, no meaningful research can be carried out.

The path of scientific development is not an easy one. In the words of Sir Michael Foster, “progress may not be in a straight line, there may be swerving to this side and to that. Ideas may seem to return to the same point of the intellectual compass but they always will have reached a higher level”. All this requires a conducive environment. But this concept has not been stressed in our society. It is simply assumed that scientists will deliver irrespective of their environment.

It is disheartening to see what the average working environment of a scientist in Pakistan is. There is also a wide gulf between the service structures, promotions and facilities given to other professionals as compared to those offered to scientists. How can science flourish under such conditions?

Everyone knows that science and technology has invaded our homes – through processed foods and television – and our professional lives – in the form of machines, electronics and computers. Even our leisure, health and travel are influenced by it. Advancements in science have not always been accompanied by progress in human relations and social order. This gap needs to be bridged because it can create social and moral disorder by eroding traditional values. The assimilation of science into culture has been a slow and difficult process.

Even though the number of universities and institutes has multiplied over the past 70 years, the qualitative aspects of such institutions remain neglected. Most alarming is the fact that not a single Pakistani university is listed among the 500 top universities of the world. A large segment of the affluent youth have gone abroad for higher education or attended expensive universities at home while poor and middle class families have no option but to send their children to mediocre institutions.

The Higher Education Commission was set up to bring in viable reforms. The purpose of this commission was to transform institutions of higher education into world-class places of learning. By strengthening the science and technology infrastructure and providing requisite resources where they are required, we will be in a better position to strengthen our fragile economy and ensure the development of the country.

Email: dr.a.quadeer.khan@gmail.com

Dr A Q Khan, "Random thoughts: Science for development," The News. 2017-07-31.
Keywords: Education , Educational issues , Higher education , Scientific education , Education sector , Universities , Technology , Development , Michael Foster , Pakistan , Germany , GDP , PhD