A national innovation policy

Wednesday / Jun 14 2017

Newspaper : The News

Pakistan – a country with a population of 220 million – has over a 100 million below the age of 20. This gives us a unique window of opportunity for socio-economic development. In order to unleash the creative potential of young people, we need to have a dynamic innovation policy to serve as the central driving force for national development plans and national self-reliance.

The word ‘Pakistan’ must become synonymous with innovation and we should become a country with the highest number of commercialised international patents as a percentage of our population. To achieve this, the implementation of the national innovation policy should be strongly linked with projects across all ministries. This will require fundamental reforms in various aspects of education.

We must create a mindset among our students that prioritises developing problem-solving skills instead of rote learning. The innovation policy should ensure inclusive and sustainable development. It should focus on not just economic competitiveness but also seek to ensure social justice and environmental protection.

The most important factor that can harness the potential of science, technology and innovation (STI) is the presence of a visionary prime minister who understands the critical role that these facets can play in developing a strong knowledge economy. Under the leadership of the prime minister, all the ministries and institutions must be aligned and working in a coordinated manner so that we can transition from our weak agriculture-based economy to a strong knowledge economy that focuses on manufacturing and exporting medium and high-technology products. Such an integrated approach was adopted with remarkable results by Korea under General Park Chung-hee, by China under Deng Xiaoping, by Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew and by Malaysia under Mahathir Mohammed.

There are vast opportunities for Pakistan in various manufacturing sectors, such as engineering goods, computer science and information technology, mineral production, biotechnology products, pharmaceuticals and energy. These have already been identified in a ‘foresight’ exercise conducted under my supervision which resulted in a 320-page document that was approved by the cabinet in August 2007. We now need to mobilise all ministries so that the five, 10 and 15 year targets set by them are achieved.

Strong national educational institutions and centres of excellence serve as the second important pillar that can help implement a dynamic national innovation policy. High-quality education produces the right citizens who subsequently become harbingers of a new society where innovation and entrepreneurship can flourish. The Korean industrial revolution was based on such reforms in the education sector. These reforms included the establishment of the Korean Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and the Seoul National University (SNU).

China started to send its brightest students to the top universities in the world in 1978. It is currently sending over 500,000 students each year for PhD and postdoctoral training every year. Over 420,000 of these students returned to China in 2016 alone and were employed in universities and research centres of excellence. They are now making a vital contribution to the Chinese economy. We in Pakistan have been unable to send even 1,000 students abroad each year. The creation of a critical mass of high-quality scientists and engineers – at least 3,000 per million population – is needed. Against the need of some 660,000 scientists and engineers, we actually have only about 30,000.

The third major pillar that promotes a culture of innovation is government funding. The development budget of science and technology in Pakistan is less than Rs2 billion. We are spending a hundredfold more on transportation schemes than we do on science or higher education. This trend is beyond comprehension and illustrates the need for a drastic change in the vision and strategies for development. It is vital to incentivise funding for education and science and facilitate basic research. We must allocate at least between five and six percent of our GDP towards education and at least three percent to science in order to implement a dynamic policy on science, technology and innovation.

The fourth major pillar is government policies. Proper policies can have a huge impact in every sector of development. In 2001, when I was the federal minister of science and technology (including information technology), I introduced a number of measures to promote the IT industry, including a 15-year tax holiday. This resulted in a hundredfold increase in IT services and exports – which increased from $30 million in 2001 to about $3 billion in the present.

the government needs to create an enabling environment so that our companies can compete with others in the West. The private sector then does the rest. The IT business expansion that occurred during the last 15 years illustrates this view. The same is true for the explosive expansion of mobile telephony in Pakistan after I brought in Ufone as a strong competitor and removed charges for people receiving calls on mobile phones. The phenomenal growth that has occurred is illustrated by the fact that from only 0.3 million mobile phone user in 2001, we now have more than 150 million mobile phone users. Similarly, the policy decisions that we took to uplift higher education when I was the HEC chairman rang alarm bells in India.

In Pakistan, the National ICT R&D Fund – which is to be renamed ‘Ignite’ – was approved when I was the federal minister of science and technology. It is now the premier national institution dedicated toward promoting an innovation and research commercialisation ecosystem across the country. It aims to make Pakistan a strong player in the knowledge economy by transforming into a Venture Capital (VC) fund that focuses on industrial technologies connected to The Fourth Industrial Revolution’. These include Big Data, Internet of Things, Cloud/Cyber security, robotics, 3D/4D printing, neuro technology and wearable implants. The company is setting up a series of incubation centres across the country that could impact the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Pakistan by unleashing creativity. Its latest initiative is to set up a centre within Karachi University under the umbrella of the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences.

A key aspect of the national innovation policy should be to make the development process inclusive so that wealth does not remain confined in a few hands. Fresh graduates should not just be looking for jobs. Instead, they should have the opportunity to form their own companies and provide jobs to others. This requires the creation of a dynamic ecosystem where innovation and entrepreneurship can flourish. Access to tech parks, venture capital, legal and financial services and professional mentoring to help the youth come up with viable business plans are all key components of such an ecosystem.

The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).