For a knowledge economy

Wednesday / Aug 26 2015

Newspaper : The News

We live in a world in which innovation drives economies, and universities and research centres are playing a pivotal role in the transformation of nations. You can hang an elephant on a strand of ‘graphene’ that is 150 times thinner than a human hair and the strand will not break since it is 200 times stronger than steel. It has become a multi-million dollar product, though discovered just five years ago.
Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility is now a reality by the discovery of meta-materials that have the ability to bend light and hence make objects covered by them invisible. They are now being employed by the arms industry for stealth purposes to cloak tanks, submarines etc. The field of genomics is expanding very rapidly and soon it should be possible to grow genetically modified food crops with salt tolerant genes using seawater.
Super-fast gene sequencing under development should allow the entire human genome to be sequenced in minutes, opening the way for personalised medicine. Paper made from stones is already in the market and bulletproof paper has been developed from nanocellulose through application of nanotechnology. Anti-ageing compounds have been discovered. Stem cells promise to cure damaged organs and may change the manner in which medicine will be practiced tomorrow. The blind can, amazingly, today see with their tongue, a device commercialised in Wisconsin Science today presents a myriad such opportunities and countries investing in research and innovation are making billions of dollars through such technologies.
Most top universities in the world have integrated technology parks within their fold, so that new ideas can be incubated and emerge as tangible new and innovative products and processes. While not a single Nobel Prize in science has been awarded to anyone from the Islamic world for work carried out with an Islamic country, by comparison 90 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to faculty members and affiliates of just one university in the UK: Cambridge University. These include 29 Nobel prizes in Physics, 26 in Medicine, 21 in Chemistry, nine in Economics, two in Literature and two in Peace. Just one college in Cambridge, Trinity College, has produced 32 Nobel Prize winners. Fred Sanger at Kings College, Cambridge has won two Nobel Prizes. Similarly according to a study carried out by Kauffman Foundation, ‘Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT’, it was stated that MIT alumni had founded thousands of companies that employ over a million professionals and have annual world sales of about $2 trillion, producing the equivalent of the 11th largest economy in the world (
Universities such as Cambridge and MIT are transforming national economies in a major way today. The world stands divided into two broad groups of nations: countries that are producers and exporters of technology and those that are dependent on others on their technological needs. This represents the ‘knowledge divide’ between the haves and have nots.
Even small countries in Asia with no natural resources can follow this path to a knowledge economy. All it needs is a visionary government. Singapore with a population that is quarter to that of Karachi has annual exports of over $450 billion, 15 times those of Pakistan. The per capita income in Singapore is well above those of Germany, Japan, UK, or US. The National University of Singapore, ranked among the top 25 universities of the world, has a budget of $1.6 billion (Rs160 billion), whereas the budgets of all public sector universities in Pakistan added together amounts to only Rs78 billion.
Pakistan made significant improvements in its higher education sector from 2003 to 2008 and within five years of the establishment of the Higher Education Commission, five of its universities were internationally ranked among the top 300-500 of the world. This progress even alarmed India ( Unfortunately, it was short-lived as the previous government with 200 parliamentarians with forged degrees went about systematically destroying all the good work that had been done. The result: in the recent Shanghai rankings of world universities, there is not a single Pakistani university ranked among the top 500 of the world. What a shame.
The Planning Division should support the Higher Education Commission to undertake the following steps to uplift universities so that they can help Pakistan transition to a strong knowledge economy: Send at least 2,000 of our brightest students for PhD to top universities of the world each year so that university faculty can be strengthened. Restore the $100,000 research grant programme for each returning student for which they could apply a year before their return. This programme was operative in 2006-2008 but was abandoned later. Ensure proper placement of returning PhD scholars at least 6-12 months before their return. Restore the differential between the tenure track system and the BPS system as the salaries under the tenure track system have eroded with time. Give at least 50 percent weightage in ranking of universities to the student-PhD faculty ratio.
Streamline the research grants programme so that projects are approved or rejected within 90 days at maximum. Magnify the annual research budget to 10 percent of total recurring/development budget of universities of Rs78 billion (ie to Rs7.8 billion). Freeze/reduce development funding of those universities that have not adopted the tenure track system of appointments and ensure that all new faculty appointments are contractual in nature with permanency being granted after international assessment. Strengthen and simplify the Open Access Instrumentation programme so that analysis can be carried out by researchers in any labs of their choice free of charge without cumbersome procedures. Strengthen the digital library programme so that all important journals and abstracts and search engines such as Scholar One are made available to every user.
Transform 10 of our best universities and 10 of our best research centres to world class ‘research universities’ and ‘international research centres’ of top international standards by strengthening faculty, and enhancing research funding. Enforce and implement Quality Assurance programmes in universities vigorously. Lay down Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for faculty members and link their salaries to performance. Make it mandatory for all faculty members in universities to carry out part-time work in industry, agricultural institutions or social organisations as an important KPI. Universities must not be ivory towers but contribute to society in a meaningful manner.
Over 50 percent of the population of Pakistan, about a 100 million, is below the age of 20. Pakistan must unleash this huge potential by investing in their education and training so that we can transition to a strong knowledge economy. The government should declare a National Educational Emergency and allocate at least seven percent of GDP to education as was provided in the Educational Policy approved by the previous government.