Noman Akhter

In this day and age, the single most important factor that determines the fate of a nation and its state of socio-economic development is education. It is the scientists and engineers that are changing the world today. This is evident from the new technologies that are seen in a large number of emerging products, ranging from cell phones to automobiles and from pharmaceuticals to new materials. Indeed it is the quality of education that eventually determines the stature of the leadership and the success or failure of democracy in a country. All aspects of the development of a country are directly impacted by the quality of the educational systems, be it industrial and agricultural development, law and order, health, or sense of social responsibility.

All our country’s current problems may be attributed to the criminal neglect of education by successive governments. We spend only about 1.7% of our GDP on education, putting us among the bottom seven countries of the world. Most of our children grow up without a proper education, resulting in massive joblessness. The resulting frustrations are leading thousands of youth today, particularly in cities like Karachi, to indulge in street crime as the only path available for survival. Phone snatchings at gun point mark the beginnings of such careers in crime. The easy money leads them on to car thefts and then even to robberies and kidnappings. This is the road that we have paved out for our youth in Pakistan and all major political parties can share the blame for their role in the neglect of education that has made Pakistan a living hell for many. If an international vote was taken today for the worst country to live in due to crime and lack of opportunities, Pakistan will alas emerge as a winner. The reckless theft and plunder of those who have been in power for the last six decades, with few exceptions, has brought this country to its knees — to a point where many now doubt if it will survive. The salvation lies in quality education, if we change our priorities. The exciting ways in which science, technology and innovation are changing the face of development can offer opportunities for us to leap frog and emerge from our present miserable state. A few recent examples of new technologies are illustrative of what is happening.

It is now possible to grow cells on a large scale in bioreactors and meat cells may one day be produced and processed to afford “meat” without the slaughtering of animals. Recently a company Organovo based in San Diego California announced that it had developed a commercial 3D printer for manufacturing human organs! The 3D printer is claimed to be able to place and organize cells of any type on to a template in a predetermined manner. This will, one day, allow surgeons to have access to human tissues of various types on demand.

About 130-170 million persons worldwide are infected by hepatitis C. Hepatitis is a common viral disease found in Pakistan and many other countries with poor quality water supplies and sub-standard sanitation services. In an exciting development, Michael Houghton and coworkers at the University of Alberta have developed a vaccine from a single strain of hepatitis C that was found to be effective against all known strains of the disease.

A Madrid based designer Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez has developed “smart luggage” that follows you wherever you go automatically! The suit case or carry-on bag is fitted with a caterpillar track system and a small battery that allows it to roll along in any direction. It can be connected by blue tooth to a smartphone carried by the passenger. A microprocessor calculates the position of the smartphone and directs the suit case to follow the passenger carrying it.

These are three examples of recent developments in technology. The technologically advanced countries are progressing rapidly through thousands of such discoveries and inventions every week that soon become commercial products. These researches are taking place either under the umbrella of universities or in R & D centres of private companies. The governments of these countries have played a major role in boosting these research activities by providing huge support by strengthening universities, and establishing technology parks and venture capital funds to promote new start-up companies.

In Pakistan we have paid little heed to science, technology, education or innovation since its inception and the little that had been achieved has been systematically destroyed by the government in recent years. Biotechnology is changing the face of agriculture and medicine. India established a full-fledged Department of Biotechnology under the central government in 1986 and has funded major programs to strengthen biotechnology and the biotechnology industry has been growing by leaps and bounds. On the footsteps of the IT industry that has already grown to $ 60 billion, the biotechnology industry has grown to over $ 3 billion and is expanding at a rate greater than 25% per year. The famous Nobel Laureate Arthur Kornberg had once stated and I quote:: “Much has been said about the future impact of biotechnology on industrial development, but this does not yet apply to the less developed countries that lack this infrastructure and industrial strength. In view of the current power of biotechnology and its even brighter future, there is no question that the less developed countries must now position and strengthen their status in biotechnology —- what a tragedy it would be if these enlarged concepts of genetics, biology and chemistry were available only to a small fraction of the world population located in a few major centres of highly developed countries.”

In Pakistan I had established the National Commission of Biotechnology of Biotechnology when I was the Federal Minister of Science and Technology in 2001. The Commission started a large number of programs and was beginning to lay the foundations of a solid program in biotechnology when the enemies of Pakistan came into action. The government that followed closed down the National Commission of Biotechnology and closed down all its programmes. Another fast emerging field in science is nanotechnology. China, India and many other countries are investing heavily in it and it is already beginning to impact a large number of industries in different fields of engineering, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, transportation, electronic and computer sciences. I had established a National Commission of Nanotechnology and provided funds through the Ministry of Science & Technology to promote this fast growing field. Alas it met the same fate as the Biotechnology Commission. The National Commission of Nanotechnology was closed down by the subsequent government and its programmes abandoned. The attempts to destroy the Higher education Commission by corrupt politicians is a part of the same sad story. Its budget is about half of what it should have been and many of its programmes have been severely curtailed or abandoned.

The greatest enemies of Pakistan lie within our country. They are desperate to make sure that Pakistan does not progress in any field and becomes a failed state while they loot and plunder all its wealth and pile it in foreign assets and foreign bank accounts before fleeing abroad.

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Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman is the, former Federal Minister for Science & Technology and former Chairman of Higher Education Commission.

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