Recently, in an article titled “HEC Should Return to Pakistan”, Jehanzeb Ahmed, Head of the Electrical Engineering Department at Bahria University, made the case that technology, not science, is the pressing need of the country. Read the rest of this entry »

Editors’ Note: The Atlas project team is seeking examples of significant scientific or commercialisation accomplishments in Muslim countries that have received major international acclaim or achieved commercial success. Scientists and technologists are invited to send in their nominations by August 31st, 2010, at the latest. Details are included at the end of the article.

The Atlas is a study (Atlas Brochure) that will explore the changing landscape of science and innovation across a diverse selection of countries with large Muslim populations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, including in-depth case studies of fifteen geographically and economically diverse countries. It aims to draw important cross-country conclusions to help national policy-makers, international stakeholders, and development planners to chart the way forward. Working closely with partners in each of these countries, the project will chart the delicate interplay between science, innovation, culture and politics, and explore new opportunities for partnership and exchange with the wider world. Read the rest of this entry »

Last month representatives from Carnegie Mellon University met with the administrators of various Pakistani universities, and the leadership at the HEC, to explore the possibility of establishing mutually beneficial collaboration between universities in Pakistan and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, USA. Read the rest of this entry »

A new study published in the February issue of the Journal of Conflict Resolution, considers the impact of education and income on support for suicide bombings, spanning the geographic spectrum of Muslim-majority countries; in East Asia (Indonesia), South Asia (Pakistan), the Middle East (Lebanon and Jordan), Eurasia (Turkey), and North Africa (Morocco). Read the rest of this entry »

“My heart breaks for my beloved country. I want to do something extra-ordinary for the betterment of my people, and I invite you to join me in a national cause by volunteering your time and expertise for this country,” says a high-level government official holding Rs. 1500 million budget for a national science project.“Sir, but this is a commercial entity. I have no problem working for free for an orphanage or an NGO but, since you will make millions (by selling your services to other governmental and commercial entities) once this project is complete, why cannot you spare a few thousand rupees for consultants who can tell how to setup this facility?” I replied. And, as expected, I received the same response that I’ve been getting at least once a week since I came back to Pakistan: “This is your country; it is your responsibility to serve her. It should be your top-most (and, in fact, the only) priority to work for her. If you want to make money go back from wherever you came from, we don’t need you. Pakistan doesn’t need you. This country was made in God’s name and He will guide us in these troubled times.”

I am still struggling to differentiate between patriotism and free labor. I believe that we all are patriots, as long as we are doing what we are supposed to do, or until we do something unpatriotic. I am loyal to my country, but I have family responsibilities as well. I cannot do research, or work for the betterment of the society, if I am not able to feed my family, or provide them with basic necessities of life.

Unfortunately, we have developed a tradition of slapping everyone who wants to bring the change in the status quo with the charge of insufficient patriotism. Personally, I like to show my patriotism through my work and not by my words. I don’t like to come up with the creative ways to prove how much I love my country, as Parveen Shakir once said:

a-maadr-e-geeti

What’s more, working for free has a negative effect as well: It doesn’t matter how good you are or what you are capable of, if you are doing something for free, no one takes it seriously. At least this has been my experience so far.

So, if we are to pay researchers for their work on public projects, the question arises where should this money come from? To answer this question, consider this. If I were to make an analogy for Pakistani research community and industry/government agencies, I would equate them with the example of two cows: One is frail, sick and cannot even stand on her own feet, while the other is healthy, productive, and full of milk. The wise approach would be to milk the healthy cow, sell the milk, and take care of the sick cow from the money received from selling the milk. By feeding the weak cow from the cash received, we can expect that she will soon be healthy and productive. Research community in Pakistan, in general, is the weaker cow. It cannot and should not be expected to produce ready-to-use products. The stronger cow (government agencies and industry) has to feed her first with the start-up grants, consulting assignments, confidence, recognition, and respect. And then, we can expect some real output from the research community.

To build this relationship between industry, academia and government, we should focus mainly on the needs of young researchers. It will take far less effort, and resources to get young researchers on board, than what we are already spending on foreign consultants. I believe that they have the skills, up-to-date knowledge and expertise to get the job done. Besides, all the other necessary ingredients that we ask for upfront — patriotism, love for the country, etc. — are inherent properties of these young minds.

I admit that universities are also at fault for this broken relationship. We, the academics, have not been able to prove our capabilities or build the trust that is required in such contracts. We have to mutually grow this relationship, so as to create an environment that is conducive to research. To promote academic-industry-government partnership, HEC, Pakistan Science Foundation, ICT R&D Fund, Punjab IT Board and other organizations can play a role. They can bridge the gap by providing a platform that can take project/consulting requirements from the government/industry and assign it to young researchers, while facilitating and maintaining the research funds. This platform can also help build one-to-one relationship between a university researcher and a government official for future projects.

There are around 600 scholars, 400 or so who are currently studying on HEC scholarships and another 200 or so on Fulbright, who are expecting to return to Pakistan in 2010-2011. These scholars have been trained and educated on Pakistani tax payers’ money. We have to start trusting our own people and their expertise. And, I believe, they have the potential to exceed our expectations. By investing in them, not only will we be saving thousands of dollars that we spend on foreign consultants, but we will also build local capabilities. If we fail to build a system that makes use of the expertise of these returning scholars, I am afraid that most of the money spent on foreign scholarships will be wasted, either by scholars leaving the country for better opportunities or by not utilizing their full potential.

Not a single week passes that I don’t find someone shouting at me to go back to where I came from. But, I am not going to leave. I will stay here to make the naysayers obsolete. If we keep moving abroad out of frustration, we are, in fact, handing over our own motherland to these people. We will not, and we should not allow this to happen. The people who are opposing change are really old and they will retire in a few years. I have to stay here to wait for that vacant position and whenever there is an opportunity, I will opt for it to bring about the change my country deserves. And, in the meanwhile, I will create a generation of young minds to help me build a prosperous Pakistan. This is my country, I am here to stay, and I dare to stay!

zeeshan_usmaniDr. Zeeshan-ul-hassan Usmani is an assistant professor in the faculty of Computer Science at the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Science and Technology. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of STEP.

“Get good education and move to a bad neighborhood” was a constant advice I received from my advisor over the last six years that I spent at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) as a Fulbright scholar for my MS and PhD programs in Computer Science. Read the rest of this entry »

Pervez Hoodbhoy

STEP: Informed, perhaps, by your experiences as a student at MIT during the Vietnam War, you have spoken in favor of re-establishing student unions in Pakistani Universities. Could you briefly make the case for re-instituting student unions in Pakistan?

PH: Meaningful discussions on social, cultural, and political issues must be brought back to campuses. Young people are idealists; in fact, there is no other way for them unless they are brain dead. They naturally dream of what a good society is; a society that is way better than what they have inherited from their elders. So, it is perfectly healthy for students to have a self-image of being agents for positive change. Once aware, they soon realize that individuals count for little — only organized actions do. But organized actions require a culture of civilized debate. In my 36 years of teaching at Quaid-e-Azam University, I have never felt that rational, civilized debate with or between students is impossible. Of course, there have been exceptional situations, such as after the 1998 nuclear tests, but students will generally listen to the other side in a civilized way.
Read the rest of this entry »

The recent article by Sohaib Khan has touched a very important subject. Let me start by saying that I do not disagree with the core idea of that piece which, if I am allowed to summarize in a sentence, would be that research in Pakistan needs to be relevant to the local problems, with young researchers mentored towards practical, solutions-oriented research. Read the rest of this entry »

What benefit does research being done in Pakistani universities bring to the man on the street?

As the new breed of HEC-Funded PhD Scholars joins Pakistani universities, this is a pertinent question to ask. Producing PhDs, whether within Pakistan or abroad, is a significant investment, the cost of which is ultimately borne by the society. Can we assume that, in return, we will see tangible socio-economic benefits from their research, or should the society view the universities as ivory towers with little link to the real problems of Pakistan? After all, with 76% of population living at under $2 per day and 65% of women illiterate, can research spending on network routing protocols or multi-camera tracking algorithms be justified?

Read the rest of this entry »

On Funding Projects from the Industry

STEP: Till now, mostly you were funding projects in the academia. Would you be looking at funding projects that are directly initiated by the industry?

QS: We are supposed to fund projects submitted by the industry. Our proposal can be initiated by even an individual. But, being an entity that funds public money, the longevity of the institution to which we are giving money is very important to us. An individual can take the money (from us), work for a little while, and then disappear. What do we do then? Universities don’t disappear. They can provide longevity and credibility to the project. And, it is not (just) longevity for the length of that project but even after that. Read the rest of this entry »

On the History of the Fund

Dr Qasim SheikhSTEP Editors: Let’s start with the history of the Fund, if you can tell us a little bit about it. We understand that it was in a dormant state before it was revitalized.

Dr. Qasim Shaikh, CEO, National ICT R&D Fund:

Yes, it was in a dormant state but, as I tell my team, I don’t think that we are the opening batsmen of this team.  Actually, the Fund was created when PTCL was the only telecom operator (in the country). I think, and somebody has to correct me, that the key person who pushed (that) some of the PCTL’s earnings should go into research and development in Pakistan, like Bell Labs at ATT, was Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman. Then the Deregulation Act was passed and in the Deregulation Act it was mandatory that every telecom operator will have to contribute 0.5% of their revenue to the Fund. That included internet service providers as well, not just the large service providers. Since there were more contributors to the Fund than just PTCL, it didn’t make sense for it to stay within PTCL. So, it was taken out of PTCL and created as National ICT R&D Fund.

Read the rest of this entry »

Nature’s recent article on higher education in Pakistan has re-ignited the debate on higher education reform, evoking strong responses from both supporters and critics of the HEC. Recently, we interviewed the lead author Dr. Athar Osama, to learn more about his wider conclusions, and his response to some of the criticisms of the methodology used in the Nature article.

To seed this discussion, we present commentary from Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy and Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman. Dr. Hoodbhoy presents his opposing point of view, arguing that the measures presented in the article were inadequate, and further that the conclusions drawn from the metrics were flawed. Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman, founding (and former) chairman of the HEC, who led the higher education reform effort during his tenure, responds by pointing to data that, in his view, shows the depth and breadth of the reform’s success.

We invite our readers to contribute their thoughts on what metrics are appropriate for measuring the success of higher education within the context of Pakistan.

NOTE: Both commentators have significantly shaped the landscape of Pakistani education over the last few decades. We request our discussants to avoid personalizing the discussion and to maintain a civil and constructive tone.

The authors have not dared to ask the basic questions...

Read Dr. Hoodbhoy’s complete post here.

... it is not what I or Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy think...

Read Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman’s complete post here.

Read the rest of this entry »

The reign of the English language over modern technology and the Internet may soon be at an end. Increasingly, local language technologies are emerging to challenge the role of English as the language of the web. Representing Urdu and other Pakistani languages at the forefront of this battle is the Centre for Research in Urdu Language Processing (CRULP). For Dr. Sarmad Hussain, founding director of CRULP, and his team, developing the capacity of local language processing is not merely an intellectual exercise in machine processing research but their contribution to the global struggle, which aims to provide every human access to information regardless of the language they speak. Like the translators of Al-Mamun, the eighth Abbasid caliph, who translated and protected many of the classics of Greek, Indian, Persian and Chinese scholarship from the ash-heap of history, the team at CRULP is working to bridge the disconnect that exists between the wealth of knowledge available on the Internet and the large non-English speaking segment of Pakistani society. While this team may not have royal patronage like the Abbasid translators, who were paid in gold equal to the weight of the books that they translated, the dissemination of knowledge and the legacy of scholarship team CRULP leaves behind will be invaluable. I recently visited the CRULP headquarters at National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences (NUCES), Lahore, where project manager Kiran Khurshid showed me around the CRULP lab and talked about the various projects currently in progress.

The overarching goal of CRULP is to develop local language processing technologies to provide people easy access to information regardless of the local language they speak. The traditional approaches to introducing technology into rural areas have involved providing schools and colleges with computers and expecting the locals to learn and adapt to modern technology. Dr. Hussein sees a fundamental flaw in this approach, in that they either fail to address or underestimate the two major barriers people face in using modern technology: illiteracy and language. With 45% of the population illiterate and most people unable to interact in English, it is impractical to expect them to use computers to access information through current technology. The team at CRULP aims to break the illiteracy barrier by developing Urdu Speech Recognition systems and Text to Speech systems to allow users to operate technology vocally. The language barriers are being tackled through the development of software in Urdu, examples of which include the SeaMonkey internet suite that provides users Urdu-based tools to make websites, surf the internet, email etc.

Read the rest of this entry »

Editor’s Note: Pervez Hoodbhoy is head of the Physics Department at Quaid-e-Azam University and a prominent social activist in Pakistan. We conducted this interview through email correspondence over a few weeks, to get his perspective on the state of higher education in Pakistan. This is the first in a two part series. The second part is shared here.

STEP: According to recent estimates, less than half of Pakistan’s population is literate, less than half have access to basic sanitation, and the economy is strangled by debt. In context of this, what is the social relevance and value of the modern university, with its emphasis on research and higher learning, in Pakistan today?"I would shift priorities drastically and emphasize improving the physical infrastructure of 1000+ colleges rather than pampering a few public universities

PH: Pakistan’s social indicators are indeed abysmal. But no country can wait for everything and everybody to get up to speed before making universities. Nor should it, because that would essentially mean waiting forever. But we should remember that there is a difference in the purposes that universities serve in countries like Pakistan, and in advanced countries like the US. The latter have knowledge-driven economies, and universities function as the engines of progress. They are the fountainheads of modern science, and of new technologies that have changed the world more in the past fifty years than the previous ten thousand years.
Read the rest of this entry »

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