Dr. Shaukhat Hammed Khan is the Executive Director of Society for the Promotion of Engineering Sciences and Technology in Pakistan (SOPREST), the parent body of GIK Institute. A nuclear physicist by training, he recently served as the Rector of GIKI and member of the Planning Commission. In Part 2 of our conversation with Dr. Khan we talk about GIKI — its vision and its future, his work on lasers and much more. Part 1 of our conversation is here.
When did your involvement with GIK Institute start? What was the vision for GIKI and, after 17 years, is GIKI where you envisioned it to be?
I was among the people, including several foreign professors, invited by then-President Ghulam Ishaq Khan — around 1989-90 — for brainstorming sessions about the proposed Institute. The idea of starting a private university in science and engineering was quite novel [at the time] for Pakistan, and it was meant to be an instrument for breaking out of the mediocrity trap gripping Pakistan’s other engineering Universities.
My dream was for GIKI to become a community of self-governing scholars, a place where reason and innovation would rule and where the only thing that matters – the quality of student emerging from it – would be at the center of all our efforts. These graduates would also be proficient in their work and aware of their own cultural heritage as well as those of other people, and imbued with the processes of (mathematical) reasoning. This dream is yet incomplete as it requires civilizing the engineers and scientists also!
What are the obstacles to achieving this vision?
The reasons go back to the founding of the Institute. [At the time of its founding] I disagreed with Topi as the site, and preferred an urban setting near Nowshera, on the main highway and close to a strong industrial cluster, since it was going to be set up in the then-NWFP (now re-named as Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa). President Ghulam Ishaq Khan may have been persuaded by his close associations with WAPDA to set it up next to Tarbela Dam, but this decision has been the fatal flaw holding back GIKI from reaching its true potential. It hardly mattered in the years before HEC started injecting funds into the higher education sector but now it is critical, as GIKI has little access to public funds. My fear is that GIKI will price itself out of the market.
My other recommendation was also not followed in letter and spirit. I had done my undergraduate from Oxford (its engineering department was called the Engineering Sciences Dept .), and remembered it as a program which enabled one to go into manufacturing, or research, or business [after graduation]. It stressed the blurring of boundaries between engineering and physical sciences. GIKI’s name does have the words “Engineering Sciences” in it, and there is a faculty of Engineering Sciences, but it is not really in the same spirit of the 100-year old model at Oxford, where every student had to take all subjects (electronics and electrical engineering, computers, heat engines and thermodynamics, mechanical and other civil structures, fluid flows), and then take 3-4 additional advanced courses [in the area of his or her specialization].
When were you brought on-board as the Rector, and when and why did you leave?
I was asked and agreed to become the Rector in June 2008 to but left in January 2009 for one major reason. The Taliban fell in love with me and accused me in a letter in November 2008 of spreading immorality and organizing mehfils of ‘raqs-o-saroor‘, apart from espousing the ideas of the Americans and the Jews, etc., etc. Also, I am quite an independent person, one who has made his own decisions, and it riled me that their shoora had decided to ‘send me to jahannum’ without asking me first!
My focus was always the well-being of the students and to see that they got their money’s worth. I interacted with faculty and students intensively to improve the delivery of education. I also pulled up the administration for their general apathy. I insisted on hygiene and cleanliness in the hostels and dining halls, started improving their sports facilities, and offered to arrange proper music lessons. I encouraged them to patronize local Swabi talent rather relying on relatively expensive pop concerts. I also asked them to be irreverent — to avoid obscurantist dogmas by questioning assumptions, and to remember that no mullah is remembered in Muslim history, while scholars such as Ibn Khaldun and Bu Ali Sina are honoured. Imagine my frustration at not being able to have even a discussion with the Taliban!
The students were my first concern and without raising alarms, I brought this [letter from the Taliban's shoora] to the notice of the Federal Interior Ministry, which helped to increase police patrolling on the two major roads to Islamabad and Peshawar to prevent any harm to the students. My family came to know only in Jan 2009 and were quite hysterical. So, I decided to quit. Remember, Swat was only an hour away and the military operation against the Taliban did not start for another 10 weeks. There was also the strange case related to the revival of the hair cutting saloon on the campus for female students and faculty wives. This was opposed by a couple of senior (!) faculty wives as being un-Islamic. Incidentally this facility is doing very well.
But, you’re still associated with the Institute (as the Executive Director of SOPREST). What are you working on now?
After the sad demise of Mr. H.U. Baig, I was asked in March 2010 to take over as Executive Director of SOPREST, the society which runs GIKI. I have done so on the understanding that we will be working towards setting up three new Schools of Business, Public Policy, and the Social Sciences in Islamabad under the SOPREST banner. I am happy to report that the BoG of SOPREST approved this program on its meeting of 17th September.
This new campus is expected to have some 2500 students in place in 10 years. It will provide an integrated approach to business, management, public policy, and simulations and modeling of issues pertaining to problems peculiar to this century, such as security and affordability of energy, water and food. We have requested 50 acres from CDA near Rawal Dam, while a partnership is possible with another Foundation on a 300 acre site near DHA/Bahria.
The support of GIKI alumni will be extremely critical in making this a success. Our alumni have made a name for themselves, in Pakistan and abroad, and I request them all to support us with suggestions and networking for acquiring talented faculty and, of course, donations. Their advice and experience will be extremely valuable for making GIKI a true University. Our target is to raise some 50 % of the Rs 1.2 billion we will be spending on the venture in the next 5 years. We intend to manage the remainder amount.
A final question about GIKI. Your son was a student at GIKI back in the 90s. If you had the option of sending your son to GIKI now, would you still send him there or to another institute?
[Laughter]. I will probably send him [to GIKI]. It is still one of the best places for engineering in Pakistan.
Moving away from GIKI/SOPREST… You did some pioneering work on lasers in Pakistan, work that can be an example for scientists returning to Pakistan. How did it all start, what did you accomplish and do you see a bright future for the work you started?
It was really exciting! I started as a one-man laser group in 1969 but gradually we developed a very good team. We all complemented one another and we all gave generously of our time.
We built lasers, we used them, and we generated over five billion rupees of revenue through product development over 20 years. Our lasers are leveling farm land in Pakistan and reducing water consumption by more than a third. I met the Director of the Biotech Institute in South India recently, and was pleased to know that 3 of our land levelers were purchased by them for reverse engineering. Recently, I helped design the position monitoring system for the thousands of detectors in the CMS at CERN in Geneva. All 40 systems have been made in my labs and have been incorporated at CERN’s CMS, and our lasers and precision optics have been used in Germany, Switzerland, and Spain apart from S.E. Asia.
I lapsed from active science in 2005 when I joined the Planning Commission but I’ve been back to my lab about 4 to 5 times, though we stay in touch. Lasers has a good future in Pakistan, and is in good hands. The National Laser Labs is now being put together, and will commence shortly. I am content that there may now be more people working in lasers in the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission than in nuclear physics!
You’ve had a remarkable career in academia, in research labs and in the government as member of the Planning Commission. What do you consider to be your most significant accomplishment? How would you like to be remembered ?
An embarrassing question! I think my legacy would be the starting of a completely new field in Pakistan: Lasers.
Spoken like a true scientist! One final question. Did your work in the government make you more hopeful about Pakistan’s future or less?
Planning Commission was an enormous learning experience for me. I initially looked after science and technology, higher education and industry (a good combination) and later education and health also. This was my first experience of working in the ‘Government’ and I was a bit surprised at the lack of institutional memory and just downright laziness and incompetence. I hope I raised the quality of discourse and analysis.
My biggest challenge [at the Commission] was the Vision 2030 project – trying to identify the most likely future for Pakistan among the many that were possible or desirable. This document is now largely forgotten in the middle of the political changes of the last two years, but going through this exercise really gave me a lot of hope about the future of Pakistan.
I am confident about the role for Pakistan in this century. We are not too small as to be irrelevant, in fact we are the about right population size and our younger people carry far less historical baggage; they are enterprising, more selective and also more demanding in terms of quality.
On that optimistic note, thank you very much, Dr. Khan and our best wishes.