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. He went on note that the incentive structure put in place by HEC at universities encourages research that rarely, if ever, translates into tangible economic benefit for the country. His recommendation is a change in what is valued as professorial output to include technology development and entrepreneurship. He notes:
“If people in universities, who have the rare ability to convert research into products are not rewarded, and their careers are stifled, they will leave the country and go to the developed world where such abilities are very highly valued and rewarded. As a matter of fact this has already been happening for a number of years, and the country has suffered badly because of it.”
In our view, professors or students who have the ability to convert research into products are rarely, if ever, rewarded by universities anywhere in the world. Rather, it is the marketplace that rewards them: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were college drop-outs who did not make their mark in the cocoon of a university fellowship program. Rather their ideas and innovation took off in the competitive environment of the open market.
Thus, while we agree that entrepreneurial individuals are sorely needed in the country to transfer the benefits of research and intellectual output at universities, we contend that it is not the mandate of the Higher Education to focus on incentivizing them directly.
HEC is not the panacea. It is one government agency, with limited clout and a shrinking budget. HEC’s focus must remain on allowing our universities to hire and retain the best and brightest researchers and educators that are available, and giving them the opportunity to reach their full potential. That in itself is a formidable task, and executing it well requires making difficult choices. HEC does need to “return to Pakistan” and focus on areas of research and inquiry that are more suitable for Pakistani researchers given our limited resources and our unique developmental needs. To this end, HEC can nudge researchers into areas that are most relevant to Pakistani context.
Government agencies and organizations, like the Ministry of Science and Technology and Pakistan Software Export Board, as well as public-private R&D funds, like the National ICT R&D Fund, need to play the leading role in commercializing research coming out of the universities. Organizations like the National ICT R&D Fund not only have the necessary funding base but their very structure as a public-private partnership makes them ideally suited to carry out this risky but essential purpose.
HoD Ahmad rightly points out that we need a sustained effort to invigorate the industrial base and subsequently create employment. Yet, it’s not the job of university professors; it will be an error to evaluate their worth from a task that is not theirs. Instead, alternative avenues should be provided to support people who have the “rare ability to convert research into products” to thrive and to do what they do best, while not distracting HEC from it core and vital purpose.