The slogans on investing in the future, on supporting industrial production, on priority research and higher education, have been ringing hollow for quite some time now. We have seen three different political parties in power over the past decade, and none of them really cared about scientific research in the country. Even before that, although investments have increased considerably thanks to HEC during the Musharraf era, the result of this investment is, at best, mixed. We have seen the old scientific leadership write endlessly about the glory days of this era, but the evidence in the pudding tells a different story. Research-based industries remain non-existent or unstable. Exports driven by scientific research are non-existent. The industrial R&D sector is weak and most industry-related jobs remain in services. Despite high claims, the country has been unable to produce commodities (e.g. rapid test kits) for Covid-19. The output of the scientific enterprise cannot simply be measured in increased publications while quality continually declines, or when plagiarism runs rampant in the academy. Nor can output be measured simply by the increase in the number of universities when most of them continue to limp and produce graduates unable to find suitable jobs.
Sooner or later, a carefully packaged message about the need for science will reappear as a new government takes over in Islamabad. But before we all nod, maybe we should ask some basic questions. First, why do we want to invest in science? The reality is that we have an unrealistic expectation of what science does for society. We expect science to deliver returns in an unreasonable period (especially when we have so much catching up to do). We expect science to solve our big problems which are inherently political and are the result of mismanagement, corruption, nepotism and ego. We expect science to change people’s behavior at a time when the Traitor’s Certificate is widely available in the marketplace, in assemblies, and in our living room conversations. Science won’t change that. What science can do, and all too gradually, is enable new discoveries about our world and beyond, create new and better jobs, increase valuable exports and improve the economic condition of people. If we think this will enable a more rational discourse or a more inclusive society, we should turn to more humanities and social sciences.
However, none of the promises of science will materialize without decency and humility in leadership. Investing will continue to fail if it is managed by people who are interested in bombastic pretensions or self-praise. It will also remain an elusive dream if we jump on the latest bandwagon without thinking about our own challenges. Finally, it will continue to be a disaster if all we can think of is converting PM House into a university.
Just as we should know what not to do, we have two data points in the recent past about what leadership looks like. The first is the NCOC’s action-oriented, no-fanfare approach to dealing with Covid-19. NCOC’s success in working across institutions, focusing on the problem at hand, bringing provinces together and doing it without telling stories of previous golden ages is a reminder that we can deliver when so many others have failed. The second data point is the life of Bilquis Edhi – an exceptional humanitarian who worked tirelessly with dignity, simplicity and never feeling the need to slander anyone. I hope that all of us who have been touched by his life directly or indirectly will continue to live in light of his legacy. His life offers far more lessons for our scientific institutions on how to deliver when it matters than those who claim long CVs or loyal party affiliations and don’t seem to see beyond themselves.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 19and2022.
To like Reviews & editorial on Facebookto follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.