Parvez Ahmad Butt
IT is heartening to note that this relatively new organization has succeeded year after year since its foundation in 1994. This was established on the basis of an International Agreement signed on the 5th of October 1994 at Islamabad after a Foundation Conference. The Foundation Conference was attended by a large number of representatives from developing countries including China. COMSATS was duly notified as an International Organization under Section 3 of Act No. XX of 1948 by the Government of Pakistan. Headquarter of COMSATS is in Islamabad because Pakistan is the host country. Currently twenty-seven countries are members. The Chairperson of COMSATS can be from any of the member countries for a fixed term. The full name of the organization is “Commission on Science and Technology for Sustainable Development in the South”. This implies cooperation in Science and Technology among developing countries. This is based on the observation that many developing countries have centres of excellence in various fields. In this way member states of COMSATS can mutually benefit in an economical way. For example, there is an excellent centre of mathematics in Nigeria, a world class research centre called TUBITAK in Turkey, Agrobiology Centre in Brazil, multiple Centres of Excellence in China and the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences in Pakistan to name only a few. In fact, COMSATS is connected with 22 such centres. This gives a good opportunity to evolve cooperation in many fields to all the member countries
Pakistan, being the host country, the Planning Commission of Pakistan issued a notification allowing COMSATS to submit project proposals according to the normal format of PC-1. In this way COMSATS is entitled to implement mutually approved project proposals funded by Pakistan within the country. COMSATS pioneered Internet Service in all major cities of Pakistan in 1996. In spite of competition, the Internet Service is successfully operating and generating a reasonable surplus without any subsidy. Because of my long association with the organization from day one, I can comment on the reasons for this success. The main plank was “Merit basis” combined with non-interference! Beating the odds, the Internet Service which had to run without subsidy is still providing the services. This was possible because of incentive schemes that even include profit and loss sharing. The other flagship, COMSATS University Islamabad is even more successful. It has campuses in six different cities that employ thousands of Ph.D.’s in its faculty and 38000 students. COMSATS has created a portal for creating cooperation and exchange of information among researchers of member countries. There are a number of ‘Thematic Groups’. In this way scientists can benefit from research going on within their area of interest internationally without any cost. This is an excellent use of Internet and in fact exactly the reason why Internet was initially created.
COMSATS is doing a commendable job but what can be a ‘Way Forward’. One of the important objectives can be to create the famous “Technology triangle”. By this term is meant the objective to create close cooperation among the researchers, entrepreneurs and relevant Government Departments. Countries that created this level of cooperation succeeded in an exemplary manner. Earlier Japan and recently China are the best examples of this approach. Contract Research is another tool that can be adopted in all developing countries. This is not easy but certainly possible. For example the Ministry of Science and Technology, Pakistan, gave a Research Contract for developing Shuttle-less weaving machines as early as 1993. The contract was awarded to a private sector organization on competitive basis, in Faisalabad. Four machines as per contract were provided to the Textile College Faisalabad for evaluation. At that time it was considered impossible by many but it did work.
There are numerous opportunities to further the work in Science and benefit from it. Interestingly some obvious requirements have to be taken care of by scientists, engineers and the civil servants as a whole. For example, there is extreme dearth of ‘Licensed’ technicians in the countries of the South. Any effort in this direction will pay dividends. Once the technicians are trained with modern methods and tools there is direct injection of new technology at the grassroots level. The quality of textbooks at school and undergraduate level has to be improved. The current policy of getting textbooks produced through contracts awarded by the Textbook Committee in Pakistan has resulted in cheap textbooks but the most important tools in education, namely the ‘Textbooks’ are not of the international standards. There can be a number of ways to improve the readability of text books. But first of all the objective has to be realized before any line of action is followed. In the end, I would like to congratulate the whole team of COMSATS. I am sure they will keep up the good work and elevate it to dizzying heights in future.
—The writer is former Federal Secretary & former Executive Director, COMSATS.