For a Different Democracy (Part 14)

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Prof Atta-ur-Rahman, Frs, N.I., H.I., S.I., T.I.

Leadership is key for progress in any country. The selection of a visionary, honest and technologically competent leader that understands the importance of migrating to a knowledge economy is therefore a necessary prerequisite for Pakistan to rise as a nation and make its mark as a powerful country. This requires us to give the highest national priority to Education, Science, Technology and Innovation (ESTI) so that entrepreneurship could flourish and we can tap into our real wealth— the 100 million or so young people in Pakistan below the age of 20. A strong and visionary leader must drive the mission to transform the nation instill ethos and inspirationfor equitable and sustained socio-economic development. Such a vision and strategy was prepared under my leadership a decade ago and the 320 page document was approved by the Cabinet on 30th August 2007 but it was never implemented as the governments that followed had other priorities. Such “Foresight” exercises need to be conducted regularly, aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and integrated across all line Ministries to help in building functional innovation systems in order to transition to a knowledge based economy.The preparation, and regular review of the ESTI strategies and action plans based on informed research in Pakistan need to be institutionalized under the auspices of the Pakistan Council for Science & technology (PCST) which needs to be shifted to the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. The Chairperson of PCST needs to report directly to the Prime Minister and not to the Minister of Science as the work involved is of an inter-Ministerial nature. Since PCST is the national science policy formulating institution, it should regularly report on STI indicators and monitor the implementation of STI policy. In the preparation of such policies, it is important to consult all stakeholders including the civil society, non-government organizations, private sector and subject experts.
All this would be in vain if appropriate funding for implementation of theESTI policy in national development plans including an allocation of at least 2% of GDP for R&D was not done. This would require a Constitutional change binding successive governments to allocate the highest national priority to ESTI so that the country could make a serious beginning towards socio-economic development. It is a pity that while India marches forward planning trips to the moon and Mars, Pakistan alas allowed science to decay to a point that the national development budget for science is 50 time lower than our allocations on local transportation schemes——buses are more important than education, science and technology in the Pakistan of today! The changes in governance need to be accompanied by institutional reforms including the restructuring of institutions that play a key role in the implementation of ESTI policy. These are not only institutions of higher learning such as universities or R&D organizations but also institutions providing testing, quality and standards related services, as well as legal and financial institutions. The restructuring of S & T organisations should be aimed at attracting the brightest scientists and engineers into industrial research so that they are employed on contract basis with attractive market based salaries, clear targets, complete autonomy, full accountability and regular performance assessment.
The private sector has a pivotal role to play in the new democratic system that I am recommending. The absorptive capacity of industries to productively use external and internal knowledge will need to be substantially increased by hiring highly skilled personnel including management consultants, encouraging on-job training and building facilities for experimentation and R&D. Innovation and entrepreneurship have a key role to play in any such economic turn-around. This would require the government to facilitate the implementation of ESTI policies by providing access to Venture Capital funds, establishing innovation hubs in the universities and offering legal/financial services including professional business plan development services. This will promote formation of new start-up companies so that students passing out of our universities are not job seekers but have the abilities to form new start-up companies and become job givers. To foster industrial growth in high technology (and often associated high risk areas, the government should give long term tax holidays and underwrite risk taking by private firms. I did this by giving a 15 year tax holiday to the IT industry when I was the Federal Minister of Science & technology, with the remarkable result that IT business has grown a hundred fold in the last 15 years from 30 million dollars to over $ 3.2 billion. Medium and high tech manufacturing could also be promoted in specialized economic zones with similar cluster of industries in engineering, biotechnology products, electronics and purification of minerals and ores by public procurement policies, matching grants, tax incentives for R&D or for hiring high quality engineers and managers and subsidized rates for electricity, gas and other services. To promote innovation a revolving Innovation Fund should be set up to support indigenous technology development in the public and private sector.
The foundations of the new Pakistan must be laid through high quality education and this sector must be given the highest national priority with at least 6% of GDP being allocated to primary, secondary, technical and higher education, even if this necessitates the slashing of the national budget in other areas. The quality of technical and higher education will need to be drastically improved in terms of internationally accredited academic/research standards, new technologies, linkages and networks, educational grants/loans, increasing access, peer-evaluation, institutional restructuring, revision of curricula and promotion of research. In this connection school and college education must receive due attention as it has been grossly neglected by successive governments. There needs to be a drastic change in the manner in which we train our students so that critical thinking and problem solving skills are encouraged. One way to do this would be to have “Open Book exams” so that students are allowed to bring whatever materials they need into examination halls but the questions are set in a manner that they will not find the answers in any book but will be able to answer the questions if they have thoroughly understood the principles and have the ability to apply them to specific practical problems. The establishment of top class research universities and research institutions is vitally important in this context. This would require the training of 100,000 PhD level faculty at top institutions abroad so that we can bolster the quality of teaching and research in our colleges and universities. To achieve global competitiveness, all projects approved by the Planning Commission must have a mandatory requirement of technology transfer and indigenous technology development.
These and other such measures can help Pakistan grow to a powerful knowledge economy.In my earlier articles, I have argued that a Presidential form of democracy with proportionate representation is far more suited for Pakistan than the present British parliamentary system of democracy. I have supported my arguments with the statement of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah that he made in his hand written note in his diary in which he too had advocated a Presidential system of democracy. However the above changes can also be brought about under a Parliamentary democracy but this would require an honest, visionary and technologically competent leadership.
— The author is former Federal Minister of Science & Technology, former Chairman Higher Education Commission and Chairman of UN Committee for Science, Technology and Innovation for UNESCAP