Knowledge Key to Progress (Part 1)

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

Knowledge has now become the key factor that determines socio-economic development. The failure of governance in Pakistan is exemplified by comparison to Singapore. Singapore has hardly any natural resources and a population of only 5.5 million, about one-fourth of Karachi. Yet its exports last year were a stupendous $ 330 billion, due to its visionary leadership that realized that in the knowledge driven world the road to progress lies in innovation. Pakistan’s exports alas stagnate at only about $ 22 billion, far lower than even those of Bangladesh, justifying the urgent need for change.
In previous articles of this series I have emphasised the importance for our leaders to realise that our country cannot develop without massive investments in education, science, technology and innovation (ESTI). The “triple helix” model for a knowledge economy requires the dynamic interaction between proper government policies, high quality universities and research institutions and the private sector. It is only through tapping into the huge potential of our 100 million youth below the age of 20 that Pakistan can leap forward.
A few examples of how innovation is impacting economies are presented here. Let us first look at the agricultural sector. There are growing global water shortages and decreasing availability of cultivable land caused by the huge increases in the world population (that has now crossed seven billion). This is resulting in increasing efforts by scientists to come up with new more efficient ways of growing food plants that have higher productivity but need lower amounts of water, fertilizer, nutrients and pesticides to grow. In this connection some scientists working at Purdue University have discovered that a certain chemical can be used to reduce the size of the plant without reducing its yield. They found that a common fungicide (propiconazole) can be used to create smaller and sturdier corn plants that produce more kernels but consume less water, fertilizer and nutrients to grow. The fungicide is claimed to be harmless to humans as it is commonly sprayed on golf courses to treat fungal dollar spot disease.
In another interesting development sea water is beginning to be used for cultivation of food crops. One way to convert saline water (sea water or brackish underground water) into salt- free fresh water, useful for drinking or farming, is by a process known as “reverse osmosis”. This involves pumping the saline water through a special polymeric membrane that allows only water molecules to pass through the pores of the membrane, but prevents salt, bacteria and dirt from doing so. However a drawback of this process is that over a period of time, these particles clog up the expensive membrane and damage it. This results in the need of regular costly membrane replacements, increasing costs. Scientists working at the University of California, Los Angeles have now used nanotechnology to develop a new type of reverse osmosis membrane that is covered with small polymeric hairs. These surface hairs move around rapidly in the water pumping process, thereby acting as a brush which prevents the deposition of impurities on the membrane surface. Once commercialised, it may reduce the cost of production of fresh water from sea water, opening up possibilities of its large scale use for agriculture.
Turning now to health sciences, an important recent development is in the field of ageing. How do we age? Can we slow the ageing process and prolong life spans? These are questions that have attracted the attention of many medicinal chemists and biochemists. In adults about 50 to 70 billion cells die each day, by a process of programmed cell death built into the structure of each cell (“apoptosis”). In children between the ages of 8 to 14, some 20 to 30 billion cells die every day and even more are replaced by new cells. Over a year this amounts to about the complete body weight of the child—— amazing! Scientists are learning more about the signaling processes that tell a cell that it is time to stop proliferating and to die. By interfering with these processes, the cells may be induced to live longer, resulting in longer life spans. New drugs will be developed to interfere with the ageing process, allowing us to live longer healthier lives.
One cause attributed to ageing and death is the damage caused by UV light or other forms of radiation to our DNA. This results in structural defects in the DNA molecules. Fortunately the damaged areas in DNA are repaired by certain enzymes. However as we grow older, the repair mechanisms become less effective, resulting in the accumulation of damaged DNA which can finally result in ageing and death. Oxygen, so vital for our survival, in its reactive form (oxygen radicals) is intriguingly also responsible for the ageing process by causing damage to our DNA molecules. That is why anti-oxidants, such as vitamin C or certain compounds present in red grapes and certain vegetables, are thought to be good for us. Science has already led to increase in life spans over the last hundred years due to better medical care in most parts of the world. However the ageing populations in many countries in Europe, China, Korea etc. and the low birth rates resulting in diminishing younger populations are a major cause of concern due to lack of creative workers and the heavy financial burden on health care systems. A number of compounds have been discovered in the last 5 years which not only slow down the ageing process but which have been shown to reverse it! When given to mice it made the physically younger. They include resveratrol, nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) and an FDA approved drug (for diabetes) metformin. Innovations such as those described above are earning billions of dollars for the countries that are manufacturing high technology products.
Education and science remain badly neglected in Pakistan because of corrupt or incompetent leaders who have failed to invest in our real wealth, our children. There needs to be a radical change in our system of governance and a different form of democracy installed, as suggested in this weekly series of articles, before it is too late.
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
Another interesting development in agriculture is the increasing use of “plant tissue culture” for mass propagation of high yielding species without using seeds.. A bud is divided into small pieces, placed in a test tube in a chemical medium containing nutrients and growth hormones. After about 6-8 weeks shoots start to develop which are cut off and placed in another medium. Once the roots have been formed, the plant is transferred to soil in an environment with high humidity, usually a green house. When the leaves have been formed, the plants can usually survive in less humid environment. Plants with certain desirable properties, e.g. colour of flowers, size or taste of fruits etc. can be thus multiplied, since the cloned products produced, being genetically identical, will have the same characteristics as the parent. The procedure works well in the manufacture of orchids, bananas and many other plants and is cost effective because of mass production of plants with desirable traits.

—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

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