Building a Science Base for Pakistan
Managing Science Editor - IslamOnline.net
Dr. Waqar Ahmed Butt is project coordinator of the Programme for the Interaction of Young Pakistani Scholars with Nobel Laureates
Pakistan is working hard on building its science infrastructure by investing heavily in human resources and turning a large base of university students into researchers and professors.
This is what Dr. Waqar Ahmed Butt, coordinator of the Pakistani delegation to the Meetings of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, told IslamOnline.net during his participation in the conference which took place from the 1st to the 6th of July.
The annual conference, organized by The Council
for Lindau Nobel Laureates Meetings, takes place on the small island of Lindau
located on Lake Constance in the South of Germany. In its 57th round this year
it hosted 17 Nobel prize winners in the fields of physiology or medicine to
interact with 568 students from 64 countries worldwide.
Butt is a professor at the department of Physics at Quaid-i-Azam University. He talked to IslamOnline.net about the selection process that takes place in Pakistan to chose the students who would attend the conference and what is hoped for them to achieve through their participation. He also talked about the efforts being made by the Pakistani government to promote science as a career among its students, the challenges of allocating funds for different science-related activities, the lack of collaboration with other Muslim countries in the field of scientific research, and the efforts being made by Pakistan to host its own meetings of Nobel laureates each year.
Nobel Laureates Meetings
IslamOnline.net (IOL): How long have you been coming to those meetings?
Waqar Ahmed Butt:I've been coming for the past two years. It's a very fascinating meeting. This time we are eight persons from Pakistan, students from various universities and medical colleges. We have a very nice procedure for selection. We write to all universities in the country, then we advertise in the newspapers, and we have a website. We advertise in the month of January, and generally we receive more than 100 applications. This year we received 132 applications, and we have a set formula on the basis of which we shortlist about 25 persons. Then a board of very eminent scientists and very experienced professors interviewed these 25 persons and selected 8 to 10 persons who are participating in this meeting.
IOL: So this competition is for the scientists or for the young researchers?
Butt: Young researchers. Basically they are all young researchers, those who are doing MPhil or PhD studies. So they are selected by the board and then they participate in these meetings.
IOL: And the selection process, how long does it take place?
Butt: About one month, and then after that we have an orientation camp before coming over here. We have a student orientation camp to make the students familiar [with] what they have to do over here. Very experienced people come and talk with them to teach them how to deal with other people, because you know that more than 40 countries are [represented] here at this time.
IOL: How about the students after they return, what's required of them? How do you know that they have made use of the conference?
Butt: There are two things. Just on the last day of this meeting they have to submit a one page report. And going back, within one month, they have to write a long report. For the last 3 years we've been compiling a book [which is] more than 200 pages covering all aspects of the procedure and how to get over here and then the reports. Every student writes 4 to 5 pages of the report, maybe some write more than that, maybe 10 pages of report. So we compile all this, and then we are going to make an alumni of these students because this is our fifth group that is coming over here and around 40 students have come over here for the last 5 years. So we are going to make an alumni of those who have attended this meeting.
Last year we have started another really interesting program, because you know, when we come over here only 8 to 10 persons can benefit from this meeting. Since last year we started a program to invite 3 or 4 Nobel laureates to Pakistan, for 3 days in Islamabad and 2 days in Lahore. Last year 3 Nobel prize winners came to Pakistan and they interacted with many students from all categories. Good students, high school [students], collage students, and university students, total number is around 1000 and they interact for one week. So this is a program which we have started in Pakistan so that those who cannot come over here can benefit in Pakistan.
IOL: So you're competing with Lindau now with your own conference ..
Butt: It's not competition. This is only so that other students can get benefit, because, you know, it's very difficult to send more students here. It's a matter of expense and a lot of money [is] spent on [each] student. Very expensive. Compared to Pakistan, Europe is quite expensive and we can't spend more funds. We only have the per diem of sending 10 persons, but when the laureates go over there and interact in a similar way, we can invite 300 [or] 400 students in one session from different universities and collages. So it's not really a competition, it's just that more and more students can benefit from this.
Breeding a Culture of Science
IOL: And how about the scientific culture that produces Nobel laureates? Do you think this culture is present inside Pakistan's universities now?
Butt: Yes. When we started this, people were really fascinated about this program and the program which we are organizing in Pakistan. They're becoming more and more aware, and there is a lot of demand that we should invite more laureates in different fields. But you know, professor [Noor Mohammed] Butt [head of the delegation] is in the field of physics, so mostly he can attract physics people. But this year we have one person from medicine, and the coming year we are intending to invite maybe 2 laureates in chemistry, 2 in physics, and 2 in medicine.
The young students, when they listen to the lectures of these laureates, they are very much impressed, and they are definitely quite motivated, and try to, well, decide that they have to chose science as a career. For the last few years everybody was crazy about going towards information technology and other things, but now people are thinking that this is also a very good career.
IOL: But what I'm asking about is that the Nobel laureates we are seeing today and throughout this week, they've been brought up in a culture where their academic environments support their research and they're able to earn a living from it and their research is respected and published. In that sense of scientific culture, is Pakistan capable of providing its students with similar funding, with similar positions, with similar sustained support so that they can produce the kind of research that gives them that status?
Butt: That's right. For the last 4 to 5 years we have been very lucky. Our science minister is, you can say, the top most scientist of the country. Previously, nobody in the government or any private company was bothering about science. They thought that science is not a field to adopt. But this only one person has totally changed the scenario.
Just as an example, in all universities in Pakistan there are only 30 or 40 PhD students in all. Now they have started a crash program and they are sending about 1000 students for doing PhD in the best universities in America and in Europe. So [because of] this one person, the science minister, the government has realized that, unless we invest in science and technology they cannot go ahead. So they're putting [in] a lot of money. And this is the first time in Pakistan that the pay of a scientist or a professor is much more than the pay of a minister in the government, so the government is realizing the importance of this.
The only problem is that experimental science is very expensive [especially] the equipment. For example, if you're going in the field of nanotechnology [like] professor [Noor Mohammed] Butt, [who] is the chief of the National Commission on Nano Science and Technology [in Pakistan], things we are ordering now we are trying to get from abroad. Because it's only a difference of currency exchange, one euro is 80 rupees in Pakistan, so if you want to buy something from abroad it is very expensive and costly. So this is one of the problems that we are facing. Unless you have some good laboratories in the country, unless you have established an institution, of course [it will be] extremely difficult to go to the experimental side of the science.
Lack of Science Collaboration with Muslim Countries
IOL: And how about collaborations with other Muslim countries? Is there any kind of collaboration taking place between your universities and those in other Muslim countries?
Butt: The problem is that in other Muslim countries, when we compare, we think that Pakistan is a little better than others because the technology base is better and there are different areas in which we are much better than other countries. So we have very little collaboration with Muslim countries.
But we do have agreements with Germany [and] previously we had agreements with Sweden and some other countries. The science minister is trying to establish more and more agreements. For example, this year they've started sending people to Austria and then Belgium. So this collaboration of particularly sending our young researchers and scientists to developed countries like [those in] Europe is increasing day by day, and hopefully within, I think, very short time, only a few years, a lot of change will come in Pakistan.
IOL: And how about collaboration of another sort, perhaps, gaining funding from the richer Muslim countries like those in the gulf region? Is there any idea of doing something like that?
Butt: This is a pity because they are still not realizing the importance [of funding science research]. A country like Saudi Arabia of course is supporting Pakistan in other areas, like, for example, in civil work and in some small social sector, but they are still not realizing the importance of science and technology. So we have very little collaboration with Muslim countries in this area, particularly science and technology.
IOL: Even though the ruler of Dubai has pledged considerable amount of funds in the past few months to the field of science. Has there been any interest in that regard?
Butt: That's very good. They must realize the importance, but still we don't have any agreement or no collaboration with any Arabian countries or gulf region countries in science and technology. There may be some but its not a serious effort. At this stage, we are trying to send our people to developed countries who are technologically quite advanced, so that our people, the young students, are trained at least to a certain level.
IOL: And is there any fear that this might lead to brain drain where the students go out and they never return?
Butt: Yes, there was. About 10 years back it was a serious problem. The people who are going abroad - the government was sending about 30 [or] 40 students every year for PhD - only a very few, 4 or 5, were coming back. But now the science minister has increased the salaries quite a lot, so now the return rate is more than 70 percent. This is very good, because when they see they have respect and they have sufficient salaries, most of the students sent abroad come back. So there is no problem of brain drain now in Pakistan.
IOL: And is the ministry putting as much funds in producing the kind of laboratories they have gotten used to back in the European countries and in the West?
Butt: They're quite the same. They're establishing new laboratories. They are establishing this e-books library. In all the universities they are doing the connection [to this library], and now they have a program [whereby] if anybody, any person or institution or university, makes some viable or good project, there is no problem of funds.
IOL: And how about the other end of the scientific process, where actually somebody takes the scientific product and converts it into something people can use. Is the industry in anyway involved in this?
Butt: No. This is again a very bad aspect of this. We had organized about 4 or 5 years back a conference in Lahore; it was basically [on] the application of nuclear techniques in industry. But industry people were not really serious about it. Our scientific institution and universities have very little collaboration or cooperation with the industry. This is very bad, because we cannot meet the demands of the industry, so industry people are not coming towards science.
But now things are changing. For example, as I just told you, the higher education sector has decided to send about 1000 people every year, young researchers, for PhD, so now the scenario is changing, [but] it will take a little time, because for the last 50 years nobody had seriously thought about it.
IOL: But wouldn't there be concern that these students who go abroad, they learn a lot of things, they go back and they start doing the research at home but then the industry doesn't support them and so the research isn't really used anymore?
Butt: No. Our science minister has said that this is the first phase [where] we are sending the person for training. When they come back we'll create opportunities, then we'll see what is the demand of the day, then we'll organize and then we'll establish other institutions. The government is really convinced because [the science minister] is a very serious person and he has proven that he is doing quite a lot for the country. So he has made the government the commitment that when the people are coming they'll be given proper opportunities and then the industry will establish. The government encourages the people and the industry to start the projects in which they have been trained.
I think, of course, it takes a little longer time but I think that things are changing in Pakistan, and in the next 5 or 10 years we will see that there is a lot of change in the scientific as well as in the education sector particularly.
IOL: And how about the lay culture, are there journalists who are talking to the lay audience about the scientific developments that are taking place? Or is this only taking place within the scientific community and outside of that people are not aware of what's happening?
Butt: No, no. I've just mentioned to you the meeting of Nobel laureates which we have started last year; the media has given a lot of coverage in print media as well as in electronic media, and now the people are becoming more and more aware of the importance of science. Particularly the role of this science minister; he comes daily and makes people realize the importance of science.
Our leader here, professor [Noor Mohammed] Butt, is also the chairman of Pakistan Science Foundation, and he has a big [program] for science popularization in different parts of the country. They have 11 resource units [with] mobile vans that they send to different schools and then they show the people the science experience.
The media is also giving more importance. Of course, when a lot of funds are coming, people are looking that things are changing. So, the media is also realizing the importance of this. Hopefully all the sectors will join. We are [just] stuck with the problems of funds in the developing countries; if we don't have funds then you can't go ahead. So this problem is limiting.
Tamer El-Maghraby is the managing editor of the Health & Science Section of IslamOnline.net. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in computer science and psychology from the American University in Cairo and is studying for a master's degree in sociology-anthropology at the same university. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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