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Atta-ur-Rahman: A Need for Strategic Focus

Atta-ur-Rahman: A Need for Strategic Focus

Islamic countries need strong, visionary leadership to fuel their economic growth. The path is clear, says TWAS Fellow Atta-ur-Rahman, but investments must be carefully targeted.

Islamic countries are investing in science and technology more than in the past but, says Pakistani science leader Atta-ur-Rahman, leaders now need not only to triple their investments in science but also to take the next step: bringing strategic focus and coordination to long-term scientific initiatives.

During a recent interview with reporters, the influential researcher and educator urged leaders in Islamic nations to re-orient their efforts for impact in a rapidly changing world – or risk being left behind.

"The biggest challenge is the lack of visionary leadership," said Rahman, a TWAS Fellow. "The path is clear: We must invest in knowledge and in the ability to use that knowledge for poverty alleviation and socio-economic development. Unfortunately, policy makers in the Islamic world have not realized that."

While a few of the leaders are awakening to the power of science and the need for investment in research and education, Rahman said, too often "their idea of a university is that of beautiful buildings rather than beautiful creative minds." Universities must be centers for excellence in research and training to develop the vast potential of our young minds.

Rahman was interviewed in October during the TWAS General Meeting in Oman. He spoke with local science journalists, including Maiya Al Habsi from The Research Council, Sultan Al Sara'ei from Oman TV and science communicators from Sultan Qaboos University. He detailed his extensive experience in Pakistan and offered advice for science leaders in Oman and the Islamic world.

With respect to higher education, Pakistan offers a valuable lesson for developing countries. In 2002, Rahman was serving as federal minister for science and technology under President Pervez Musharraf, and the country was facing pressure from the Pakistani Taliban who opposed science culture. Pakistan launched higher education reforms that have produced considerable progress in science and technology, reversing the financial starvation of universities and attracting a growing corps of young Pakistanis to scientific careers.

Rahman is an accomplished scholar in organic chemistry, with a PhD from Cambridge University (1968) and some 980+ publications including 155 books mostly published in USA and Europe in several fields of organic chemistry. In 1999, he became the first scientist from the Muslim world to win the UNESCO Science Prize, and one of the four scientists from the Muslim world to be elected as Fellow of the Royal Society, London (in 2006). In 2009 he won the TWAS Prize for Institution Building, in recognition of his contributions to seminal changes in the higher education sector in Pakistan. Till recently he was serving a second term as President of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences and he is the president of the Network of Academies of Science in Countries of the Organization of Islamic Conference (NASIC).

During his mandate, Rahman propelled seminal reforms that have boosted education at all levels in Pakistan, "... leaving young and old in awe" as Ehsan Masood, the editor of Research Fortnight, noted in an article published by Nature.

Rahman’s commitment gave Pakistan one of the best digital libraries in the world and the world's largest Fulbright Scholarship programme (US$150 million), jointly funded by the Higher Education Commission and USAID. In addition, 51 new universities and 18 campuses were established between 2003-2008.

Professor Rahman, what are specific challenges that Islamic countries have to confront in regard to pursuing good research?

The biggest challenge is the lack of visionary leadership. The Islamic world should realize that its wealth lies in its children, and in the promotion of education, science, innovation and entrepreneurship. Countries that have developed rapidly, like Singapore, Korea, Malaysia, or China were not what they are today three decades ago. However massive investments in world class universities and research centres and vigorous policies to promote innovation and entrepreneurship have resulted in their complete transformation. So the path is clear: we must invest in knowledge and in the ability to use that knowledge for poverty alleviation and socio-economic development.

Unfortunately, policy makers in the Islamic world have not realized that. Their idea of university is that of a beautiful building. They have constructed huge empty palaces with little creativity, and as a result there is not a single university in the Islamic world, which can rank among the top one hundred of the world because of the low level of quality research. The key to a high quality university is having a world class faculty that can carry out pioneering research.

Think of this: the entire Islamic world has produced just two Nobel laureates in science, professor Abdus Salam, the founder of TWAS and of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy and professor Ahmed Zewail, a TWAS Fellow. Both of whom won their Prizes for research carried out in the West and not within an Islamic country. What I'd like to highlight is the need to wake up to the knowledge-driven world where we live, where natural resources have diminishing importance.

Where does this lack of leadership come from?

It comes from the lack of a highly competitive system of selecting leaders. The presence of kingdoms and a strong feudal mentality has been the major hurdle in our development. The ruling cabinets in the Islamic world must be largely composed of eminent scientists and engineers as in Korea and China and not of family members of the King or Queeen or relatives and friends of the ruling party. In most Islamic countries there is no merit-based system of selecting leaders. This poses a big problem.

Countries that have democracy also have some problems: they face corruption and lack a strong legal system to catch the corrupt and punish them. In countries like Pakistan, the presence of a strong feudal system doesn't allow education to flourish. So in theory it is very nice to talk about democracy in developing countries, but it doesn't work. Not always. That's why I mentioned Singapore, Korea, and China, where there is strong leadership with the vision on how to move towards a knowledge economy.

Western countries are quick to spot the brightest foreign scientists who have moved abroad for study reasons. And they are quick to offer them better opportunities for settling down there. What should the Islamic world do to counterbalance this brain drain?

We should realize that we are responsible for the situation we have generated. If scientists leave, it is because here they have no facilities and opportunities. They go abroad, they get a PhD from a good university, come back home and then they have the most frustrating experience: inadequate salary, no equipment, little or no infrastructures, no facilities and – even worse – general disregard towards the importance of creative research. No wonder that they leave again in search of better places. I think there can be no greater tragedy for a country than having its brightest minds migrate and go to another country.

For many developing countries, Pakistan is a virtuous example of strategic planning in research management. Could you explain what happened in the last decade?

During my appointment as federal minister for science and technology (2000-2002), federal minister of education (2002) and chairman of the Higher Education Commission with the status of federal minister (2002-2008), Pakistan launched a five-step plan for scientific development. This involved training of the brightest young persons at leading universities of the world, provision of jobs immediately on their return with high salaries linked to performance, free access to literature, free access to instrumentation, and clustering of personnel in similar fields.

First, we have sent some 11.000 students to the world's top universities after identification of the brightest by merit and over a billion US dollars were spent on this initiative to create a critical mass of high quality faculty. We trained them in critically important fields that were linked to our nation's development plans. Second, we created an attractive environment to lure them back home. How? We have raised the salaries for professors, up to five times the salaries of federal ministers in the government! But more importantly, we have brought in a completely new system of appointment, which is the “tenure-track” system that allows only the best to be retained in a highly competitive environment and gets rid of the dead wood. A scientist is given a contract for three years, after which he or she is evaluated by an international panel of experts. After positive evaluation, a second contract is granted for another three years. And only after this six-year contractual period and two independent evaluations by foreign experts is the faculty member given a permanent appointment. 

What about the other three steps?

We have granted access to literature, by creating a digital library that is among the finest in the world. Every student in every university in Pakistan today has access to more than 25,000 international journals and some 65,000 textbooks and research monographs from 220 international publishers. Search engines such as “Scifinder Scholar” have also been made available to facilitate literature searches. In addition, we have provided access to the more sophisticated instrumentation – which is quite a difficult task because it requires a lot of funding as well as the ability to operate those instruments and maintain them properly. To overcome this challenge, I started a novel initiative so that Pakistan became the first in the world to offer “open access instrumentation”.

What is “open access instrumentation”?

It is very simple. Every researcher in the country can send his samples to any institution of his or her choice in the country. The analysis is done in 72 hours free of charge. Then, the institute providing the analysis generates a bill that is sent to the Higher Education Commission – to me – for payment.

There is one last step in your scientific reform. What is it?

Clustering. You need to have a critical mass of good people in every institution, so clustering good people is important. And the result was that in 2002, when I came in as a minister, we had only 700 publications in Pakistan per year in peer-reviewed journals. Now we have up to 9,500 journals and every year there is a 20% increase in our scientific publications. These few but important measures – coupled to ranking of all our universities and creating healthy internal competition – have changed the landscape of higher education across the country. And this is a model that many developing countries could adopt. They could change the entire system providing that they have a very clear understanding that the right approach should be focused on merit and quality of the faculty and providing them an enabling environment to unleash their creativity.

What is the role of funding in good quality research?

If you don't provide funds for education, science and research, then the process of development is an illusion. The Islamic world spends about 0.46% of its GDP in scientific research, on average. This is some improvement with respect to the past, when it was 0.2%. However, it is still too little, especially when compared to Western countries that spend 3-4% of their much larger GDPs. We must allocate at least 5% of our GDP to research if we hope to catch up with the West over the next 3 decades. In order to progress towards economic flourishing, a nation must invest not in palaces or huge universities. It must invest in the faculty and staff, and identify the brightest and youngest people.

Unfortunately, we don't have a very highly competitive system in this part of the world. At the time of my appointment as a minister, I challenged President Musharraf (who was the president of Pakistan from 1999 to 2008) by asking him whether he was committed to do some practical moves to boost science. Unfortunately, we don't have a very highly competitive system in our universities in this part of the world. At the time of my appointment as a minister, I challenged President Musharraf (who was the president of Pakistan from 1999 to 2008) by asking him whether he was committed to do some practical moves to boost science. Training students in Pakistan was far more important for national security, I said, than spending in heavy armaments. Where will the resources come from? He asked. We'd better buy fewer F16 fighter jets and rather invest in our children, I responded. I urged him passionately to invest more money in scientific development and finally I convinced him.  The result was a staggering 6,000% increase in the development budget for science and technology between 2001 and 2003, and an equally remarkable 3,500% increase in the development budget for higher education between 2003 and 2008.

Could you comment on the future role of scientific research in the world?

We live in a world that is very different from how it was even five or ten decades ago. Our world is knowledge-driven. Hence, what is becoming far more important is the quality of human resources, the ability of countries to unleash the creative potential of their young and their ability to harness it in the process of socio-economic development. Only a few countries have realized that the real wealth lies in their children, and these countries are marching forward rapidly, leaving others behind. One example is Singapore, a country with no natural resources, which has put all its finances towards developing a strong knowledge economy. Singapore today has a GDP of about 300 billion US dollars, which is more than that of many of the richest oil countries in the Gulf.

Developing a strong knowledge economy depends on dynamic interplay among three important partners: the government, the private sector, and the universities/research centres. Only through their interaction aimed at developing a strong knowledge economy can a nation make rapid progress and start competing with countries like Korea or Japan.

[This interview was edited and slightly condensed by TWAS staff writer Cristina Serra]