Pakistan's science establishment, though taken in by an implausible claim to fuel automobiles with water, cannot afford to lose the creative potential of true innovators, says Athar Osama.
Pakistan's science and innovation scene has undergone somewhat of an upheaval. in August. It all began when Agha Waqar – a little-known 'inventor' with no formal affiliations - claimed to have invented a retrofit mechanism to run a car on pure water. All it needed, he claimed, was a small electric current from a battery to carry out the hydrolysis and create a highly inflammable mixture of hydrogen and oxygen to run the engine.
The social media was immediately abuzz, followed by television channels. The political leadership hailed the development as a miracle and a quick fix that would rid the country of its energy problems.
As claims got increasingly exaggerated, the scientific community jumped into the debate, taking a range of positions in a week-long saga.
Waqar's claims are not the subject of this article. What is important is the manner in which the claims were met, exposing weaknesses within the Pakistani science establishment and the innovation eco-system.
Lacking: A culture of scientific experimentation and debate
Waqar's statement received formal and informal endorsements from some of Pakistan's leading scientists and science and engineering bodies, such as the Pakistan Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Pakistan Science Foundation, and the Pakistan Engineering Council.
Under the circumstances, former science minister and leading scientist Atta ur Rahman must be credited for being the first to point out that the claim was not scientifically plausible.
However, no leading scientist could clearly articulate whether the claim was theoretically sound or practically demonstrable and how to actually test it.
Proving or disproving claims using sound scientific theory and evidence is predominantly the role of scientific societies in the modern world. There are several credible institutions with capable scientists who engage in serious debates on scientific theories with an open mind towards innovation.
In the absence of such a system in Pakistan, Waqar's claim ended up triggering allegations of fraud, greed and financial corruption. Ultimately, it was left to a little-known graduate student working on fuel cells to clearly articulate how to test whether such a device can work or not. By that time, nobody on either side was actually listening.
The promise of informal innovation
The 'water-car' episode should, however, not be used to discredit all informal innovations.
Over a decade-and-a-half ago, a Pakistani national, Asif Tariq, created a two-seater aircraft leveraging the engine of an old Suzuki Jeep, to help jumpstart a light aircraft industry, but he was ignored by the country’s scientific establishment.
More recently, Shah Kamal started a micro-wind turbine business. With little formal training in blade design or power systems engineering, he developed devices that were good enough to light far-flung villages in the coastal areas of Sindh.
Informal innovators, driven by an insatiable desire to solve a problem through a ‘learning-by-experimenting’ approach, are a part and parcel of every society.
"Most 'real' innovation happens in the informal sector," says Hasnain Akhter, an aeronautical engineer and the CEO of Aero-Car. In 2009, his company claimed an award from the MIT Enterprise Forum's Business Acceleration Programme for inventing a rugged automated teller machine.
"In our society, it is the informal innovator - often the more creative shop floor mechanic or supervisor - who ends up driving a lot of design and development activity. Unfortunately, more often than not, our 'engineers' are not trained to be first class designers," he adds.
Akhter cites the adaptation and inventive activity happening around automotive sector in Pakistan, particularly indigenously developed rickshaws. Other examples may include informal innovation within the rural and agricultural sectors.
While all this may not constitute 'high' science or innovation, it does - through its additive and multiplicative effects - create economic opportunity and is a very important piece in the puzzle of an innovative society.
An eco-system to support informal innovation
These informal innovators cannot work in isolation and need support. Informal innovators, by design, are not affiliated with formal institutions of scientific or engineering profession. What distinguishes most developing countries from the well-developed ones is the lack of this support infrastructure.
An effective intellectual property rights regime is equally critical for innovation in the society.
It is possible that a vast majority of informal innovators may - willingly or often naively due to lack of systematic knowledge about their own inventions - misrepresent their claims. The society will depend upon formal and semi-formal systems (such as experimental societies or a proof of concept programmes) of separating the grain from the chaff.
The level of awareness and literacy about innovation within society at large is critical, as is the value that society places on innovations.
Beyond valuing innovative potential society must develop a systematic capability to find and document informal innovation as well as the ability to analyse, replicate, and scale it.
A developing country – already stretched for resources – cannot afford to lose the creative potential of true innovators and will not fully develop unless it is fully captured and unleashed.
Athar Osama is a London-based science and innovation policy consultant. He is the founder and CEO of Technomics International Ltd, a UK-based international technology policy consulting firm, and founder of Muslim-Science.com.