[ISLAMABAD] Pakistan has appointed a science minister after the post stood vacant for over a year.
The appointment comes just two weeks after the country announced an ambitious national science initiative at higher education institutions across the country.
But critics say major cuts in the higher education budget could undermine these ambitions.
The new science minister is Azam Khan Swati, an American lawyer of Pakistani origin.
Swati, who took charge last week (28 January) told SciDev.Net he would use science and technology for development and to improve living standards.
Agriculturist Naurez Shakoor — science minister from 2004 to 2007 — vacated the position when he left before the 2008 general election.
Swati faces the challenge of sustaining developments brought about by Atta-ur- Rahman, widely credited with reforming Pakistan's science and technology infrastructure and hiking its science budget 60-fold between 2000 and 2008.
Atta-ur-Rahman held the posts of science minister, prime minister's science advisor and chairman of the higher education commission (HEC) over the last eight years (see Pakistan's science reformer steps down). The HEC is responsible for more than 60 per cent of Pakistan's science and technology spending.
The appointment comes after the announcement earlier this month (14 January) by Pakistan's prime minister Yousuf Raza Gillani of a national initiative on science and technology.
The government plans to introduce courses in disciplines such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence at the country's public sector higher education institutions.
The initiative, yet to be finalised, also envisages establishing centres of excellence in information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnlogy. However, no money has yet been allocated.
The new government allocated US$553 million to science and technology in its June 2008 budget (see Pakistan science increase marred by high inflation), but only 25 per cent has so far been released to research organisations.
The initiative has its share of sceptics. In the six months since the budget announcement, the HEC's development budget has been slashed from US$267 million to US$190 million and a significant proportion of its research projects have been halted.
"The government should first support ongoing projects instead of launching new ones," Razina Alam, chairperson of a parliamentary committee on science and technology, told SciDev.Net.
The cut in funds to research institutions could lead to a collapse of the country's science infrastructure, she says.