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Despite some success in science, Pakistan underachieves because it lacks structures for commercial innovation, says Athar Osama.
Three years ago, with colleagues from Lahore University of Management Sciences, I set out to understand Pakistan's science and innovation landscape, as part of a yet-unpublished study of 15 member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Why is it that a country that is a member of an elite club of the world's nuclear powers and one of few to have cruise missile technology is unable to solve the basic problems of education, hunger, disease and shelter for tens of millions of people?
In recent years, the country has been through energy shortages that have crippled industry and electricity blackouts that last as long as 18 hours a day and threaten to send the country back to the Stone Age. Water scarcity is taking its toll on agriculture and there is an increasing frequency of adverse climatic events such as floods.
On what became a fascinating journey of discovery, I found a society ripe with tremendous talent, energy and resilience that is often lost for lack of support from a government that performs, at best, at a mediocre level. Pakistan is a country that defines itself as an agricultural economy yet has tolerated decades of declining research and development (R&D) spending on agriculture.
A 2005 report on the state of the country's National Agricultural Research System noted, for example, that the development budget of the Pakistan Agricultural Resource Council (PARC) declined in real terms from PKR 29.3 million (about US$300,000) in 1980–1 to PKR 5.2 million (about US$54,000) in 2000–1.
But from the green revolution in the 1960s, to the nuclear programme in the 1980s, and the missile programme in the 1990s, it is evident that whenever scientists and engineers have been given a clear mandate and resources they have delivered.
A commercial disconnect
Pakistan is clearly a country that has considerable scientific capability and yet the promise remains unfulfilled. Why, for example, does the agricultural system perform below its potential? The yields on research farms of major food crops such as wheat and sugarcane are as much as twice that of the national average.
But few farmers get quality seed; there are lapses in extension services and farmer education; water shortages prevail; and price cartels and inconsistent policies play havoc with farmers' incentives.
So while the science is often available, the failing, more often than not, is in implementation and governance. This is not unique to Pakistan — other developing countries in the Islamic world are facing the same obstacles.
Part of the answer lies in structural weaknesses that pervade the science and innovation system.
Science funding in Pakistan is just over US$1 billion, accounting for just under 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007–8. This has risen and fallen over the years, but primarily goes towards public sector basic and applied research, with little spent by the private sector.
There is little value to show. This is mainly because, almost by design, the public sector — bodies such as the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PSCIR) and more than 400 research organisations — are not set up to commercialise research.
There is supply-driven rather than demand-driven allocation of resources — and little impact on society.
Take the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR). Each year about 250,000 Pakistani children under the age of five die from a lack of clean drinking water and waterborne diseases. PCRWR, for many years, has developed what it describes as the world's 'cheapest' water purification filter system. But with a lack of commercial expertise it has failed to use this innovation to make a dent on infant mortality.
Pulling innovation together
Despite this major weakness, Pakistan has much informal innovation that is often not recognised, much less appreciated.
What is needed is a demand-driven approach that enables problems to drive innovation, establishing a cycle of investment and return. As things stand, the private sector is unlikely to participate in the R&D value chain.
There is also a need to make innovation possible, accessible and relevant to all — to make it democratic. An entity that provides inspiration and support to citizen inventors to engage in innovation to solve development issues could unlock potential.
One such organisation is the Pakistan Innovation Foundation (PIF) to be launched later this month, which I have founded with colleagues, and which aims to promote innovation in the private sector and society.
This cannot be achieved overnight. PIF is starting small and will build credibility as it goes along. But even before its formal launch, PIF has been able to engage private-sector players in a meaningful and wide-ranging conversation on innovation in Pakistani society.
Pakistan is in a precarious period and faces a sustainability challenge of epic proportions. This could only get worse with a fast-growing population that could reach 300 million in a little more than a generation.
With its back to the wall, Pakistan can only innovate its way out of its current and future challenges.
Athar Osama is a science and innovation policy consultant and advisor. He is CEO of Technomics International, a UK-based technology policy consulting firm, and founder of Muslim-Science.com and the Pakistan Innovation Foundation.