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[ISLAMABAD] Atta-ur-Rahman resigned as chairman of Pakistan's Higher Education Commission (HEC) last week (9 October), apparently over a lack of funding for science and education.

The scientist is credited with reforming the country's science and technology (S&T) sector, and academics see his resignation as a serious threat to the continuity of more than 400 projects he put in place at the HEC.

Atta-ur-Rahman was appointed as HEC chairman in 2002 and brought the higher education budget from 400 million Pakistani rupees (around US$4.9 million) in 2002 to around US$220 million now.

Atta-ur-Rahman exercised his maximum influence in the government of Pervez Musharraf, who resigned in August this year. He was minister for science and technology from 2000–2002, during which time he secured massive increases in S&T spending. He also secured around US$151 million in a recent budget for S&T university research.

Before resigning, Atta-ur-Rahman had openly voiced concerns over cuts to already-approved funds for scientific research projects, including setting up international S&T universities (see Pakistan plans 'state of the art' science universities).

The government gave the HEC only US$32 million of US$56 million allocated for 284 approved projects in the first quarter of this financial year. Two hundred and fifty projects could be stopped due to lack of funds, and the HEC has formally asked all universities to defer their development projects, according to an HEC document.

The vice chancellors and rectors of the leading public sector universities expressed grave concern over the budget cuts at a meeting held in July in Islamabad, and decided to take the matter to the prime minister. Atta-ur-Rahman, presiding the meeting, advised them to generate their own resources instead of solely relying on government grants.

The coalition government, headed by the Pakistan People's Party, which came to power after the February 2008 election, has yet to announce any S&T policies, with the economy and law and order being its top priorities.

The Nation newspaper has reported that Atta was forced to resign under mounting pressure from the new government.

Atta-ur-Rahman says his resignation is for personal reasons, and declined to comment further, but confirmed to SciDev.Net that the HEC is undergoing financial cutbacks.

"It is an unbearable loss for science and higher education in the country. Science and technology does not appear to be on the government's agenda as there is no science minister in the cabinet," Razina Alam Khan, chairperson of the Senate Standing Committee on Science, Technology and Education told SciDev.Net. 

"It would be premature to term his resignation good or bad for science and education in the country. It depends on what kind of person we get in his place," says Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist and a prominent critic of Atta. He views his resignation as linked to the change in political regime.

The government has yet not appointed Atta-ur-Rahman's replacement.