Who watches the watchdog?
Nizamuddin Siddiqui reports on a public dispute between an eminent Pakistani scientist and the country's commission on higher education.
An eminent Pakistani physicist has written a series of articles criticising Pakistan's Higher Education Commission (HEC) — the body mandated with improving standards in the country's universities and other higher education institutions.
Last month Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of nuclear physics at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, slammed HEC policies in articles he wrote for print and Internet-based media in Pakistan and the United States.
Hoodbhoy claimed that the HEC wasted public money on dubious projects and compromised on its standards for doctoral degrees.
At the centre of his arguments was the proposed purchase of a Van de Graaf accelerator, which, said Hoodbhoy, was nothing but a piece of "scientific junk" as it had become obsolete. More than 150 million rupees (US$2.5 million) had been allocated for the equipment's purchase.
The HEC is chaired by Atta-ur-Rahman, another well-known Pakistani scientist who has written numerous books and, in 1999, was co-winner of the UNESCO Science Prize.
Rahman, president of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, has come to be respected in the country not only for establishing a first-rate research centre for chemistry in Karachi, but also for his inspirational leadership.
Many view him as perhaps the only person with the potential to take Pakistan out of the woods vis-à-vis science and education.
Rahman's policies have been opposed in the past, however, notably by faculty members of state-owned universities.
Two years ago, these faculty members mounted a campaign against an HEC policy aimed at improving educational standards because they objected to a 'superbody' monitoring their performance.
When Rahman held his ground, and largely refused to listen to the protesting lecturers, his stance won considerable praise.
Hoodbhoy's argument is that in most developing countries, one needs to 'watch' the watchdog. This was a bold stance to take in Pakistan, where sycophants are often rewarded and people with original ideas ignored.
However, the HEC's rejoinder, written by its executive director Sohail Naqvi, argued that Hoodbhoy's "diatribe against the HEC is completely unfair and unjustified".
The article repeatedly asserted that the HEC could not be held accountable for "the mistakes made by various university administrations".
Although many will say that Hoodbhoy's articles were important and his arguments valid, many commentators believe too that Pakistanis should feel indebted to Rahman, who is likely to be remembered as the one person who made scientific and educational reforms possible in the country.
As a minister, he convinced president Pervez Musharraf to invest more heavily in science and technology. It was Rahman who pointed out that the 57 predominantly Muslim countries — with more than 1.3 billion citizens — produce only about one per cent of the world's scientific publications.
Rahman argued that the main reason for this was that Muslim countries lagged behind the West in both education and science and technology. He persuaded the Musharraf government to increase spending on education and science drastically.
But while Rahman has pushed for and achieved an increase in funding for education and research, his performance as an information technology minister was criticised: he appeared to spend more time speaking to the media and making speeches at grand events than on policy matters.
At the HEC too, although many projects have triumphed, a lack of proper implementation has bedevilled some of Rahman's policies.
Many in Pakistan would agree that the HEC projects do have several shortcomings and that the commission itself should be made more accountable to the public. Meanwhile, this controversy looks set to run and run.
Nizamuddin Siddiqui is science editor of Dawn, a daily newspaper in Pakistan