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Pakistan's low level of scientific research is due to a culture that discourages independent and critical thinking, says N. A. Jafarey.

Over the years, numerous commentators have written about a lack of research in Pakistan. The issue is discussed frequently in academic institutions too. In nearly all such discussions, lack of funding and of adequate facilities are presented as the major reasons that research has not been conducted in the country on a large enough scale.

To some extent I agree. Funds and facilities are indeed important. However, they are not the only reasons for our failure to carry out good research. Lack of funding has become a convenient generalisation, no, an excuse for our failure to look at scientific problems from various angles.

Research gives rise to curiosity and a desire to look for, and find, better solutions to our everyday problems or better explanations for whatever happens around us.

Such a state of mind develops in an environment where the individual is allowed to express and discuss new ideas, however outlandish they might seem. This is the process through which we crystallise our ideas and clear our minds of incorrect assumptions.

Perhaps the single most significant impediment in Pakistan to research, and also quality higher education, is the near-zero tolerance for dissent. We have in place a hierarchical system, which operates at every level of society — at the home, school, college, university and workplace.

The elder or the senior is never wrong and you are not expected to challenge that. In most homes, children are not expected to speak unless they are asked to do so.

Encouraging independent thinking

As opposed to this, research thrives on discussion. It flourishes when various groups freely discuss differing viewpoints. It is stifled when juniors are discouraged from speaking before their seniors. Unless we create an environment in our educational institutions that is conducive to a free exchange of ideas, we simply cannot have meaningful research in Pakistan.

To be sure, even in the absence of such an environment we might have research, but it would neither be original nor would it be addressing our people's problems. In such circumstances, there is a general tendency to stick to 'safe' topics, or to work in areas where some research has already been carried out elsewhere.

In my 40 years of experience in higher education — in the public as well as private institutions — one of the biggest problems I confronted was how to encourage students to think independently. It would take months of persuasion before students would start airing their opinions.

More than 100 students did their MPhil degrees — only six went on to doctorates — from the department that I headed, yet most of them failed to become independent thinkers.

Most had done the MPhil just because it represented a hurdle that had to be negotiated before promotion could be granted to them. Once they got appointed as assistant professors, they simply stopped carrying out research.

Subsequent promotions were based on seniority, not performance. They generally felt that there was no further need for them to carry out research, as they only had to sit firmly in their seats and they would become professors and heads of departments in time.

Indeed, the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council has recently linked promotions to the publication of research papers, but this has only resulted in the establishment of some journals whose main purpose is to publish papers aimed at generating promotions. As you know well, we excel in the art of undermining and undercutting any and every watchdog's intentions, no matter how noble.

This places great responsibilities on the shoulders of senior academics, particularly heads of departments and deans. But, above all, it is the duty of the vice-chancellors and other heads of institutions to help create an environment in which students and junior faculty members are encouraged to think independently, and to formulate and express their opinions irrespective of the prevalent opinions around them.

This can be done by arranging seminars and debates on different topics and by setting up journal clubs. A good teaching method is 'problem-based learning', which encourages students to explore literature and to come up with answers themselves.

A critical mass of critical thinkers

Research thrives best where there is a group with which one can interact — a 'critical mass' of critical thinkers. Ideally, the group should not comprise people from the same narrow field but from different areas. This promotes cross-fertilisation of ideas. This is where universities have an edge over single-discipline institutes.

Now that the government is providing substantial research funds to public-sector universities, a major hurdle has been removed. The step is long overdue and thus commendable. It is now up to the universities to produce the desired results.

My apprehension, however, is that funds are not enough to produce 'meaningful' research. I wish to emphasise here that research is not 'an end' in itself. Rather, it is needed because our policymakers must have the necessary evidence to reach the right decisions. Thus, research by itself is not sufficient, unless it is used to solve our day-to-day problems and for bringing about 'evidence-based decisions'.

Another question that bothers me relates both to the present and the future. How many of those who are being provided funding today will continue conducting research in the long run? Or, are they carrying it out just to earn promotions? Only time will answer this rather blunt query.

N. A. Jafarey is a former vice-chancellor of the Ziauddin Medical University, Karachi, Pakistan.

This article originally appeared in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper and has been reproduced with permission.

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