Written by

Adil Murtaza

The author is Manager Operation at National Science & Technology Park, NUST and has contributed to the drafting of STI policy 2021 while being on attachment at Ministry of Science & Technology. mgr.ops2@nstp.pk

Tech, Telecom & IT

Is this a watershed moment for S&T in Pakistan?

Who would have thought that the year 2019 would breath its last in the air of an imminent apocalypse! Amidst the exacerbating situation caused by COVID-19, the world had virtually come to a standstill with its people left waiting for a ‘Godot.’ Nonetheless, the virus had erupted in an era where science & technology would be the panacea of all ills, hence, collocating with unprecedented breakthroughs in the fields of Engineering, Genetics, Healthcare, Agriculture, Energy, Infrastructure, to name a few.

Where the onslaught of the pandemic posed a novel threat to the S&T-inspired day and age, and shrank the global economy by 4.4 per cent, it caused a stir in the developing world, including Pakistan, to re-orient themselves to survive the challenges of modern times. It called for laying out a more responsive and robust Science, Technology & Innovation(STI) policy framework to secure a safer tomorrow for posterity.

Ensuing meticulous deliberations by the experts, the new STI policy has been reformulated under the auspices of Ministry of Science & Technology, Pakistan. The contours of this policy articulately encompass the collective desire to transform Pakistan into a knowledge-based economy in true letter and spirit. It draws upon the consensus that the national R&D endeavours need not be confined to limited scope of theory and academia, and rather channelised to garner social dividends. The shortcomings of the past policies have been found in their fixation with scientific articles and publications, hence treating R&D as an end in lieu of being a means to an end. As a consequence, Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Expenditure of R&D (GERD) could never receive its fair share during successive regimes, so much so that it remained stuck around 0.2% following the release of 2012 edition of the policy.    

Owing to outsized productivity returns and high spill-over gains, the developed world’s Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D in 2020 have soared to an all-time high of 6.2% from the preceding year. There is no denying the fact that if Pakistan is to join the league of the developed world, investments in R&D are a must. To put things into perspective, the first natural step ought to be a significant raise in allocations for creation of scientific knowledge, innovation and evocation of the spirit of enterprise. The courting of R&D allocation up to 1% of GDP is a welcome proposition in the new policy to reinvigorate Pakistan’s STI ecosystem, which needs to be potentially sustained and further enhanced in the coming years.

In a bid to give their competitors a run for their money in the global economic faceoff, countries like China and the US have allocated above 600 billion USD on their R&D spending for the year 2022. Pakistan’s new STI policy 2021/22 has been tailored to the demanding international dynamics as it incorporates strategies from conception to indigenous development of products and technologies to reduce staggering import bills. It deeply advocates the formation of working groups that will not only converge all national-level expertise and resources for development of technology-based-products but also prove instrumental in institutionalising the best practices like Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) for development of technologies at par with the international benchmarks. In the similar vein, the policy postulates the establishment of National Scientific Data Repository to fulfil country’s present and future data needs.

Development and diffusion of technologies thrive upon an environment conducive to business and vice-versa. Pakistan’s galloping ease of doing business index ascending 28 positions last year alone has not gone unnoticed. With 330 million USD to its credit in 2021, the Pakistani entrepreneurial landscape is now brimming with diverse human potential and promising returns on investments. The policy streamlines measures to tap this digital tipping point of the country, while putting to use minds of the youth bulge through educational reforms, skill development and propagation of risk-taking culture.

One of the key takeaways from the Global Innovation Index 2021 is that innovation clusters are analogous to islands of knowledge and wealth, where tech-intensive products emanate from and find their diffusion beyond international consumer markets. National Science & Technology Park (NSTP) at NUST has been raised akin to international tech-clusters to reap the benefits in tangible terms. Its rapid success vis-à-vis job creation, wealth generation and churning out of technology products has earned STPs a prominent place in the policy, making a strong case for replication of such infrastructures across the country. The government too, instead of relying on a department or a policy as an item of faith, legislated the establishment of Special Technology Zones Authority last year to repudiate bureaucratic norms in extrapolation of STPs. Across-the-board support for establishment of clusters translates well into the policy that provisos conversion of country’s 10 cities into smart-cities to create poles of knowledge, prosperity and tech-driven growth.

What sets the new policy apart from its rudimentary forms is that it imbibes implementation mechanism to steer clear of pitfalls and is purposely open-ended to reciprocate well to evolving S&T landscape. It holds promise for strengthening of the National Innovation System, provided its effective implementation and subsequent appraisals after regular intervals. Pakistan is destined to become the 20th largest economy by 2030; all it would take is to latch on this watershed moment. 

Discussion

  1. An un-publicized activity in Islamabad is in lasers. Only 12 km from NUST is Optics Labs & NILOP, where R&D, post-grad teaching and production are combined. Production of complete laser systems from UV-IR, CW and pulsed ( fsec and below), solid, liquid and gaseous lasers is underway. Completely self sufficient in laser crystals, precision optics/coatings, mechanics and electronics. Exports to Malaysia and Switzerland ( latter has 40 laser systems designed and built in Optics Labs). Laser land levelers for agriculture, and many lasers systems for defence. I had the opportunity to start the laser programme in Pakistan and built our first laser in 1970. 50 years of evolution. Over 500 personnel.

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