Sunday, October 14, 2012

Professor Atta-Ur-Rahman’s Hardtalk


by Susil Sirivardana

September 27th 2012 was an unforgettable day in the annals of the intellectual life of this country. The occasion was the Lecture by Professor Atta-ur-Rahman, Fellow of the Royal Society, to a representative gathering of concerned Sri Lankans who filled the Vidyamandira in the morning. I prefer the title Hardtlalk, because that was what it really was in our particular context. A Hardtalk has the characteristics of being challenging, rigorous, deep, lucid, and firmly grounded in praxis.

His listeners were inspired and touched by the warmth and simplicity with which this visionary scientist spoke of his country’s, Pakistan’s, incredible achievements in Higher Education, particularly Science and Technology. The event was jointly hosted by the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences. The topic was ``DEVELOPMENT OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY AND INNOVATION.’’

How ironical it was that he was empathetically sharing the experiences of our friendly neighbour when our university academics were walking on their long march of their struggle for some Fundamentals of Higher Education in the country, in solidarity with students and the sympathetic public.

There was a further irony and paradox to Prof. Atta’s thoughts. That was our perception of Pakistan itself, as a country embroiled in a life and death struggle by its citizens to rescue its democratic fabric from the jaws of civil war. In this context the issue was the redemptive and transformative role of committed intellectuals to wage peace and forge alternatives by creating developmental space where none was thought to exist.

The Story

The story is completely contemporary; actually from 2000 onwards. He returns to Pakistan in 1989 after nine years at Cambridge .The first challenge he sets himself is to build from scratch an advanced laboratory for him to work in the University of Karachchi. His approach is instructive. He writes over a 100 letters to prestigious institutions requesting them for a spectrophotometer(?), and a firm from Germany volunteers to donate one. The machine arrives and has to be installed. Then he goes to the Bank of Pakistan and talks to its Chairman, who is sufficiently convinced by the man’s social commitment, that the Bank offers to gift the cost of setting it up.

From this initial period to the year 2000, he does his homework. He prepares himself. He makes a critical study of the Pakistani Science and Technology structures and policies to identify its stage of development. That is none other than laying the foundations for a modern advanced Science and Technology fundamental research base. Hence the recurring key word in his story, innovation. Every step he takes is vital, until innovation generates its own momentum and spawns more innovations .This issue of the stage of development is an essential fundamental step because it is only then you can correctly understand the conditions needed for secondary developments. So there is a sequencing in the process. You cannot incautiously plunge in.

From 2000-2002 he was the Federal Minister of Science and Technology and Advisor on S&T to the President. He was Federal Minister of Education from 2002. From 2002 to 2008 he was the Chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), reporting directly to the President. This enabled him to meet President Musharef and convince him that Pakistan could emerge as a world class science and technology player within a foreseeable period provided the political will was there. And he was very clear that it was he who took upon himself the task of convincing the President. He then said that the Prseident had a Vision for Pakistan which clicked with what he was advocating. Thus he won over the President to a major sea change in S & T praxis. That triggered a long chain of change .

He had a free hand thereafter. He reported directly to the President and had direct access.

The next important change was the replacement of the pre-existing University Grants Commission with a new Higher Education Commission, directly under the President. It didn’t come within the purview of a Ministry. Into that HEC he drew in the crème de la creme of the Pakistani intellectual community, with the necessary regional and cultural balance. But there was no compromising on meritocracy. The meritocratic principle was a golden thread that ran through all innovations. With that, he had ample leverage to innovate further For example, the massive new finances needed, were forthcoming because of Presidential command.

Thereafter the systematic laying down of the foundations for the new modern advanced S&T structures was handled. Once again a sequence was observed. One billion dollars was used for sending 11,000 young scientists abroad to the best internationaal S&T institutions for their Ph.Ds. In order to incentivize them to come back, each of them was assured a $100,000 grant for them to set up their research projects after coming back to bridge the time gap till their university placements were in place.

An imporant policy innovation was the "tenure track" concept. That meant that they had to submit themselves to an International Review Panel for them to get permanent tenure. Once they passed the "tenure track" review, they graduated to earn $5,000 a month, which was around five times the salary of a Federal Minister. The preexisting cadre, who were already in their academic positions, were given the "choice" of either submitting themselves to the Review or continuing at their old salary levels. So there was no threat.

Each new institution ran on the basis of critical masses of outstanding scientists. Their mission was to make their institutions into centres of excellemce. So rigorous standard setting started and proceeded for every step in the overall process. There was synergy as far as standards and meritocracy went. Most importantly, what was happening was that a new Culture of Excellence was being created at a higher level than the preexisting culture. It was led by seniors but the sheet anchor were the brilliant young men and women of Pakistan, drawn from every nook and cranny of the country.

For us in Sri Lanka, we are provoked to ask, whether this was not the dream of C.W.W.Kannangara’s Free Education policy and ideal. His vision was one of creating excellence in the 54 Central Schools.

What was Prof Atta really doing in essence? He was offering a very particular quality of leadership and new liberative space through using very transparent and equitable procedures.

The results were unbelievable. Exponential increases in numbers were taking place. University enrollement tripled from 135,000 in 2003 to 400,000 in 2008. During the 56 year period from 1947-2003 not a single Pakistani University could be ranked among the top 600 universities in the world. Today five of them are in this rank, with the National University of Science and Technology, standing at a very respectable rank of 350. Promoted research published in international research publications rose from only 600 research papers in 2003 to 4,300 papers in 2008. He established the finest Digital Library in Pakistan. Every public sector student now has access to 45,000 textbooks and research monographs from 220 international publishers and 25,000 international research journals. Fifty one new universities and degree awarding institutes and eighteen campuses of existing universities were established during 2003-2008.

Pertinent Questions

Most pertinent were the questions asked. Here is a sampling.

For all these revolutionary innovations, where did you get the money? Was it privately funded by industries and similar sources,or was it state funded? He first did a survey of sources of funding in a sample of developed industrialized countries to ascertain how they had solved their problem. He was surprised to find that in 92% of cases, they were all State funded. So the argument of private funding for innovation, given the conditions of Pakistan and Sri Lanka, was a myth. For laying foundational structures, it is only the State that can provide the resources.

The issue of language was broached. In what language did all these thousands and thousands of young scientists study? In Pakistan’s education system, they had retained English .They never gave it up. So there was no insurmountable challenge for the young scientists to go abroad and do further research.

Scholarhsips and grants played a major incentivizing and credibility-building role. Advanced science does not come cheap. In order to build up the foundations and set up the institutions, you need huge sums of money. The point was that Pakistan could nationally afford it. This was the great discovery which Prof Atta made. The missing piece in the puzzle was political will and vision. He used scholarships and grants to draw in the best, convince them that they had a an important role to play when they return home after their doctoral research and further, that they were the builders of a new layer of science and technology in Pakistan, which would graduate to sharing a global platform with developed countries. And it is happening now. Today all the best scientists from all over the world are coming to Pakistan for intellectual exchanges. Today Pakistan is a global centre for S&T research. So much so, that India and China are studying and drawing lessons from their example.

What about autonomy and merit? He said that all these institutions and universities were totally autonomous. There cannot be any external interference, he emphasized. It was clear to the audience that they had divested politics and external influences completely from university structures.

There were cascades of laughter at one point. He said how at one time there was a University Grants Commission in Pakistan. But it was scrapped and its position was taken by the Higher Education Commission already referred to. The HEC functioned directly under the President.

In answering a question, he cautioned against adventurism. You have to create the conditions first and then move forward. He was very clear on this. This is the issue of stages of development, sequencing and offering the correct incentives, together with fair choices and equity. The question also adverted to differing salary levels .Won’t parallel staff object and protest against sharply differing salary structures. You need to be circumspect .We were mindful of such pitfalls When we offered the higher scales, we offered it to all. That is those who had been in the system for a long time and the newcomers. Only they had to appear before the Review Committee and pass the stringent tests and standards. Whether to come before the Review Committee was left to them.

What about hostile critics and opposition to innovation and change? Oh there was a lot of it. But we were ready for it and we expected it. Change always threatens those conditioned to drift and status quo-ism. But this lasts only for a limited transitional period, maybe two, three or four years. By that time the innovations start to show results, the climate of skepticism erodes. Thereafter you can maneuver the process so that people buy into change. New norms replace obsolete ones as a matter of course.

Prof Atta in his humility was not triumphalist about all this. His position was that you could do this in any South Asian country, Sri Lanka included. He asserted that we should join together and do it. It was our birthright to graduate into change, innovation and higher levels of praxis. He offered to meet our President and show him the power point presentation.

To Conclude

How should we look at a man like Prof Atta? How do we characterize him? A Prophet, a Modernist, a Visionary, a Tagorean Scientist? That is a fascinating question.

For me, the last slide he showed revealed the answer. He had shown it earlier but came back to that image to end his Hardtalk. It was a slide of a group of young Pakistani scientist daughters and sons, confidently smiling for the camera. They were those who had come through his new birth. They were the new 21st century Pakistan. That gives us the clue to Prof Atta.

Here was a man rooted in his people and culture. So there is no question of him selfishly enjoying the luxuries of the West. He comes back full of optimism. I am a born optimist, he said. That is optimism coming out of self confidence and roots in his culture and civilization. He is deeply political in the best sense of the word. He sensitively understands the whirligig of realpolitik. He is confident to talk to and convince the Head of State. It was he who did the convincing of the President. True, the credit is shared by the President himself, who could empathize with Prof Atta’s vision. Both visions were conjoined - that is how great breakthroughs are made.

Therefore Prof Atta is a civilizational figure in the Tagorean sense. He is far too big to be mired in nationalism. He thinks and dreams as a utopian, with his feet firmly on the Pakistani ground.

Thank you Prof Atta for this bonanza of inspiration and example .What we heard was how the new Asian Millenium was being born.

The two host institutions could do a great service by bringing out a slim booklet on the presentation and republishing it in all the national languages.

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