Nelson Mandela was emphatic on the value of education to transform a lagging society. Leaders of all types have constantly stated their singular commitment. The importance is how well you convert your statements into action. That is the difference between rhetoric and results.
The recent presentation by Atta-ur-Rahman at the auditorium of Sri Lanka Society for Advancement of Science on the invitation of both the National Academy of Sciences Sri Lanka and SLAAS was quite illuminating. It was no secret that the audience was quite receptive and the presence of eminent personnel such as Prof. Epasinghe, who is an Advisor to the President as well as being the Chancellor of University of Peradeniya, was quite welcome.
His subjects at Peradeniya may have been marching down the Galle Road at that very moment asking for a salary increase plus a wider demand for 6% GDP on education may have been constantly at the back of his mind. The presentation within that context could not have been more relevant. The contents of the speech were rich case study material with direct applicability.
The crux of his seminar was that Atta-ur-Rahman as the Minister of Education wanted to make a difference with the vision coming from his thinking that the future of Pakistan, if it is to come out of poverty, has to be through education. He quoted Tony Blair whose reply to a question on investment by state – education, education and education!
Atta Rahman was frank and forthright and he had results to show and for those who always want to know ‘show me results prior to commitments,’ they were there in abundance. He said if one wants a change of this magnitude, it has to be backed to the hilt by the top.
That is exactly what President General Pervez Musharraf has done and throughout his presentation the General was mentioned quite a few times. It was clear that the leader had confidence in his advisor and without reservation.
It appeared that it was a case of empathy too and not a case of sympathy – the General’s support had been a key factor. That strong understanding during his nine-year rule had led to strengthening the foundation for Pakistani’s knowledge economy.
His opening remarks were that the truth in time to come is going to be stranger than fiction. The world is going to be much more different thanks to science, technology and innovation of course delivered by creative individuals and teams.
If the teams are not from your economy, such developments will suck your resources from your economies and you do not need huge amount of gray cells to figure out who will come out better in the process. A simple way to look at is how much will flow out to bring in a Hummer or a Lamborghini to Galle Road and how you expect to generate that capital requirement both in capex and opex terms. If innovation is from within, the suction effect is yours.
He had a few interesting examples – meta materials based clothing that will make you invisible, bullet proof paper, cars that will run on old newspapers, cars that will run on air and will be driven by thought, anti-ageing compounds, stem cell revolution, blind seeing with their tongues, etc.
He emphasised that these examples are today available in university labs awaiting development up to commercial level. Returns on such developments are simply unimaginable and you are going oil free, driver free, with zero visibility!
I am not sure what business or accountancy course is addressing such calculations. As such development in time to come has to be through fostering creativity and not through monthly meetings and minute verifications. Budgeting and planning from past experiences will not do you or anybody else much good.
Yes, truth indeed is stranger than fiction and living in a country that Arthur C. Clarke so admired, we should doing things differently. It is a pity the individual is going to be a mere passenger in the current time capsule. If the intent is to breathe, eat three meals and live with 20 times the happiness, it is a different story which nobody would be interested in and you can buy yourself a second-hand copy of Alice in Wonderland lie on a sofa in front of the idiot box and go to sleep.
The critics would be there, he said. However, you have to persist. If the intentions are clear and the gains are for the nation, nothing should stop you. Some steps actually are quite unimaginable – 6,000% increase in the development budget of the Science Ministry, 2,400% increase in the development budget of higher education, salary increase to professors at five times that of a federal minister with a 75% tax waiver, world’s largest Fulbright scholarship program with 50% of the budget coming from the Pakistani side, US$ 100,000 research grant with assured job position to a returning scholar, etc.
Checks and challenges also were introduced – performance-based pay, tenure track system and performance assessments at an international level with strong peer assessments. The elements of what Pakistan did had led to the Royal Society of UK stating that if you need a good practical example of a way to transform a nation, look at what Pakistan did.
Nature wrote on Pakistan on four occasions and finally wrote requesting to keep treading the same path once the General left and the civilians came back to power. It was a request to sustain best practices, avoiding issue of ego. That had been the difference between perhaps the East and the West in modern times; while developed nations continue to improve on best practices and sustain them, the East took a path of improving on bad practices and sustenance of such trends.
Other elements of Pakistani plans were equally important to know. Free nationwide accessible digital library, an educational satellite, development of the national PhD program, ambitious university building program, optical fibre networks and connectivity, mirroring open access programs such as from MIT within Pakistan, etc., were some additional steps taken to strengthen the knowledge economy elements.
Now note that the Pakistani literacy rate is around 50% and Sri Lanka can boast of the best figures for a developing country and even rival some developed economies. If we fail to transform that literacy to advanced human capital, do not blame any international pressure or process; the blame will be on us.
We must understand the elements that form the backbone of a knowledge economy and go all out in ensuring that the process stays on. I am not sure that there are multiple prescriptions to this goal.
The human element too needs to be understood. The transformations in Pakistan were neither rigid nor autocratic. People were given the freedom to opt in or stay within one’s comfort zones. Hence salary increase can be really tied to performance and the mediocre and those below can be weeded out through time. However, there was the insistence to change over to the new system for those who were entering the system afresh.
Thank you, Prof. Rahman, for an illuminating lecture. You were talking about science, technology and innovation, but the sub title of your presentation was these as imperatives for socioeconomic development, which is the mantra in political and economic circles.
Innovation is a key differentiator and the one most important today in shaping the society and an economy. However to keep innovating you need advanced human capital. And that is why investing in higher education is useful – the basis for all that Pakistan did.
Today’s economic currency is not how literate the population is, but the presence of advanced human capital – the real talent pool. Leaders with vision will harness resources and then will do everything to sustain excitement. As organisations grow, the surroundings will change and the result is seen not because there are walking encyclopaedias but feeling the vibrant socioeconomic conditions.
Pity the system that does not understand this important connectivity. It is time to change from laughable budgets to laudable budgets if budgeting is still the way forward!
(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on firstname.lastname@example.org)