Budget2013: Research and Development in Pakistan

Ishaq Dar mentioned the word development 26 times but not once was it implied for the development of technology.

Hamza Mannan June 13, 2013
The initial prognosis of the recent budget by pundits is positive, with the phrase “business-friendly” or some other variant prefacing their every breath. While that’s an italicised development from past years, let’s hope there is a noticeable change in the fields of research, development and technology as well.

To say the least, Pakistan has had its share of intestinal economic and political disruptions. Incessant wars, military rule, flogged bureaucracy and corruption represent some of the determinants of Pakistan’s snail-paced economic growth.

Recognising these factors, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar during his budget presentation speech invoked the word “development” 26 separate times, but he failed to contribute even a sentence of his speech to the importance of development in tandem with technology and research, save the part of his speech when he promised to dole out laptops to a select few students pursuing higher education. He did however spend some time harping on a significant increase in defence spending, perhaps an accurate reflection of the misplaced priorities that lie ahead.

In a chapter in Anita Weiss and Saba Khattak’s most recent publication, Development Challenges Confronting Pakistan, economist Shahrukh Rafi Khan presents readers with a review of the barriers that have contributed towards Pakistan’s lagging growth.

Rafi Khan cites and compares several factors that have been primary contributors; important among them a failure to diversify the economy in the face of a more technologically advanced and globalised age. Put differently, he surveys a unique discussion that is reduced to a cursory slider on our television screens, often at the expense of age-old scandals, chest-thumping nationalism, and the various shades of blame and hopscotch that find their places in our vast spectrum of political discussions.

Research and Development (R&D) is a key catch-phrase many developing countries appeal towards in order to draw attention to their capabilities in hopes of soliciting investors. In our case, Rafi Khan notes that we spend about the same as India on matters concerning R&D - nothing to smirk about, since the figure stands at less than one percent of GDP - but the results are significantly hammered.

In terms of patent activity in 2006, there were 5,314 patent applications filed in India and 122,318 filed in China. In Pakistan, a barely noticeable 91 patent applications were filed! This figure reflects well on our decreasing contributions relative to neighbouring countries.

One of the key factors of technological improvements, as Shahrukh Rafi Khan observes, is its function in helping diversify an economy.
“Most nations start with textiles and clothing industry and then move up the technology ladder,” writes Khan.

When these countries reach the technology rung, they add value to already established markets through innovation and efficiency. These are all hallmarks of success. Today in Pakistan, these rungs of the ladder are growing farther apart than ever, making it harder to innovate and improve our prospects as a developing economy.

What’s troubling is that as recently as 2010, 53% of Pakistan’s total exports were in textiles and clothing, representing the largest percentage for any export industry. A decade ago, India’s total exports in the textiles and clothing industry was nine%, and the number has decreased even more so now. In addition, India’s high technology exports as a percentage today are three times greater than Pakistan’s, as Khan keenly observes.

Pakistan can do more to improve its dire condition. The first step would be to encourage higher education research - most important, in the form PHDs and PostDocs - to contribute towards the defunct Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

One promising development is the sizable increase of 70% from the last fiscal year in allocations towards the Science and Technological Research Division as part of the Public Sector Development Programme. Additionally, there is an increase by almost 10% in funding towards what economists at the Finance Ministry are referring to by the tagline “Education Affairs and Services.”

These are all pleasant developments, but let’s hope implementing them does not prove as difficult as it has in past years.

Read more by Hamza here.
Hamza Mannan Hamza Mannan is a freelance writer and his work has appeared across various newspapers.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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