When we think of organisations in the country that are connected to science, two prominent types of societies come to mind. The first belong to the category of those that have a certain formal and official mandate (eg, accreditation, certification, etc). The Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC) or the Pakistan Engineering Council would fall into this category. Then there are those that ‘represent’ professionals and act as a union. Institutions such as ‘Young Doctors Association’ would fall into this category. What are unfortunately completely absent (or largely dormant) are organisations that focus purely on scholarship. These organisations cannot just be a chapter of a foreign entity (eg, the Pakistan chapter of IEEE) but have to grow organically and reflect both the ground realities and aspirations of the field. Here, I would argue that these organisations are critical for national intellectual development in three major ways.
First, professional organisations shape the status and goals of the field in the national (and in some cases international) context. These societies (eg, the American Chemical Society and many others in the US, the UK and elsewhere) define what the field is and serve the scholarly and professional activity of the discipline. Most are open and inclusive and do not require one to be an expert scholar or someone with a distinguished career in the discipline.
Typically, these are nationally registered as non-profit, may have a charter from the government, but these are not government entities per se. The goal is not to carry out the government’s mission but to serve the profession in an independent and objective manner as defined by scholars in the discipline.
Second, professional societies serve as a platform for scholarship. This is through journals, conferences and other events that allows for open exchange of ideas that serves as the very foundation of research and inquiry. These societies, through direct and indirect efforts, also provide junior scholars with a sense of belonging and an opportunity to learn from their peers.
Third, professional societies often shape policy, by not being an arm of the political or the executive structure, but through their disciplinary expertise as well as advocacy and awareness activities. These societies also channel research findings to the public, agree or disagree with government policy and when needed take the government to court to protect public interest. The American Association of Pediatrics, for example, came strongly against the recent ‘Border Security and Reform Act’ arguing that separating children from their parents would do immense harm. In the context of awareness, the Royal Society of Chemistry runs various competitions to engage youngsters in activities that build curiosity and foster creativity and a sense of inquiry.
The list of what professional societies do is long and so are their activities. Some within Pakistan may argue that we have already our national professional societies. That may be true — but only in theory. The reality is that like many such initiatives, most (though not all) of these societies are dormant. The website of “The Chemical Society of Pakistan” lists the category of meetings as “under construction”. The Pakistan Biomedical Engineering Society exists only on Facebook. Other societies that exist are also mired in petty (but nasty) politics that do little to promote a culture of inquiry and creativity.
The point here is not to go through each and every professional society, but to argue that a robust scientific culture requires an organic structure that provides support, belonging and a rigorous platform to its scholars and practitioners. Our aspirations for scientific growth, and in turn sustainable local innovation, would fail to mature if we do not allow for professional societies to form and prosper.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 25th, 2018.