HR crisis of experts

Most of these so-called experts have no contextual research experience or no rigorous training in these matters

Muhammad Hamid Zaman December 25, 2018
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

We have a national HR crisis when it comes to experts. Let us start with exhibit A: I have seen, over the period of a few days, the exact same people talk at a book launch on Pakistan’s wars; be the expert on a panel recognising the services of a prominent civil service professional; appear on the TV talking about the economic impact of IMF loan; provide a perspective on minority rights in the country on another TV programme; and deliver a keynote address early next morning on the current challenges in higher education in the country. It is one thing to have an opinion, quite another to brand oneself as an expert. Clearly, if half a dozen people from over 200 million are experts in nearly all matters, domestic and foreign, from education to history, infrastructure to economics, environment to poverty, there is a crisis.

The fact remains that most of these so-called experts have no contextual research experience or no rigorous training in these matters. The fact that the hosts of the shows and the organisers of the conferences continue to call upon the exact same people, who say the exact same things, tells a lot about the expertise of the hosts as well. If it hasn’t happened already, I hope that there is soon an expert fatigue set in due to seeing the exact same people appear as experts on all matter.

Exhibit B: Searches for university or research institution leadership, looking for those with experience, expertise, research training, integrity and mentorship ability often come up empty. Bars have to be lowered and expectations tempered because the search committee is often unable to find quality candidates. We have to settle for good enough, and not just plain old good.

So when we really need experts, we can’t find any, and those who appear to be experts aren’t quite qualified.

This is the backdrop of our reality, in which the new institution, Islamabad National University, needs to operate. I have, in the past, on these very pages (September 18th, 2018) shared my hesitation on creating a university in an exclusive zone when there are others, within a couple of kilometres, that are struggling so badly and are in desperate need of support. My feelings about the new venture still remain mixed, but now that we have a new initiative, I am eager to see it mature and really hope that it succeeds. Whether it becomes a university, an institute for advanced studies or a think tank, its success will depend only on one thing: the people who run this.

We cannot import our way out of this HR crisis. Instead, what we need is a gradual growth strategy that emphasises quality, equity and fairness and invests in new people. We should not be quick to fill the offices with administrative experts, those who may have commanded tens of thousands of people, or bureaucrats who know the ins and outs of the system, but experts, who bring research credentials, rigour in their thought and are equipped with strong disciplinary tools of analysis. We need quality more than anything, and more than ever before.

I will always remember what one of my graduate mentors told me: “People who are ‘A’ quality, hire A plus people, whereas B quality people hire C people.” A rush to hire people (of B or C quality) just because we need to make a political statement is simply a recipe for disaster. We ought to demand some new leadership, lots of fresh ideas, and real expertise and not the same people who we have been seeing in all matters of academia and policy for the last three decades. Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting results that are completely different, is naiveté bordering on insanity — and the last thing we need right now.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 25th, 2018.

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