SOS: Save Our Science

Science is becoming increasingly international and collaborative

Muhammad Hamid Zaman April 23, 2019
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

No matter who is in power, there is one message that remains the same. We all have heard it. It goes something like this — our future is bright, and science and technology is the most potent way to ensure that bright future. Depending on the mood, the politicians might throw in something about science being essential for health, poverty reduction, development and equity. Words like space, national security, water and agriculture also appear in from time to time in speeches. There could not be any doubt in the core statement — indeed, support for science and technology is a time-tested investment that yields enormous dividends. The reason our science continues to struggle is not because of any falsehood in the claim, but in the bizarre set of actions taken up by our governments. This has been the trend for long, in successive governments — and the appointment of the new minister further reaffirms the belief that not much is going to change. Worse, if things do not change for the better they often deteriorate further.

The recent action of appointing someone who has no training, no expertise, no experience and no exposure should be taken in context. The first minister who was appointed by the new government about eight months ago was no better. He was forced to resign — after it was found out that he had abused authority, had gotten a senior police officer transferred and had bullied poor slum dwellers. That person is back in the cabinet as of last week. In the interim period there was no minister of science and now the recent appointment is just as inexplicable.

I feel personally sad at this appointment. Over the last few years, I have had the unique pleasure of meeting, engaging, interacting with and learning from our youth through the Lahore Science Mela. The event brings together thousands of boys and girls, from schools, colleges and universities, from all over the country, to share their curiosity and their passion for innovation. These boys and girls, from all socio-economic backgrounds are simply amazing. Every single one of them, from a first grader to a graduate student, inspired me. These youth are fierce patriots, bright, motivated and driven. But these students are also hungry for inspiration and want their government to enable them to achieve their dreams. By appointing someone head of the Science Ministry, who has neither capacity nor training, neither exposure nor experience, means that we are telling these boys and girls that their aspirations do not matter. Nothing could be more devastating to their dreams than a government saying that your ambitions are not worthy of our attention. Moreover, the recent and past statements of the minister about a variety of people are highly inappropriate and are not becoming of a leader. No parent will ask their children to look up to the national voice on science. It is heartbreaking.

There are other dimensions that are equally concerning. Science is becoming increasingly international and collaborative. Presentations by the minister ought to be more than reading a prepared speech, especially in a room full of experts and other science advisers. It is embarrassing to see someone represent Pakistan, with no experience in engaging with scientists, or having conducted any research. I have often endured this embarrassment at international symposia. Seems that it will continue for the foreseeable future.

There are also concerning reports that the HEC’s budget is being slashed by as much as 50%. At this time, we need someone to argue for science, and do so with personal experience and field expertise.

I am sad because I had higher hopes — and just because others did it in the past does not mean that we ought to continue with the same. We should do one of two things — either mean it when we say that science and technology is important for our future, or stop saying it altogether. The science ship is sinking fast and sending a clear SOS signal. The powerful in the government should pay attention.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2019.

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