Museum of good intentions

Published: July 30, 2019
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The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

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

I love museums, especially the ones that are off the beaten track. They capture my imagination, bring me face to face with a time gone by, and sometimes whisper a story in my ear that stays with me for a long time. Occasionally, artefacts in some of the most unusual museums may be about the past, but the story that they tell is about the future. We need a museum like that – for lack of a better term, let us call it the “Museum of good intentions”.

In the 70-plus year history of the country, dozens, if not hundreds, of plans and projects in the realm of science, technology and engineering have not panned out. Except for a few most failed spectacularly. Believing that they were all driven by greed, corruption and nepotism, would be both naïve and unfair. Yet, the success rate has been dismally low – not for bad intentions but for competence. Perhaps, we ought to learn by cataloguing and displaying all that we have tried to date.

If there was a museum that had information about all the science and technology projects ever tried, it would need a large building, with at least three galleries. The largest one would be named “Bombastic idea, nothing more”. This is where all projects that were poorly thought out would go. The second one, named “Good idea, bad execution” would also be large but smaller than the first. And the third and the smallest would be “Things that actually did work”.

I can think of plenty of material for all three galleries, some from even not too long ago. The HEC foreign faculty hiring programme was in principle an idea that was based on good intentions.  The fact it ended up being a surrogate for people visiting their families, or it becoming their retirement ticket, made it nothing but a drain on resources.

Perhaps it belongs in the first gallery or the second – I will let the curators decide. Or the idea to put monetary rewards for publications, which resulted in increased plagiarism and substantially decreased quality of our scholarly work, also belongs in the museum. I wonder which galleries projects like Thar coal or Reko Diq belong in. I am sure my colleagues can come up with other ideas that belong in the museum as well.

Let us now move from the recent past to the near future. Science is in the news, because the Honourable Minister of Science continues to make headlines. The fact that he and the government want to deliver quickly is an excellent thing. I also trust their intentions – but good intentions alone have not brought us much except artefacts in a museum.

Let us quickly analyse two “projects” that have recently been proposed by the Minister. First – a conference that is supposedly happening sometime in October with the names of Gates, Zuckerberg and Musk among the proposed (yet not confirmed) speakers.

If the goal is to promote science culture in the country and inspire the youth, it may be better to find real scientists, who can engage with our youth, not businessmen who come on a stage at an elite venue. What is common among the three is the ability to make big money through technology (and occasionally unethical business practices). The pursuit of science should be based on curiosity, not because it creates big business.

Second – sending a Pakistani into space. Yet again a well-intentioned idea that is unlikely to succeed. While I strongly support space exploration, it would be far more important to first get our space agency, and associated research institutions in order through leadership, meritocracy and financial support.

I know that a museum of good intentions does not exist yet (though it should), but it is not hard to create one in our individual and collective imaginations. As we visit it, even in our imagination, we may find that like all good museums it may offer lessons not just about our past, but also about our future. 

Published in The Express Tribune, July 30th, 2019.

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