Discovery is expensive

Discoveries in experimental sciences require sophisticated equipment that is expensive to purchase, costly to maintain

Muhammad Hamid Zaman October 12, 2021
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The first week of October brings with it the opportunity to celebrate discovery, creativity and the fundamental human spirit of curiosity. The Nobel Prizes in science are not perfect, and not everyone who deserves them gets them. Yet, every year in October, the first three days in the Nobel week bring for me an opportunity to be inspired, to celebrate discovery in science, and to learn something new.

In our circle of scientists from Pakistan, a question is often asked around this time of the year. What does it take to do Nobel Prize worthy research? In between the lines, another question is asked: can we create an enabling environment for great discoveries and field-defining research? The answer, that all of us in our group recognise, is not one that is particularly comforting.

Solid research in science, irrespective of whether it garners any award or not, is becoming more and more expensive. New discoveries in experimental sciences require sophisticated equipment that is expensive to purchase and costly to maintain. In a country like Pakistan, where the dollar-rupee conversion continues to hit a new high every other month, and where there is a near complete dependence on foreign vendors for equipment and even basic consumables, doing good science is harder than ever. Good science requires bold experiments which yield dividends after many failed attempts. But each failed experiment means sunk costs – costs that the researchers are unable to bear. This means fewer bold experiments, and fewer discoveries. Those who do manage to somehow keep their efforts afloat are often unable to publish their findings in a world where publishing fees in good journals are becoming prohibitive.

But there is a problem beyond the costs of consumables and equipment. It is unfortunately more fundamental than that. Pakistan’s public institutions are struggling to pay their employees their basic salaries. Peshawar University’s publicised financial woes are just one of the many examples. The premier engineering university in Lahore, UET, had to borrow money in December 2020 from the government to pay its staff’s salaries. An environment where salaries of the staff are not secure would not be an enabling environment to do world-class research.

The overall budget for higher education also requires a quick mention. In the current fiscal year, the total allocation for HEC is Rs64 billion. In the public sector, there are about 1.2 million students and approximately 150,000 staff members. Assuming that not a penny is spent on students, Rs64 billion translates to an average of Rs35,000 per month per staff member. If we include the student numbers here, the per capita spending is so low that it is embarrassing to even mention it.

We may like to imagine research in dark basements or scholarship under a Banyan tree, but great research – not just in sciences but in every domain – no longer happens in a vacuum. It requires an enabling environment. An environment with freedom to pursue ideas, a place where their salaries are not in jeopardy every few months, and where the scholars do not have to wait endlessly for months for the most essential pieces of their research. None of this is cheap or easy. Neither it is a one-time investment. Good research requires patience and resilience on the part of the researcher, but more importantly it requires continued investment on the part of the support system. Investment that needs to go on, and continues to increase, for decades. Does every enabling system lead to world class research? Maybe, maybe not. A lot more, from genius to good fortune, is often needed. But we do know that the opposite is true. An environment where the staff is demotivated and worried about their salaries is unlikely to be the birthplace of field-defining discoveries.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2021.

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