There is overwhelming evidence that countries that have invested heavily in science and technology have succeeded in achieving rapid and sustained economic growth.
Pakistan must place science and technology at the centre of its overall national development plans and in the agricultural and industrial strategies in order to develop fast growing, internationally competitive, and export-driven agricultural and industrial sectors, particularly in high-technology fields.
Agriculture is the largest income and employment-generating sector of Pakistan’s economy. However, it continues to suffer from low productivity. The major reasons for our low productivity as compared to India or Egypt are lack of seed varieties, resistance to pests and diseases, low genetic potential, drought and high temperature stress. The losses in agricultural output due to salinity/water logging are more than 30 billion rupees per annum, and post-harvest losses for fruits and vegetables alone are up to 60 billion rupees every year.
A sustained growth rate of five to six percent in agriculture is imperative to ensure a rapid growth in national income, macroeconomic stability, fair distribution of wealth and a reduction in poverty. This can be realised by exploiting the unachieved potential of all the sub-sectors of agriculture, diversifying agricultural production towards high value crops, and conserving land and water resources.
Industrial biotechnology has huge potential both in agriculture and health. India has established a separate department of biotechnology under the government to promote this sector so that it can follow the IT trajectory and reach a $50 billion export mark within 15 years.
I had established the national commissions of biotechnology and nanotechnology when I was federal minster of science & technology but both were abandoned by the previous government.
A tragic reality of our industrial sector is that 60 percent of our industry is in the field of textiles, which constitutes a very small portion (six percent) of the world market. We are absent from the major world market sectors such as engineering goods, pharmaceuticals, IT industry, ship building, electronics, biotechnology products, new materials etc.
The single most important sector for industrial development is that of engineering. This requires the development of technological, financial and physical infrastructures, and creating a seamless integration with emerging trends of global production systems. The lack of high quality technical education has been identified as one of the reasons for the limited progress in the engineering sector. There is also a need to develop design engineering capabilities, databases and infrastructure, create testing laboratories and instruments, and initiate public -private partnership in projects leading to innovation of new products and processes.
The electronics industry is one of the world’s fastest growing industries. It is a key enabler of growth and innovation, underpinning many important industries including automotive, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), consumer appliances, defence, biomedical appliances and other scientific equipment and devices. Despite its huge growth potential, Pakistan has significantly lagged behind in the development of its electronics industry.
For the electronics sector to emerge as one of the key drivers of growth in Pakistan, we need to focus on human resource development especially in the emerging areas of Digital Signal Processing (DSP), Optics, Digital Communications (DC), and Microelectronics; development of indigenous R&D capabilities; establishment of VLSI design and training centres; and development of specialised technology parks with quality infrastructure to support the concentration of high-tech industries.
The software industry in Pakistan has enormous potential to grow from its current size. Software development is primarily a human resource dependent industry, and therefore there is a need to adopt measures to enhance the number and quality of professionals in this field. Strategies have been proposed under several focused areas including IT education, e-governance, and targeted IT human resource development.
The development of new materials is critical for economic growth and competitiveness. Nanotechnology is offering myriad opportunities. Composites are finding applications in many industries, particularly in the areas of defence, electronics, engineering, transport, energy and sport. We need to open up centres of excellence in metallurgy, and departments for advanced studies in new materials in various universities; establish centres for the development of polymeric and photonic materials; focus on the establishment of geo-data and geo-mapping centres; and research and development centres for the exploitation of resources of gemstones.
Pakistan has a strong mineral base compared to many developing countries, but it has not been able to extract maximum potential benefits from it.
The chemical process industry is also crucial for industrial development. Most of the chemical industry in Pakistan is still in the initial stages of development. For the establishment of a fully integrated chemical industry in Pakistan, it is imperative that a naphtha cracker is set up in the country. This facility is critically important for the indigenous manufacturing of a large number of chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
In the pharmaceutical industry about 90 percent of active ingredients are imported. Pakistan needs to develop capacity for the essential ingredients especially where local resources are available.
Energy is the key to growth across all sectors. However rampant corruption at the highest levels of government since the 1990s has devastated our entire industry. Enough has been written about rental power plants but the crooks that were responsible got away scot free.
The cost of energy from solar cells has now come down to less than 3 cents per kilowatt hour but we are still giving out government contracts at 14 cents or above as happened recently for the solar park in the Cholistan desert in Bhawalpur. Capital punishment must be introduced for corruption and the laws should be strictly enforced or Pakistan will continue to slide down hill in spite of our huge potential.
An essential component of a National System of Innovation are the high quality knowledge workers or researchers. Pakistan has only about 150 scientists/engineers in per million population engaged in R&D as compared to 2500-3000 scientists/engineers per million population in the advanced countries. We should, therefore, target to reach a similar figure per million population (500,000 PhD level scientists by 2035) if we are to participate aggressively in a knowledge economy.
In this new era of knowledge economies, our focus must be on strengthening existing educational institutions; establishing new institutions with emphasis on emerging technologies; training professionals and workers in line with market demand; creating effective linkages among academic institutions, research centres, and industry; providing incentives to the private sector to invest in high-tech industry and establishing technology incubators and specialised technology parks.
Only then can Pakistan, with a population of 200 million but exports of only $23 billion, hope to compete with tiny Singapore with a population of only 5.5 million and exports of $518 billion annually.
The writer is chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology &
Innovation and former chairman of the HEC. Email: [email protected]