Exempt from accountability? By Pervez Hoodbhoy


WHEN he struggled from atop his container to become prime minister, Imran Khan promised that all who handle public funds would be held accountable. Influential people included, there would be no exceptions. Seen as a blow against widespread corruption, this was broadly welcomed. But new directives from the Prime Minister’s Office have explicitly excused some from normal procedures of accountability.

Most recently the HEC chairman, Dr Tariq Banuri, was shown the door after he questioned the performance exemption given to three scientific institutions associated with Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, currently an adviser to the government and a former HEC chairman. In doing so, Banuri crossed a red line. No charge sheet was issued but a hurried meeting of the cabinet led to his sacking. To avoid a legal challenge, a presidential ordinance reduced the HEC chairman’s tenure from four to two years.

While removing recalcitrant public officials is perfectly normal in any country, this matter acquires significance if an institution’s head is sacked for actually delivering on what he is mandated to do. Since the health of all public institutions in Pakistan is at stake, knowing actual details is important.

Key facts emerged in the April 4 televised interview of Dr Banuri and Dr Rahman by Hum News host Mohammad Malick. The host showed a letter issued by the Prime Minister’s Office dated Feb 4, 2021, stating that the performance of three scientific institutes (HEJ, TWCST, PCMMDR) that are “operating under the supervision of Dr Atta-ur-Rahman” was “outstanding” and, therefore, they are “exempted from the newly formed policy of the HEC”. That policy requires every university and research institute to submit progress reports and financial utilisation plans.

PM Khan has done a disservice to Pakistan by exempting certain institutions from performance requirements.

In response, Dr Rahman vigorously defended the carte blanche given by the PM on the basis of certain spectacular achievements. He named four: his three institutes have discovered 120 variants of the coronavirus; 40 patents are registered in the US; there is a yearly income of Rs10 crore; and thousands of research papers have been published.

So, was the HEC chairman justified in demanding these institutes be independently audited and evaluated? Should he have raised questions about how public monies provided through HEC were used? We must inquire because the sums granted yearly by HEC to Dr Rahman’s institutes are not small. In fact, they exceed those given to Pakistan’s largest universities. This includes Quaid-e-Azam University with about 13,000 students.

Let us provisionally accept the four achievements claimed by Dr Rahman at their full face value but place them within a larger perspective which allows for critical evaluation.

First: coronavirus variants are indeed important to investigate. But over 240,000 SARS-Covid-2 variants have already been identified by CDC (Centres for Disease Control of the US government) and probably as many more in other countries. Their full genomic structures are just a mouse-click away. While the 120 locally discovered variants may still matter, we must wait to see what independent experts say. Have any of the three institutes progressed towards creating a corona vaccine? We don’t know. A virologist I spoke to said that discovering a variant is now simple with modern gene-sequencing machines but making vaccines remains highly challenging.

Second: while 40 patents may seem sizeable, a patent is useful only when commercialised (ie sold, licensed, or used in new products). In India only five per cent of patents eventually reach the market. Therefore the onus is on Dr Rahman to say which of his 40 patents have been commercialised. The institute’s online annual reports are silent on this. Since his institutes claim applied chemistry and drug discovery as their goals, we badly need to know which new drug has actually been discovered in the last 30 years and whether the patent was used by some pharmaceutical company.

Third: it is good news that Dr Rahman’s institutes are earning Rs10 crore annually. Unfortunately, this is tiny compared to the yearly income of purely commercial laboratories set up with just a fraction of the money poured into his institutes. Such laboratories also provide technical support to industries and hospitals across Pakistan.

Fourth: thousands of chemistry and biology research papers and books have indeed been published by Dr Rahman himself and others in his institutes. But in the murky world of academic publishing, their net worth is unclear. There is additional cause for worry: the annual reports I have referenced above say many papers and books were published by “Bentham Publishers, Amsterdam”.

The Facebook page of Bentham Science Publishers shows it is actually headquartered in Sharjah, not Amsterdam. In earlier years, it had a Karachi address that appears to have mysteriously disappeared. However, possibly because these were not erased, there remain indications that it may still be operating close to Karachi University. Listed as a probable predatory publisher, it charges between $750 and $1060 for publishing a paper. This should raise a red flag.

Still more worrying is that Bentham’s Open Bioactive Compounds Journal has the current HEJ director — formerly Dr Rahman’s PhD student — as the journal’s editor-in-chief. For someone to publish his own research papers, those of his former boss, and of other researchers from the institute which he heads — all in the journal of which he is the editor-in-chief — is alarming. In any country where academic ethics exist, this would lead to severe reaction. This particular Bentham journal was discontinued sometime in 2020 for unknown reasons.

Any reader equipped with a smartphone can check all these facts by clicking upon the hyperlinks provided in the online edition. While one must not rush to final judgement, just a fraction of this evidence suffices for any HEC chairman to demand a detailed performance review prior to releasing public monies.

PM Khan must withdraw the exemption from accountability given by him to select individuals and institutions. This has violated a sacred principle. Political interference in scientific matters poisons scientific integrity. Angela Merkel — with a PhD in quan­­tum chemistry — would never certify any Ger­man scientific organisation on the basis of her personal knowledge. She would leave technical evaluations to subject experts. PM Khan must act similarly. Else sellers of water cars and Ponzi-like schemes will keep science in Pakistan chained to the dark ages.

The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer.

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2021