Innovation for prosperity

Thursday, Nov 24, 2022

Part - II

By Atta-ur-Rahman

The manufacture and export of innovative high-tech products must serve as the key pillar of our economic growth. There are huge opportunities available in almost every sector.

Let us consider the field of information technology. Massive investments made by India in the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) as well as other high-quality institutions brought rich rewards for the country. The Indian IT software exports are now estimated to be over $150 billion while those of Pakistan are likely to grow to $3 billion this year.

The area of artificial intelligence alone is predicted to have a global impact of some $16 trillion over the next five years. If Pakistan captures even one per cent of this market, it will lead to a benefit of $160 billion. Three years ago, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom submitted a major national project on creating a network of centres of excellence in AI to the Planning Ministry, but the ministry is still considering the feasibility of the project. This strategically important initiative must be fast-tracked. We can possibly earn billions of dollars in foreign exchange through our IT exports if we focus on improving the quality of our IT graduates. This can be done through investments of a few billion rupees in the training and induction of high-quality faculty in our universities.

The field of vaccines presents another good example. The recent Covid-19 epidemic has highlighted the need for strengthening our indigenous capability to manufacture and export vaccines. At the onset of the Covid epidemic in Pakistan, scientists in the Dr Panjwani Center for Molecular Medicine and Drug Research at the University of Karachi rose to the challenge of the identification of Covid-19 variants and their genetic analysis. The Chinese company, Sinopharm, also selected the university to carry out clinical trials on Covid-19 patients in its 120-bed research hospital, following which the Sinopharm vaccine was introduced in Pakistan to fight against the virus.

However, the production of vaccines can only be carried out by the private industry, and this is where Pakistan failed as no pharmaceutical company in Pakistan had the capability of manufacturing vaccines against the coronavirus.

In contrast, India has the Serum Institute of India, the largest producer of vaccines in the world, which quickly started to manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine, producing 150 million doses of this vaccine each month. Another Indian company, Bharat Biotech, was also involved in large-scale Covid-19 vaccine production. India thus met its own needs and was also able to export large quantities of vaccines to some 100 countries, earning much-needed foreign exchange.

Besides IT and pharmaceuticals, vast opportunities exist in areas such as mineral extraction and processing, advanced agriculture, engineering goods, electronics, nanotechnologies, and defence materials such as autonomous drones and fighter aircraft. Private companies must play a central role in research, development and manufacturing with proper support from the government.

Successive governments have failed to properly incentivize the research and development effort in the private sector for the manufacture and export of high-technology (and therefore high value-added) products. As a result, we find ourselves in a huge crisis, at the brink of the largest financial disaster that this nation has ever faced. There are only a few islands of excellence in the country such as the International Centre of Chemical and Biological Sciences (comprising the world famous HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry and the Dr Panjwani Center for Molecular Medicine and Drug Research).

Several urgent actions are needed. First, we must completely reform our school-level education through ensuring that all school teachers have the necessary skill sets. This can be done through making it mandatory for teachers to pass a rigorous competence test, such as the GRE general and subject tests. Those who score above a certain percentile should have their salaries tripled and be given a higher status. We should also integrate the Khan Academy courses into the school and college education systems.

We also need to change the 18th Amendment to the constitution so that education at all levels comes under federal control. A centralized national test at the matriculation and intermediate levels should then be introduced to ensure good minimum standards. The problem of some 22 million out-of-school children should also be addressed with a sense of urgency.

Second, we must convert some of our universities to research universities, establish technology parks within them to stimulate commercial product development and establish strong linkages with industry.

Third, we must involve private firms in the national research and development effort by offering liberal tax breaks and other incentives. We can learn from what our neigbour India has been doing to transform the science, innovation, research and development (SIRD) landscape.

The carefully crafted innovation policies of India have made it jump from a global ranking of 81 in 2016 to a respectable ranking of 40 in 2022 in the Global Innovation Index and the country was granted 58,502 patents in 2021. In contrast, Pakistan ranks at 87 in these rankings in 2022, and international patent applications from the country in 2021 were only about 350 – 0.6 per cent of the patents granted to India. They should have been 25-fold higher.

Our government can support the local industry by becoming the main buyer of local products. India encouraged the development of its automobile sector by making it mandatory for all government institutions to buy only those vehicles that were manufactured (not just assembled) in India. Even Indian prime ministers and other ministers could only travel in ‘Ambassador’ cars – an Indian-origin – giving a huge boost to the automobile industry.

Our federal and provincial governments should follow suit and must change procurement rules and force government organizations to purchase only locally manufactured products.

We also need to root out corruption through introducing capital punishment as done by many countries. We also need to reform our judicial and governance systems by punishing corrupt judges and bureaucrats through carefully planned sting operations.

The future of Pakistan lies in education, science, technology, innovation, commercialization, and export of high-tech products. To build such a future we must have a visionary, honest and technologically competent leadership with the best experts selected as ministers in a presidential system of governance.


The writer is the former federal minister for science and technology and former founding chairman of the HEC. He can be reached at: