Sunday, August 8, 2010

University Research VIII:the case of HEJ and PCSIR

I am writing the following lines with a sense of trepidation and reservations on my part, as I do not want to criticize the learned scientists and annoy powerful interests and lobbies.But an objective discussion should take place and people should know,only then one could expect changes in the policies and systems.

HEJ is a premier research institution of Pakistan.Apart from research ,they have produced many Phds.Many brilliant scientists have been part of this institution.But despite all the praise that is heaped on HEJ , if account is taken of its real output ,after decades of its existence and billions of Rupees of investments.For the time being,let us drop the question of usefulness ,relevance and applicability of their research output.Let us measure their performance in scientific terms ? I had discussions on this issue with the Late Dr.Zafar Hassan Zaidi , who became the VC of Karachi University,and for his lifetime was a part and parcel of HEJ.He confessed and confided that there is no meaningful output in scientific terms: no discovery ,no patents. Discoveries and patents are the yardsticks on which output and excellence of a reseach institution is measured.International publications are only a by product.And publications based on laboratory analysis of a new plant or material and publishing it is not a very respectable publication.Phd students do it regularly.There is a merit and demerit in quoting Dr.Zafar Hassan,who has expired,although what he had said was not unique .Many scientists have confided in me, and many speak openly after their retirements.The demerit of quoting Dr.Zafar Hassan is that he has expired and my claims cannot be verified,although there might be others with whom he may have shared his reservations and may opt to corroborate my statement if they happen to read these lines.Assessment of Dr Hassan are important,as he himself had been part of HEJ, but had the integrity,genuineness and courage to speak the truth , although in hid soft and muted style.He was a part of the system and benefited from it and thus his assessment cannot be dubbed as one of heresy and disgruntlement.The benefit is that he would not be unduly embarrassed,as he is no more among us.

As to the relevance of research,it is obvious that it has none.Where priority is on international publishing alone,relevant research would not come out .We have belabored this point in earlier essays.There is no involvement with the local industry,no advice and even support for testing and analysis.There is no incentive to that when there are no targets or requirement to generate resources and earn some money if only to defray for petrol and utilities.A MIT Technology mission to Pakistan, with which I got associated due to being a OSD at that time , visited the local R&D institutions including the HEJ, in 1991.The MIT professors tried to deliver the message that university research should earn some money.They disclosed that a considerable portion of MIT research is mundane and ordinary(relatively speaking) meant to earn revenue for sustenance of the university.Professors are require to bring projects and earn revenue,however distracting that work may be from elegant research.The message obviously was too inconvenient and was not liked and was ignored.I reappeared later at the HEJ along with foreign consultants
who were themselves brilliant Phds.There was a requirement of testing samples of obsolete pesticides and identify them.There were hundreds of samples and revenue of 150,000 USD was involved that HEJ could have earned.One of the project objective was to develop and utilize local skills and infrastructure.HEJ had first expressed its inability to undertake the assignment but could not possibly make such a statement before the well-experienced scientists.HEJ,with its brilliant professor in the saddles,agreed but later quoted an impossible fee and obviously discouraged the assignment.The samples were sent abroad for analysis.

Why should I be narrating a long story?There is a message and a kind of instructive secret in it.We found out that there were three identical pieces of equipment that were reserved for the three elite scientists , and could not have been spared. Priority of course was working on their mundane international publications.So there is a lot of glib talk and window dressing in such institutions.

Now let us come to PCSIR , which has become so weak and possibly demoralized that it does not engage itself in projections and glib talk as others manage to do.PCSIR is supposed to be an institution serving the needs of the industry and other users.It has been neglected over the years,as PCSIR supporters,would complain instantly.It is a chicken egg problem:if the institution was ignored due to lack of relevance and impact or the institution was first ignored and hence consequently it became ineffective.PCSIR should be earning a significant percentage of its expenses.It hardly earns any revenue.It is partly due to lack of market relevance and capability,and partly for the reasons I would be describing in the following.

PCSIR scientists routinely moon light and rob the organisation of its legitimate income.I have many personal experiences including several of my business friends who had occasion to deal with the organisation.First an expensive and impossible quotation is made out and then the customer is approached privately and informally with a private offer.The project to be handled by the same scientists as would have been done under a formal arrangement.I hope these vices are no more and the organisation might have taken steps to curtail this trend. A good solution would be to institute some incentive system which would not only eliminate or curtail these vices but would generate activity and output.

My submissions for getting attached with an academic institution for offering research based Phd programmes should also be given a consideration.It would enrich academic life and provide cheap research manpower also,besides engaging the under-utilised resources,human and physical.

I must in the end again emphasize and clarify that the idea is not to put the scientists and research institutions in disrepute and tarnish their image, after all they themselves know the truth and should be wanting that the problems and issues be addressed so that their lives and efforts become more meaningful and useful to the people and the nation they belong to.

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