A Week in Pakistan

bridges vol. 29, April 2011 / Norm Neureiter on S&T in Foreign Policy

By Norman P. Neureiter 

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Norman P. Neureiter

I had been in Delhi, India, for almost a week, meeting with my Indian counterpart co-chair of the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum, and selecting a new Indian executive director to manage the Forum Secretariat. With that done, it was Friday, March 11, and time to board a packed Pakistan International Airlines’ Boeing 777 and head for Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. But it was not quite that simple. Despite their proximity, there are no direct flights to Islamabad from Delhi. One goes first either to Lahore or to Karachi and then changes planes for the Islamabad leg; the routing depends on the day of travel. I happened to travel on a via-Karachi day.

One other slightly disturbing note, if one has read the State Department’s Travel Advisory for Pakistan, is the feeling that he may be heading into dangerous territory. In fact, the advisory is pretty scary. One begins to suspect a terrorist in every bearded passenger. And I was reprocessing memories of the warning from the US Embassy on my one previous trip to Pakistan eight years ago (admittedly as a State employee), that if I ever went to Karachi, I should never go outside the airport.

Apparently, one should not be too nonchalant about such things. On the way back to the US a week later, I did stop in Karachi for a brief meeting downtown and a short night at the university guest house. When I was picked up by a university driver at 3:30 a.m. to go back to the airport, a second man was with him in the front seat. Not until we got to the airport did I notice the gun on his hip. He had obviously been assigned to go along as a bodyguard. Later I was told that kidnappings are a danger on the airport road. However much I might have worried, the trip went fine, the food even in coach class was agreeable, and all in all it was quite a nice trip – I even had a good conversation with the Pakistani in the seat next to me. In general I found Pakistanis very congenial everywhere, offering help or directions, usually with smiles. Shopping for gift shawls and rugs went smoothly. I did not meet up with any Talibans.

The purpose of the trip was to participate in a week-long Training Course on Technology and Innovation (combining lectures and workshop sessions), convened under the auspices of COMSTECH and organized by a very impressive Pakistani woman, Dr. Tanveer Naim, who is employed by COMSTECH with the title of “consultant.” She is an organic chemist turned science-policy expert. Her Ph.D. is from the University of Sussex in the UK and she did postdoctoral work in Bonn, Germany. She has been prominent in science policy in Pakistan for many years and at one time was the first female secretary of the National Commission on Science and Technology, officially the highest decision-making S&T body in the country, though its present role seems very unclear. Her first visit to the US in 2002 helped promote eventual agreement on the Pakistan-US Science and Technology Cooperation Program .

Total attendance at the conference was about 45, with 23 coming from 11 different Muslim countries and the rest from Pakistan. The other countries were Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Iran, Morocco, Bangladesh, Jordan, Indonesia, Sudan, Turkey, Oman, and Malaysia – an interested, engaged, and talented group.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} COMSTECH seems not to be well known among Western scientists. The name stands for Ministerial Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological (S&T) Cooperation.  It was created in 1981 at the Third Summit Meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) . I have also found that many people in the West have never heard of the OIC, but it is the intergovernmental membership organization of all the Muslim countries - 57 members - making itself the largest intergovernmental organization after the UN itself.  Meeting once every three years, the Islamic Summit is composed of the kings and heads of state of all members and is the supreme authority of the OIC, which describes itself as the "collective voice of the Muslim world." Its permanent Secretariat is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and the present secretary general is a Turk, Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. In fact, Dr. Ihsanoglu has been in Washington this past week participating in the 2011 US-Islamic World Forum convened by the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution .  

The stated mission of COMSTECH is "to help strengthen the individual and collective capacity of OIC member states in S&T through mutual cooperation, collaboration and networking of resources." It enables all OIC member states "to use S&T as a major contributor towards socio-economic development and rapid industrialization in the OIC region" and it is "entrusted with the follow-up actions on S&T related decisions (of the OIC) and creating successful implementation strategies."  

For anyone interested in science in the Muslim countries, there are some excellent resources on the COMSTECH Web site, including a 2008 paper mapping the condition of science in all the member countries as well as biographical data on hundreds of leading scientists in those countries, listed by discipline.   
The head of COMSTECH (with the title of "coordinator general") is the distinguished Pakistani organic chemist Professor Atta-ur-Rahman, director of the famed H.E.J. Research Institute of Chemistry at the University of Karachi. Under President Musharraf, he was appointed minister of Science and Technology and subsequently the head of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) and was the principal driver on the Pakistan side in promoting science and higher education, as well as beginning the US-Pakistan S&T cooperation program. 

The US-Pakistan joint program is a good model for S&T cooperation. Money comes from both sides - in a good year, several million dollars from each.  Peer review is done in both countries and final decisions on funding are made in a joint meeting between the implementing agencies - the S&T Ministry and the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan and the US National Academy of Sciences. Sustaining support from the US side has not always been easy, and there have also been funding problems on the Pakistan side, but what is impressive is that last year some 240 proposals were submitted. Only a small percentage of these could be funded, but it does show that there is good science going on in Pakistan and there is strong interest in cooperation in the US - some of it certainly from Pakistanis now resident in the US. For a country in which the US is putting billions of dollars a year into military assistance, in my opinion we should be fully funding this constructive civil activity that can contribute to economic progress for Pakistan as well as strengthen their science and engineering communities. Sustaining this program should be a priority in US policy toward Pakistan. 

The COMSTECH Secretariat occupies a very fine building in Islamabad. It is well equipped for conferences, training, and workshops. Lodging and meals are available for meeting participants. It is located in a very secure area - just across the wide boulevard in front of the building is the residence of the President of Pakistan. 

The Training Course itself was very well run. In addition to Dr. Naim and myself giving several lectures each on innovation, intellectual property, and entrepreneurship, the major role in the training and challenge-mapping breakout sessions was played by two highly talented women from the new US-based NGO called Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI). It is a small organization - very creatively designed and remarkably productive. It grew out of the 2008 Higher Education Summit for Global Development convened by the State Department and USAID and involved some 200 university and college presidents from around the world. Their collective call for action - to collaborate and spread the culture of higher education, research, and innovation to grow the global economy - resulted in the formation of GKI. 

The charismatic Sam Pitroda, advisor to the prime minister of India on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovation, is the GKI chairman; and the very impressive Advisory Council is co-chaired by AAAS President Nina Fedoroff and by Ismail Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria, Egypt. The GKI office is in the AAAS building in Washington, the chief operating officer (COO) is former World Bank consultant Sara E. Farley, and her principal program officer is Amanda Lilley Rose, who was an intern with me at AAAS while earning her master's degree at George Washington University.

These two young women are a really powerful team in action. They have worked out a sophisticated methodology for training on a variety of topics related to innovation policy, research strategy, and research collaboration. In the Pakistan meeting they used their modules on challenge mapping and STI resource cataloguing. Another GKI effort is assessing the STI landscape and mapping an institution's collaboration potential in order to find the most efficient route toward the most promising partners. They have also delivered similar courses in Africa and are beginning pilot programs there. 

Following the COMSTECH meeting, the GKI team met for two additional days with a small cross section of Afghan and Pakistani researchers and educators as a pilot test of whether these two communities could find ways to cooperate in addressing their most critical development needs relating to science, technology, and innovation through applying GKI's Learning and Innovation Network for Knowledge Partnerships, or the LINK process. GKI had been cautioned that it would likely be too difficult to bring these two communities together toward a useful end. Although I was not at the meeting, I understand that it went very well and ended with a readout of potential matches and a discussion of how the LINK program could help catalyze collective action and problem solving. It certainly appears to have been a very positive outcome, though the proof will lie in seeing if something actually gets done. 

One thing impressed me very much: Throughout the developing world, the word "innovation" has really taken hold. One no longer hears just about S&T. Now it is STI.  Furthermore, Dr. Naim had said at the beginning that she had to turn away potential attendees for lack of space - the topic was so popular. And she is already planning a course in June on intellectual property.

I recently saw a definition of innovation that I really liked: "Redefining the possible." In one of my talks, I also used the quote from Professor Henry Chesbrough's book Open Innovation: "Most innovations fail; companies that fail to innovate die." The point is that the developing world also seems to have grasped the innovation imperative. At AAAS we have already had an inquiry from one country that participated in the course asking if we can assist them in advancing their innovation processes.

My week ended with a long trip across town to the site of the new campus of the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad. After an interesting visit with the president and senior staff people, I visited their business incubation facility and talked with a group of young would-be entrepreneurs who were developing novel software with which they hoped to build a business. It was their energy and enthusiasm that was so exciting. It was no different than the atmosphere around young entrepreneurs working on innovations in the US and anywhere else in the world. Science, technology, and innovation can be the bases for much more cooperation in the world and, hopefully, less conflict. In another column I would have written: "This is what science diplomacy is all about." NUST, I concluded, would be a fine institution with which a US university could develop cooperative ties.    

It was only as I drove back from NUST to pack for leaving that evening that I was reminded of the tensions that persist in the US-Pakistan relationship. It was the day that the CIA Contractor Raymond Davis, who had shot and killed two Pakistanis in the street and caused the death of a third through an associated traffic accident, was released from jail and immediately flown out of the country after someone paid $2 million to the bereaved families - a settlement apparently acceptable under Sharia law. In anticipation of demonstrations and possibly violent protests, the US Embassy was closed that day and there were many groups of police and security forces forming along the road, as well as decorated trucks filled with people lining up, seemingly in preparation for a protest.  In any case, our car was not stopped; we drove on and I left later that evening with no difficulty. 

There is obviously still a great deal to do in the very complex US-Pakistan relationship, but I do believe that S&T cooperation on a much broader and more stable basis could make a valuable contribution toward easing us over the rough spots.