Naureen Aqueel

Archive for December 2009

Published in Spotlight (class newsletter), December 2009.

The University of Karachi has become the hub of scientific research with the university producing 100 PhDs every year, 60 per cent of these being from the faculty of science, according to officials. The faculty is regarded as the biggest home of scientific knowledge in the country hosting 23 departments and five research institutes.

A scientist carries out research at the famous HEJ Institute of Chemistry.

However, the researchers feel that the university and its departments lack a proper record-keeping infrastructure from where information about various ongoing and past researches can be easily obtained.

Prominent centres such as Dr. A.Q Khan Institute of Biotechnology and Genetics Engineering, HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry and Dr Panjwani Centre for Molecular Medicines and Drug Research are engaged in important research work on different subjects. Some prominent past and ongoing research activities on the campus are summarized below:

Breakthrough in enzyme research

One of the most recent significant research achievements of the Karachi University that came to public attention was the breakthrough in enzyme research at the Dr. A.Q. Khan Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (KIBGE). The institute was able to produce five enzymes of high industrial value locally which cost the country around $10 billion a year to import from abroad. The institute was able to get international patents for the enzyme producing strains and to establish itself to sell the processes to industry and provide them with technical support.

Allergic plants

A team of researchers from the Department of Botany, headed by Dr Anjum Parveen, has recently initiated a programme called, ‘Identification and Quantification of Allergenic Plants from Sindh’, which was sponsored by the Higher Education Commission (HEC). The researchers aim to identify and control the plants that cause lung and respiratory tract infections.

Honey as natural medicine

In February 2009, researchers from the Department of Pharmacology unveiled that they had conducted intensive studies on honey and discovered that it would have therapeutic effect in case of inflammation, platelet aggreagation, blood coagulation and impaired glucose hemostasis. They also found that honey can prevent heart attacks as well as strokes (attacks of paralysis). The research was conducted by Dr Asif Ahmed, a medical doctor, who is working for his PhD under the supervision of Dr Rafeeq Alam Khan, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Pharmacology.

Breakthrough in leishmaniasis treatment

In March 2008, scientists from the HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry claimed that they had developed a herbal ointment for the treatment of cutaneous leishmaniasis, an infectious skin disease transmitted by the bite of certain species of sandfly. The disease, which is considered a serious public health concern in many countries, is now endemic in many parts of Pakistan. The research, headed by Dr.Iqbal Chuadhry, Director HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry, was done in collaboration with Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC) and Chandka Medical College (CMC) and was a five-year long research project.

Industrial enzymes

The Department of Biotechnology is at present conducting research on industrial enzymes, including detergent enzymes. A team,  headed by Ms. Shafaq Ayaz under the supervision of the department’s chairperson Dr. Mustafa Kamal, is working on replacing chemicals in detergents with milder components in order to reduce energy consumption.

DNA sequences in mango found

Early in 2008, a team of researchers led by Dr Kamran Azim, at the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) claimed to have discovered more than 20,000 base pairs of DNA sequences of mango for the first time in the world.

Research on drug resistance

The Department of Biotechnology is carrying out research on drug resistance developing in society. It seeks to identify drug resistant bacteria.

Published in Spotlight (class newsletter), December 2009.

by Maheen Haq, Naureen Aqueel, Fizza Hassan and Sadaf Hafeez

The University of Karachi (KU) has done remarkably well in the field of science, winning for itself a place in the world’s 250 best institutions of higher education, according to Prof Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, eminent Pakistani scientist and former federal minister of education.

Speaking to Spotlight at HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry, he said that thanks to the research work at this International Centre for Chemical and Biological science (ICCBS), the university had been placed at No223 among the world universities in the field of natural sciences by the UK’s Higher Education Times.

Dr Atta-ur-Rehman

“I am delighted to say that KU has the highest ranking in Pakistan and it is also at No.223 in terms of world ranking and this is something we should be proud of. These rankings are published each year in the UK by the Higher Education Times in the form of an index. So KU is doing quite well in the field of science but we should try to be part of the list of 100 such universities,” he said.

Dr Atta-ur- Rahman said that the changes brought in the higher education sector in Pakistan in recent years had earned praise by international agencies, including the World Bank, who have called it a ‘silent revolution’.

“This was done by effecting a 6000 per cent increase in the science and technology development budget during my tenure as the minister for science and technology from March 2000 to Oct 2002 and later 2400 per cent in the development budget for higher education, which has risen from only Rs800 million in 2003 to Rs18 billion in 2008,” he observed.

According to a top international journal, Nature, Pakistan offers a lesson to other developing countries that despite its so many problems like terrorism and other social problems, it has achieved wonderful progress in higher education, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman said.

The total enrolment in our universities during the 2003-2008 period had gone up to 400, 000 from only 135,000 between 1947 and 2003. Likewise, the number of universities and degree awarding institutes, which was only 58 in 2003, had multiplied to 124 in 2008, he pointed out.

“The total number of international publications from Pakistan which was only about 500 in 2000 when I became the minister for science and technology, had risen to 4,250 when I left as chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in 2008,” he stressed.

Dr Atta-ur-Rahman called for increasing the funding for university education in Pakistan as the budget of an average university in the country was only $3.5 million as compared to the universities in the US, UK and even in Singapore which had huge budgets.

“In fact, we are spending too little in the higher education sector. We are spending less than 2 per cent of our GNP in education .This compares with sub-Saharan African countries. Malaysia has been spending 25 per cent of its budget which works to about 12 per cent of its GNP for the last 30 years in education. This shows how far behind we are and the difference between US and others is increasing every year,” he said.

“Within the education sector the international norms are that about 30 per cent of the education budget should go to higher education and 70 per cent should go to lower lever education. However, in Pakistan only 10 per cent of the total budget is going into higher education and 90 per cent is going to lower level education, so there are two problems: first, we are spending too little on education as a whole—only less than 2 per cent of our GNP, and secondly, within the educational budget the funding is distorted in favour of lower education and so this distortion needs to be corrected,” he argued.

Dr Atta-ur-Rahman also reviewed the existing infrastructure and facilities for the higher education in the country and the quality of research work at universities and other organisations.

He said that with the return of a large number of Pakistani scholars and teachers studying abroad within five to eight years, the country would witness a sea-change in the quality of our ability to meet the aspirations of our industry and society.

Following are excerpts from his interview:

Q. Are the new changes in the sector, more money, more universities and better opportunities for research at home and abroad, helping to produce the right type of scientists needed by the country?

A. Science education in Pakistan still remains very weak while the situation has improved because of improvement in infrastructure and improved research grants. But a university in not about beautiful buildings or beautiful instruments it is about beautiful minds, so university education is about creativity and so in order to foster a culture of high quality science education you need creative faculty members and so the heart of a university is the teacher and that is where Pakistan has been lagging behind.

We have about 17,000 teachers in our universities; but only about 3,000 have PhD degrees so most of our teachers are not qualified to serve as teachers. In law or fine arts it may not be necessary, but in most of the disciplines the PhD degree is the first step of the ladder. So, when I was the federal minister and the chairman of HEC my first emphasis was on selecting the brightest student through a transparent national test and then sending them aboard in very large numbers. I sent about 4,000 students abroad for the PhD degrees in different disciplines and they are now in the process of returning and they, Inshallah, will bring the good change. I hope that the government will continue the process.

In order to attract the brightest young men and women into the education sector I changed the service structure. I wanted them to take up careers in education and research as their first option and not as their last option. So we changed the salary structure. We got in the new tenure system in which the salary of professors was raised to a point that it becomes five times the salary of a federal minister. When it was introduced they used to draw a salary of about US$5,000 a month which was at that time equal to about Rs 325,000 a month and the tax structure was reduced for all teachers from 35 per cent to only 5 per cent so that it becomes equal to a salary of about Rs5,00,000 a month.

This salary in a country like Pakistan is very good and is comparable to salaries prevailing in USA and Europe. This has created a major change. The tenure system was introduced in most universities. The KU has unfortunately not adopted this concept and I hope that it will adopt it soon. In most universities which have adopted it, a number of teachers have been appointed in the new system.

Q. There have been complaints lately about the shortage of research funds. If you think the shortage is genuine what should be done to meet this challenge?

A. This is one of the reasons I resigned as the chairman of HEC. The funds of my students had been stretched. There are 4,000 student doing PhD abroad. Because the scholarship funds were delayed I sent a message to the government to release the funds or I am going, and the signal I got back was that you may go. So I had to immediately resign. But I think it had a every good effect because after I left the funding got renewed and so I think that we are more or less back on the track. I hope Inshallah that the funding will continue for the higher education sector.

Q.Some people have expressed doubts over the quality of research work at universities and scientific research organisations such as PCSIR, saying the work involves only basic research or is a repetition of things already known, nothing new is being discovered. Research is not contributing something of benefit to society. What are your views on this?

A. Actually it is quite a difficult issue. For research being able to make a difference in the process of socio-economic development, first of all you need to have quality education and quality scientists. Unless you have that they are not going to make a difference. In a university or a research organisation, it depends largely on the calibre of the scientists who are working there. The industry does not have trust and confidence and I think that the industry is largely justified. Once the quality of research and education improves in the next five or eight years when these 4,000 students come back, there is going to be a sea-change, Inshallah, in the quality of our ability to meet the aspiration of our industry.

This will happen but unless you have the people who can deliver, you can not go on just putting money. It is not the answer. You have to have a society where innovation and entrepreneurship are essentially integrated into the structure of society. But we have to have the knowledge, workers, environment and legal structure to promote innovation. You have to have the technology parks system where new start-up companies can be formed very easily and you have access to venture capital funding so that if a new entrepreneur needs money to start he is able to go to that place and get that funding. This system is in place in countries like USA and Europe so that the innovation can flourish. In Pakistan, we have not yet succeeded in putting this system in place and especially encouraging the private sector research and development. All these things have to come together before science can have an impact on socio-economic development and poverty alleviation.

Q. What, in your view, is the difference between scientific education and research in Pakistan and that abroad?

A. I think the main difference between scientific education in Pakistan and abroad at the moment is quality. The quality of work in a good university abroad is far far better then the quality of research in Pakistan with the few exceptions. There are some bright spots here and there and some good institutions but this is the beginning to change. With the advent of new bright men and women into the system, Inshallah, it will change more rapidly in the future. The graph is very interesting.

I was at a lecture given by a Brazilian minister at a meeting of the Royal Society in London a few months ago. He displayed a graph showing how the publications had increased in Brazil from 500 to 600 per year to about 4,000 per year from 1960 to 1995, a period of 35 years. Pakistan has managed to do this in six years between October 2002 to October 2008. So we have done very well during that period but now I think we have to catch up with others.

Turkey is well ahead of us with about 17,000 to 29,000 publications per year. Pakistan has been left behind every year. We are showing 50 per cent increase in PhD and research output. So things are changing very significantly but the challenge is whether we can maintain this momentum and continue to maintain it next year? We can do this Inshalah when we will change very rapidly.

Q.7. What are your plans now after you have come back from the HEC. Their loss must be the academic world’s gain.?

A. We have 350 students pursuing PhD in this institute in various fields of organic studies and pharmacology. I think that this is a very exciting place and I may be enjoying working here. I am also heading Comstech, a committee of 57 science and technology ministers of Islamic states. I have been the director of this organisation for the past 13 years and I am still doing the job, so I continue to shuttle between Karachi and Islamabad where its headquarter is located.

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