In conversation with eminent scientist Prof. Attaur Rahman
Renowned scientist Professor Attaur Rahman is currently the chairperson of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s task force on science and technology, the vice-chairman of the P.M.’s task force on technology-driven knowledge economy, and the co-chairperson of the task force on information technology. In the past, he has also served as federal minister for science and technology and the chairman of the Higher Education Commission. A recipient of four civilian honors—Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, Sitara-e-Imtiaz, Hilal-e-Imtiaz, Nishan-e-Imtiaz—his research has been widely published and in 1999 he became the first scientist from the Muslim world to have won the prestigious UNESCO Science Prize.
On Jan. 10, China conferred upon him its International Science and Technology Cooperation Award for 2020 in recognition of his monumental contributions in the field of chemistry.
He recently sat down with Newsweek Pakistan for a one-on-one, in depth, conversation about what ails Pakistan, the knowledge economy, how to improve cooperation between various ministries and much more. Excerpts:
Can you tell us a bit about your childhood?
I was born in Delhi in 1942, five years before Partition, and was an only child. My grandfather, Sir Abdur Rahman, was the vice-chancellor of Delhi University. He also served as a senior judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan after Partition on the first bench. My father started off as a lawyer but after migration to Pakistan he went into business and ran a cotton-ginning factory in Okara. As there were no proper schools there, I was homeschooled until the age of 10 by the Late Tajamul Hussain, who was the former principal of Hyderabad Deccan Public School. I enrolled in Karachi Grammar School when we moved to Karachi in 1951.
After being homeschooled, my transition to a formal school environment was challenging. I was good with mathematics and other subjects, but my English was quite weak. In the second standard, I remember there were 26 students and I ranked last, because of my poor English. Through private tutoring from a teacher named Mrs. Gillespi, I went on to get two double promotions. I was lucky to excel in Pakistan, in both my O-level exams and my A-levels.
Ironically, in my O-levels, I had distinctions in all subjects, except chemistry and physics! That became the underlying reason why I chose to study chemistry. I like challenges—if something is easy, I am not interested. Most people run from that which is difficult.
Most of my life I have been fascinated by nature and all that surrounds me. As a result, I chose to study Chemistry and Physics as my key subjects for my A-Levels, and have devoted my life to Chemistry. I obtained my honors and my Masters degrees from Karachi University with top positions.
My father owned a small silk mill in Karachi. Being his only child, he expected me to join him. I told him that I wished to do something more rewarding in life than just earn money. I wanted to explore nature and live my life as a scientist and a researcher, because that’s what fascinated me. He reluctantly respected my choice. He said he would send me wherever I wanted to go, but given that I have a stubborn streak, I told him I would do it on my own.
Despite being very close to my parents, I wanted to finance my studies myself. I taught at the Karachi University for one year against a salary of Rs. 375/month. I applied for and received scholarships, one of which was to the East West Center in Hawaii, another to the University of Saskatchewan in Canada and a third to Cambridge. I accepted admittance to Cambridge in 1965, obtaining my doctorate in organic chemistry in 1968. I was fortunate to be selected as a Fellow at Kings College, Cambridge. I was only 26 years old when I did my doctorate and spent about 9 years at Cambridge University.
In 1972, at the age of 26, what gave you the audacity to try and disprove the joint work of three giants in chemistry, one of whom was Nobel laureate Sir Robert Robinson?
My Ph.D. thesis in Cambridge University was on the synthesis of certain anti-cancer drugs, which occur naturally in the leaves of the periwinkle plant. During the course of my research at Cambridge, I came across the joint work of three scientific giants (Sir Robinson, Prof. W.H. Perkin, Prof. Manske) on the chemistry of an alkaloid, ‘harmaline.’
However, something did not seem right to me in their findings and conclusions. Since I was involved in my Ph.D. work, I could not deviate from my research project. But once I completed my Ph.D. in 1968 and was elected as a Fellow at Kings College Cambridge, I had the independence to do what I liked in terms of research. I decided to re-investigate the work that had troubled me earlier.
The alkaloid harmaline occurs in the seeds of the harmal (wild rue) plant, which is very common in Pakistan. I re-investigated the chemistry of this compound and found that what had been published by these three eminent scientists—and accepted as fact for almost 40 years—was incorrect and that a completely different course of chemical reactions occurred than described by them.
On completion of my work, I consulted the head of my department, and Nobel laureate, Sir Alexander Todd. He was very excited at my findings and advised me to publish my work in the British chemistry journal named after Perkin, the Journal of Chemical Society Perkin 1.
I was only 29 years old when the discoveries were published in 1972. I was the sole author of the two papers that overturned the work of a Nobel Laureate; this created quite a stir in scientific circles at the time, as I was an unknown. This propelled me further into my journey of science.
I have always had a questioning attitude and advise my students not to blindly believe the printed word. They must question everything. Often people accept things as ultimate truth, whereas it’s only through investigation and research that we approach it. The ultimate reality is a changing scenario.
You are presently researching ‘thought.’ What drove you to this topic?
Perhaps the most complex object of our universe, arguably as far as we know, is our own brain. There are about 100 billion neurons in each human brain, each of which is ‘talking’ to 10,000 other neurons, so 100 billion times 10,000 synaptic connections. You look at an object and you remember it, what exactly is going on? What is the chemistry of thought? Thoughts are not abstract—thoughts are made of atoms and molecules. What are those atoms? What are those molecules? What is the chemical composition of thought? This is a kind of Holy Grail of science, which is not yet understood. It’s a huge challenge to understand what thought is. We know a lot about where thoughts are stored and we know about the neural processes that are involved, but we know little of what is happening at the molecular level. That is something that has always fascinated me. About 15 years ago I took this up and I proposed the theory on the molecular basis of thought. It was published in leading U.S. journals and I have published many articles in this field.
The reason I decided to study thought is that it is virgin territory. And very few people have gone this way. It’s a huge challenge in science. And it’s a journey to find cures to diseases of the mind (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, etc). We have many U.S. patents now of discoveries that we have made in this field.
What are the possible real-world applications of the research you are working on?
My field of research has been largely, although not exclusively, devoted to medicinal plants. Seventy to 80 percent of the world still relies on indigenous systems of medicine, whether it is the Ayurvedic, Greek or Arab system. I have published 65 volumes in the last 30 years of a series called Studies in Natural Product Chemistry by Elsevier Science, the largest encyclopedic work on medicinal plants. Discovering bioactive substances in natural substances to use for curing diseases is an exciting challenge. Our research group has developed substances that are very effective for diseases such as epilepsy. At the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences in Karachi, where I work, we are working on other degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
What is a problem that Pakistan faces that you know you can solve and how?
I think the single biggest problem that we face is providing quality education to a population of 220 million, with over 100 million below the age of 20. More than 50 percent of our population today is below 25 years old. We have a huge resource of creativity in this pool of young people and utilizing that is a challenge. It’s a double-edged sword: if we can educate them and unleash their creative potential through quality education, particularly in science, technology and innovation, then we can do wonders. If not, then they become a huge burden. This challenge can be addressed, provided we have leadership that understands that, quality education is key for socioeconomic development.
We live in a world where knowledge drives the economy. Tiny countries like Singapore—with a population of only 5.5 million (about one fourth that of Karachi)—has exports of $330 billion. Compare that to Pakistan where we are stuck at around $23 or $24 billion. So we need to really address this challenge and I’m not just talking about higher education. It has to be across-the-board primary secondary and technical education, and then linking that with the process of socio-economic development through promotion of innovation and entrepreneurship.
What legislation in your field has hindered you and Pakistan from moving forward?
I don’t think the problem has been legislation. The real problem has been in the systems of governance and the persons in power who did not realize the critical role of education and innovation in the process of socioeconomic development. Legislation follows such visions and should be tailored to a strategic vision for socioeconomic development.
I was researching Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah and discovered that in June 1947, he had written in his diary that the parliamentary system of democracy could not function in Pakistan. He wrote that it had failed in most countries and only worked well in the United Kingdom. He advocated a presidential system of government, because the Quaid felt that with the growing emphasis on specialization, we needed to have specialists who were heading each ministry and understood where those respective fields were going. This is reproduced in the Oxford University Press published Jinnah Anthology.
Jinnah was right; he realized that the feudal system, which choked the development of Pakistan, would ultimately prove a major hindrance. We need to take a fresh look. There is no perfect system of governance, I am not talking about military regimes here, I’m talking about presidential democracy that exists in over 100 countries. The presidential system has the advantage that the president can choose his own team of experts as ministers and not rely on Parliament. So it’s not the law, but the system of governance, that has hindered Pakistan from moving forward in its development.
Share what drives you to keep going even when you have not succeeded?
I am eternally optimistic. I always look at the glass as half-full. I tell my students that if there is a 2 percent chance of success in any venture, all that means is if you try a 100 times, you are bound to succeed twice. If you have a tiny chance of success, and if you have the energy, the drive, and the stamina to keep going, you should always continue. I tell my students to smile at their failures and laugh at their successes. Life would not be worth living if it did not have its Everests to climb. It is those challenges in life that make it worth living. One should not worry about hurdles—they should just make us try harder.
You were a federal minister in President Pervez Musharaf’s government. What is needed for governments to be more effective in implementing their decisions?
First, there needs to be a clear roadmap of where we are and where we want to go in the short, medium and long-term. Unfortunately, that has been consistently lacking in Pakistan.
I raised this issue in 2004 when I was adviser to then-Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali. He asked me to prepare such a roadmap. It took two years of intensive work during which we consulted several thousand specialists. We selected 13 sectors and within each sector (including agriculture, engineering, pharmaceuticals, textiles, construction and I.T.) we determined what should be done, who should do it, what timeframes would we need, what the cost would be and what was the projected IRR (internal rate of return).
I had 12 PhDs in Development Economics guiding me and doing the inter-sector priorities. I did not want a long “wish list” but wanted to focus on key priority areas. I picked five or six important areas, which were going to make a difference and focused on them. What materialized was a 330-page document that the cabinet approved on Aug. 30, 2007. This was a comprehensive national roadmap for socioeconomic development. Alas, the government changed soon after and it was not implemented. I have now given it to Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is very keen and has passed it onto all the ministries.
Some things have naturally changed in the last 10 years, and the document needs to be slightly updated for present times.
Presently you are heading three National Task Forces for the Pakistan government. How is your working different?
Two of the task forces I am chairing are like other government task forces: One is science and technology, which I am personally chairing, and the other is I.T. and Telecom, which I am co-chairing with the minister of I.T. They are like other task forces in that when they come forward with recommendations, they are approved but then rely on the government for implementation.
I suggested to the prime minister that we needed to have practical changes on the ground otherwise mere recommendations would achieve nothing. I believe that knowledge economy is where we want to go; we want to transition from a low value-added agriculture economy to a high-value added knowledge economy. In order to do that we need to have a National Knowledge Economy Task Force chaired by the prime minister. One has to drive such an initiative from the top down, led by the prime minister himself.
Progress in countries that have developed quickly was led by visionary leaders, such as Deng in China, General Park in Korea, Mahatir Mohamad in Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yu in Singapore… there has always been one good leader driving the changes from the top. Prime Minister Khan agreed to my suggestion, and the third task force was formed: the Knowledge Economy Task Force. This task force is chaired by the P.M., with me as its vice-chairman. It has several key lawmakers as members, including the federal ministers of finance, education, planning, science and technology, I.T. and telecom.
This task force has been allocated a budget of Rs. 13.6 billion for this financial year. The total value of the projects we have started to implement is Rs. 162 billion. Consider this: the development budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology was not even Rs. 1 billion last year, this shows what was happening to this country. We were spending Rs. 300 billion on the Orange Line project in Lahore on a 27km strip but not even Rs. 1 billion was available for science and technology—what a shame!
We now have many programs in key sectors such as agriculture, engineering and education. In education we are launching programs in blended learning. We are looking at introducing massive open online courses, which are available from Stanford, MIT, Harvard and Yale. At the primary school level, Khan Academy courses are being integrated into the curriculum, so that you are learning not only from your own teachers but also from the best in the world. These are materials that are freely available. We need to realize that this is a huge treasure that needs to be fully utilized. Our knowledge economy task force is different from other task forces, as it is focused on actual on-ground implementation of a large number of projects including those on artificial intelligence, genomics and energy storage systems.
I am also involved in setting up a university on the land behind the P.M. House. This will be a University of Engineering and Emerging Technologies. According to international estimates, there is going to be a $100 trillion impact of emerging technologies in the next eight years, by 2025. There will be a $14 trillion impact of artificial intelligence alone, in the next eight years—so the fourth industrial revolution is upon us and we have to catch it.
There is a huge wave coming—cars are going to disappear and be replaced by self-driven cars, the next generation of genomics is already here, so species that used to be created in millions of years can now be created in a lab in a matter of weeks. Scientists have discovered how to take genes out of one plant species and put them into another, some have taken the genes responsible for luminescence from a deep sea jellyfish and put them into orchids—and lo and behold you have luminous orchids. Such “disruptive innovations” are changing the landscape of industry through thrilling advances in the fields of energy, biotechnology materials science. New meta-materials that can bend light and make objects invisible have been discovered—Harry Potter’s disappearing cloak is a reality—and they are being used by the military for stealth purposes. These technologies are the new reality where truth is stranger than fiction. Never before in the history of man has change been so dramatic and quick.
You will have a large number of jobs being lost as a result of these disruptive innovations, and changing industrial scenarios such as electric autonomous vehicles. We need to prepare ourselves for this 4th Industrial Revolution and become world leaders in some of these technologies. That’s what I’m focusing on through our knowledge economy task force. The highest science award that was conferred on me on Jan. 10, 2020 by the president of China will open fantastic new opportunities to make this happen.
You talk a lot about knowledge economy. Can you please elaborate.
In one sentence, the challenge today for any country wishing to make an international impact is for it to have the ability to manufacture and export high technology products.
I am simplifying a very complex area. Now what are high technology products?
In metallurgy, you have new alloys and materials; in biotechnology, you have a vast range of pharmaceuticals; Artificial Intelligence is coming in with a whole plethora of applications in almost every field of human endeavor. These applications range from stealth aircraft to understanding how atoms can be fused and energy can be created through fusion reactions. If you look at the world’s leading companies like Google and Microsoft, it’s all software development. Technology companies are leading the world today. If Pakistan wants to make any headway, it has to be through investments in emerging technologies. Knowledge economy is linked to our ability to manufacture and export high technology products, whether it is technology in agriculture to increase yields, or engineering goods or pharmaceuticals or other interventions. This is what has led Singapore to have the tremendous export of $330 billion from its tiny population.
Your tenure as HEC chairman resulted in several reforms that are still lauded. What advice, if any, do you have for the current leadership to ensure Pakistan’s higher education institutions are on par with global and regional counterparts?
Universities are not just about beautiful buildings—they are about beautiful minds. It is the quality of the faculty in the universities and for that matter even in colleges and schools that determines the standard of education. We don’t have a shortage of creativity in our youth; they are among the best in the world as is evident from their A-level results. It’s just a question of providing them with opportunities so that they can learn from the best in the world. We should train them at the best institutions abroad and then provide them with opportunities to come back and contribute. This was my focus when I was the chairman of HEC.
I would like to recommend to the present leadership of HEC to focus on quality faculty and creating a necessary environment where researchers will be able to perform and contribute to socioeconomic development. We sent about 11,000 of our brightest people to top universities abroad; we had the largest Fulbright program in the world with half the money coming from Pakistan and half from USAID. Due to the measures that we introduced, we had a 97.5% return rate of students that were sent abroad. Everybody wants to come back, as they have families here, but they want to come back and do something useful.
Sending them abroad is only half the story. The other half is preparing an enabling environment for their contributions. Essentially, we did four things:
1) We dramatically changed the salary structure under the tenure track system, so that the salary of a professor became four to five times more than a federal minister. People who were normally going to study to become doctors or lawyers started to give serious consideration to becoming neuroscientists, journalists, social scientists or biotechnologists. This happened because there were career opportunities for them. This new tenure track system was introduced with much higher salaries but on a contractual basis with the first evaluation after three years and a second international evaluation after six years before they got permanency of tenure.
2) Jobs on arrival: When graduates return, they end up wandering around without knowing if they will find a job. We proposed that any graduate would be given the role of an assistant professor, with a salary given by the HEC, upon their return.
3) Access to libraries: we created a digital library, called the “Pakistan Educational Research Network,” which provided free access to 65,000 textbooks and 25,000 international journals. This is available to every student in every public-sector university.
4) Fourth was more difficult, as it was a new idea and we were the first in the world to implement it. Open access instrumentation: Scientific instruments are very expensive and very difficult to maintain. So, we told researchers they could send samples to any institution of their choice across the country and analysis would be done within 72 hours, free of cost. The institution providing the service would bill the HEC. This was a win-win for researchers, who would have free access to sophisticated instrumentation, while institutions providing the analysis would also be able to generate some money.
These were some of the things we did, which led to the transformation that made our research publications shoot up and we overtook India in 2017. In 2018 we were about 20% ahead of India. We were even praised by Thomson Reuters, the world’s leading assessment agency, and India was trying to follow our footsteps by creating a HECI in 2018 and emulating the system we created.
Unfortunately in last few years the budgets have been dramatically cut and many of the projects that were happening were dropped. For example, we were setting up a network of foreign universities in Pakistan, such as the German and Austrian universities in Lahore, the Swedish university in Sialkot, French and Italian university in Karachi, Chinese university in Islamabad. Classes were to start in 2008, but when the government changed, the plans were shelved.
I did succeed in establishing the Pak-Austrian University in Haripur and the first governing board meeting recently took place. The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government funds this. Prime Minister Imran Khan has asked me to do this in other provinces as well. If we can give O-level and A-level certifications at the lower level, why can’t we do the same in higher education? I have restarted my efforts.
We have a Science and Technology ministry and an I.T. ministry. How does one get them to connect and move in the same direction?
Science and technology has a very broad canvas, ranging from agricultural sciences to medical sciences to engineering sciences, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, etc. When I was the Science and Technology minister, I had two secretaries who dealt with the separate divisions to ensure they worked together. All this was in one building and everyone was working closely together. After the Musharraf era they decided to make two different ministries. I felt the previous system was better, because it led to better integration and collaboration. There are many overlapping areas. One example is centers of artificial intelligence being approved by the science and technology ministry even though A.I. comes under I.T.
What do you believe is your greatest achievement?
That’s a difficult question. In retrospect, I think perhaps the shake up in the higher education sector resulting from the reforms I brought in. These were initially resisted, but later welcomed.
There is an article by Fred Hayword, an independent U.S. education expert who was hired by USAID to critically look at the impact of my higher education reforms on the education sector of Pakistan, in which he noted that initially he had witnessed a lot of resistance to my plans. Three years later, when he returned, he was pleasantly surprised to see everything had changed and everyone was now very supportive.
I made it tougher for people to go up the ladder by linking everything to quality rather than numbers. The emphasis was that it’s not good enough to just produce a lot of doctorates.
We brought in major reforms: all theses had to be evaluated by international, not local, experts. We stopped plagiarism by introducing verification software. Candidates must publish in an international journal.
Initially, there was some resistance to these reforms and it took time for people to appreciate the change of culture in taking the time to publish good, creative work in ranking international journals. I think this was one impact that was a contribution to my nation.
What I would like to see now is for us to change gears and transform this impact into socioeconomic development. Now that we have the critical mass of researches that we need, we can address issues of poverty, issues of jobs, and promote innovation and entrepreneurship. We are constantly creating new funds so that entrepreneurship can be promoted. I’ve set up the largest entrepreneurship facility in Pakistan at my own center in Karachi, where we have one building fully occupied by 35 companies, a second building where competitions are held, and a third building that is currently under construction. These are several centers for entrepreneurship so that students who pass through our universities are not just jobseekers but are job providers. Here they need to be mentored; they need to be supported and they need to have access to legal and financial services and venture capital to support their ideas to be transformed into companies.
By the time I resigned from the HEC in 2008, we had four universities ranked in the top 300 in the world. Unfortunately, in the last 10 years they have all slipped out and we don’t have a single one in the rankings today.
I resigned in protest when the PPP government stopped the scholarships of students. There were thousands of students left abroad, who had to go to mosques asking for money.
Ultimately that’s what counts: where are you in terms of international rankings? But now they’ve slipped back and that’s what I have been trying to tell the present HEC chairman. The focus must be on quality faculty and creating an environment where they will be able to contribute in terms of research and patents.
Have you ever felt you are lacking a skill that you want to improve?
I always feel that I am so ignorant—there is so much knowledge around me and I am barely scratching the surface. Wherever you look there are wonders to be explored. I tell my students that there can be no greater joy in the world than the ability to learn and the ability to spread that knowledge.
You are known for your humility. Where does it come from?
I think it comes from the understanding that I know so little with a vast ocean of knowledge around me. How dare I push my chest out and hold my head high when there is so little that I know. One can’t be anything but humble. So it comes from this feeling that there is so much to learn and one knows so little.