Une vision stratégique de l'actualité scientifique et technologique du secteur des biotechnologies.

« I brought about a revolution in higher education, science & technology in Pakistan »


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BI3.0 : You published more than 900 scientific publications in the field of organic chemistry including 34 patents, and more than hundred books or chapters of books. You are a well known and recognised researcher all over the world and received honours in your own country, Pakistan, and abroad. You were elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society on 14th July 2006. Could you please present first your scolarship which started in United Kingdom ?

Atta : My first scholarship at Cambridge was a Commonwealth Scholarship. This is a highly competitive scholarship that allowed me to complete a Ph. D. at Cambridge University.

BI3.0 : You were Commonwealth scholar from 1965 until 1968 in Kings College, Cambridge University and then Fellow, 1969 to 1973. Were you a brillant and distinguished student who received a scolarship ?

Atta : I was a top student in Pakistan but when I arrived in Cambridge, I found that other students there were much better than me in their understanding of organic chemistry. So I worked really hard during my first year to catch up.

BI3.0 : Was it usual for a young pakistanese student to achieve doctorate in Cambridge ? Are you belonging from an elistist intellectual family ? In parallel, did you study in University of Karachi?

Atta : It was rare. My grandfather was The Vice Chancellor of University of Delhi in India before we moved to Pakistan in 1947. I joined the University of Karachi after I completed my school level education and did my bachelors and Masters degree from the University of Karachi before leaving for PhD at Cambridge.

BI3.0 :  Can you explain your research field Isolation and Structure elucidation of Bioactive Counpounds (from medicinal plants as well as marine plant and animals). Amongst them you discovered hundred of extracts exhibiting high potential biological activities.

Atta : The plant kingdom offers a huge treasure of new bioactive compounds. Indeed about 40% of all modern drugs are derived either directly or indirectly from medicinal plants. So natural product chemistry remains an exciting area of research. I have recently discovered some compounds against epilepsy which has been patented in USA and is presently underging clinical trials in Canada.

BI3.0 : Can you speak about traditionnal Pakistan Plants ? About seaweeds? And about molecules extracted from taxus ?

Atta : Traditional medicines are very popular in developing countries and over 70% of the populations rely on them for relief from disease. Taxus has been a source of anti-cancer compounds for breast cancer. Similarly a strong anti-malarial compound (artemisinin) has been discovered from a Chinese medicinal plant.

BI 3.0 : As a professor and then co-director of H.E.J. Research Institute of Chemistry, University of Karachi, you spent almost twenty years of your carrier there. It is one of the best centers in natural products chemistry in the world. You were research supervisor and almost 80 students have been awarded PhD degrees in various areas of product chemistry inspired by your works about alkaloïds. Do you consider it is necessary to encourage gender education, feminine and masculine scientific searchers as equal?

Atta : In fact you will be pleasantly surprised to learn that the majority of students who study for PhD in our reseach center in Karachi are women. 82 students have been awarded PhD degrees under my supervision and 70% of them are women.

BI3.0 : You were appointed as Chairman of National Comittee for South and Central Asian Medicinal and Aromatic Plants for Unesco (SCAMAP) 1982 to 85. Can you explain how those researches have such a great interest in Asia in comparison with other continents ?

Atta : As stated above, there is a tradition of the use of medicinal plants in Asia. Therefore this field is very popular as it is important to study these plants scientifically. I have so far written or edited 174 books most of which have been published in USA and Europe.

BI3.0 : You won Grand Prix de l’Unesco en 1999 in Budapest not only as a famous scientist (the first Muslim scientist who received this distinction) but also because you are involved in your country scientific development and promoting education. It was the beginning of your political carrier in Pakistan, you have been Federal Minister of Science & Technology & Information Technology, then Federal Minister/Chairman and then Advisor to the Prime Minister. Was it a big challenge?   What were you trying to achieve?

Atta : I brought about a revolution in higher education, science & technology in Pakistan. As the Federal Minister of Science & Technology in 2001, I persuaded the government to increase the development budget for science by about 6000%. The abolishing of the University Grants Commission and the establishment of the Higher Education Commission in 2002 as a powerful new national body on higher education that was headed by a person with the status of a Federal Minister and which reported directly to the Prime Minister of Pakistan marked a new chapter in the history of higher education in Pakistan.

Later, in 2002, when I was made the founding Chairman/Federal Minister of Higher Education Commission, I managed to have the development budget for higher education increased also by some 2400%. The allocation of substantially increased funds allowed us to undertake programs to uplift the higher education sector. These programs boosted research in universities and they can be broadly categorised as those related to access, quality, research/relevance and governance issues.

There were only 59 universities and degree awarding institutes in Pakistan in the year 2000. These grew to 127 such institutions by 2008 and to 137 institutions by 2010. University enrolment grew three-fold, rising from only 276,000 in 2002 to about 900,000 students by 2010. The access to higher education grew from about 2.3% of the age group 17-23 in the year 2003 to 6.5% by the year 2010. A number of steps were taken to improve the quality of education and make education relevant to national needs.

The most significant of these related to the programs to develop a strong faculty. The fact that in the year 2003 more than 75% of the faculty members in Pakistani universities did not even have a PhD pointed to the poor state of affairs at the time. Therefore about 11,000 scholarships were awarded to the brightest students of which some 5,000 scholarships were to obtain PhD degrees at top universities of the world. The remainder were for local PhD level scholarships as well as for sandwich PhD programmes whereby a part of the time of the locally registered PhD student was spent in a leading foreign university.

To attract the brightest students passing out of high school to opt for careers in education and research, a new contractual system of « tenure track » appointments of faculty members with international review of productivity was enforced under which the salaries of the faculty members were raised to several times of those of Federal Ministers in the government!

The first evaluation of such faculty members was to be done after 3 years by an international panel of experts in technologically advanced countries while the second such evaluation was to be done after 6 years before permanency of tenure was granted after positive peer review on both occasions. In order to ensure that appointments in universities were only made to appropriately qualified persons, new rules were enforced under which persons could not be appointed as Assistant Professors without a PhD. Minimum eligibility criteria for appointments as Associate Professors and full Professors were also toughened so that only those active in high quality research could go up the promotion ladder.

Students returning with PhD degrees from abroad were given the opportunity of applying for research grants of up to $ 100,000 one year before their date of return, so that by the time they returned, the peer review process of their research grant application would have been completed and they would be able to settle down with sizeable research funds at their disposal, even if they joined a weaker university with little facilities.

To strengthen the faculty, several new programmes were launched to attract those qualified faculty members working in advanced countries to return to Pakistan at lucrative salaries and with liberal research funding. Some 600 such persons came to Pakistan under these programmes, about half of them permanently and the other half on assignments for one or two terms. Tax rates for all faculty members in public and private universities were reduced from 35% to only 5% thereby giving a boost to their take-home pay. The foreign faculty members were clustered in various institutions to create the critical mass necessary for excellence in research to thrive. For instance, about 40 foreign faculty members (mostly non-Pakistanis from Europe) were appointed in the Centre for Mathematics at the Government College University in Lahore resulting in the emergence of a good mathematics institution.

All curricula were revised and modernised in consultation with subject experts and industry order to increase employment and improve quality. A system of internal and external peer review was introduced in all universities and Quality Assurance cells set up in every public sector university, the performance of which was monitored by the Higher Education Commission.

BI3.0 : You initiated the progress in IT and telecom?

Atta : The rapid progress made by Pakistan in the IT and telecom sector during 2000-2002 under my charge as Federal Minister led to the spread of internet from 29 cities in the year 2000 to 1000 cities, towns and villages by 2002, and the spread of fiber from 40 cities to 400 cities in this 2 year period. The internet prices were reduced sharply from $ 87,000 per month for a 2 MB line to only $ 900 per month. The mobile telephony boom began by the drastic lowering of prices, bringing in of competition (Ufone) and changing the system so that the person receiving a call was no longer required to pay any charges. A satellite was placed in space (Paksat 1). These changes in the IT infra-structure later proved invaluable for the Higher Education sector.

The libraries in universities prior to the year 2002 were in a very poor shape with hardly half a dozen of the latest international journals being subscribed to by any of them. The improvement in the IT infra-structure led to the establishment of a nation-wide digital library under the auspices of the Pakistan Education Research Network (PERN) with some 25,000 international journals and 60,000 text books from 220 international publishers. International Network for Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) based in Oxford played an important role in negotiating special deals with various publishers. Nation-wide video-conferencing facilities were established in various universities with lectures being delivered interactively from technologically advanced countries on a daily basis.

These and other such measures led to a sudden surge in university rankings. During the 55 year period between 1947 to 2002, not a single university could be ranked among the top 400 of the world in international university rankings. By 2008, however several Pakistani universities achieved this yardstick, with NUST (Islamabad) at 273 in the world, UET (Lahore) at 281 in the world and Karachi University (in natural sciences) at 223 in the world. Others included Quaid-e-Azam University (Islamabad) and Mehran Engineering University (Hyderabad).

The research publications in journals with ISI impact factors went through an amazing increase from only about 500 per year in the year 2000 to 6,250 per year by 2011, almost equaling those from India if the output is compared on a per million population basis. They continue to in rise by about 20% each year.

Similarly the citations in the Science Citation Index increased by a 1000% in the same period. Many programmes were undertaken to promote university-industry linkages including the establishment of Offices of Commercialisation and Technology Parks in universities and provision of services of patent lawyers and funding for obtaining international patents.

The programmes of the Higher Education Commission were regularly subjected to external review by eminent foreign experts. A USAID team of educationists visited Pakistan a number of times and travelled the length and breadth of the country, talking to teachers, students and administrators in the universities and examining the data critically. I reproduce here sections of the USAID report published in 2008 that resulted from the year-long review (1)

A review of the Higher Education system of Pakistan was carried out by Prof. Michael Rode, Chairman of the United Nations Commission on Science, Technology and Development, and Professor at the University of Innsbruck in Austria who visited Pakistan on a number of occasions.

He wrote in 2008, and I quote:

« Around the world when we discuss the status of higher education in different countries, there is unanimity of opinion that the developing country that has made the most rapid progress internationally in recent years is Pakistan. In no other country has the higher education sector seen such spectacular positive developments as that in Pakistan during the last six years.

After the formation of the Higher Education Commission, a silent revolution occurred and probably the best digital library in the world was set up in Pakistan -Such a nation-wide access to the latest literature is not even available in Europe or USA today, and Pakistan demonstrated that given honest, dedicated and dynamic leadership as provided by Prof. Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman and his eminent colleagues led by Dr.Sohail Naqvi, it was possible to achieve the almost impossible. Most universities in Pakistan are today equipped with video-conferencing facilities and lectures are delivered regularly by professors from top universities in Europe, USA etc and listened to by students in Sind, Baluchistan and other provinces in real-time and in a fully interactive manner, so that face to face questions can be asked across the world -Pakistan has become the first in the world to introduce a nation-wide international lecturing programme. » 

BI3.0 : You are a key figure not only in the occidental World but also in the Islamic World, first through your fellowship in Islamic Academy of Science in 1988 and later when you assumed the responsability of Coordinator General of COMSTECH (Comittee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation) in Islamabad during 16 years. What are the goals of this Committee ?

Atta : I started a large number or programmes under COMSTECH.  These include many joint programs with TWAS, IFS, WHO and others

BI3.0 :You are President of the Network of Academies of Sciences in the Countries (NASIC) of the OIC (Oraganization of Islamic Conference), too. What is the economical challenge for Pakistan now ? How science and technology can help to increase the growth of economy ?

Atta : Yes I am the President of NASIC. In this new world order, science, technology and innovation are the key drivers for socio-economic development. The world has become divided into two halves, those that are investing massively in quality education, science, technology and are taking appropriate measures to promote innovation, and those that are trapped in low value added economies, relying largely on low value added agricultural goods for exports. Pakistan belongs to the latter. In order for businesses to grow, modernize and innovate, acquisition of technology is essential. This can be done either by indigenous development of technology or through technology transfer.

BI3.0 : Does your country target to become an Islamic leader in the 21 th century ? You consider science as a key issue for the next century. You are very involved in applications in Health and Agricultural, as you mentionned in Colombo (at Shri Lanka Conference in 2011) ? What are the goals you are adressing to fight against poverty and hangst in the world? Are your fighting against pesticides ?

Atta : To develop and become a technologically advanced country one needs to invest in ESTI (Education, Science, Technology & Innovation). I have prepared a roadmap for Pakistan regarding what exactly we must do to tap into the creative welath of our younger generations. There are more than 100 million young persons below the age of 20 in Pakistan. About 54% of the population of 200 million is below 20 years old. That is our future.

BI3.0 : Presently, you are Patron-in-Chief of International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences. Can you describe ICCBS organisation ? How Many departments are there ? Dr Iqbal Chaudary is executive director and he is a famous scientist too in Natural product Chemistry. Prof. Iqbal Choudhary is member of both National Commissions in Nanotechnologies and Biotechnologies. Is your Center will be a main actor in the future ? At international level, you have agreement with International Genetic Center in Delhi, International Physic Center in Trieste, International Center in Beijing too.

Atta : The International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences at Karachi University has about 500 students enrolled for PhD. It is one of the best centres any where in the field of natural product chemistry. It is equipped with 13 superconducting NMR spectrometers, 15 mass spectrometers and a host of other sophisticated equipment. Prof. Iqbal Choudhary is an excellent scientist and he is now the Director of the Institute. We have joint cooperation with many international organisations and countries.

BI 3.0 :  Your planification until 2020 is very ambitious and the center area will increase. There will be sort of an incubator to create start ups? You developp many patents in ICCB. Did you negociate parnerships with major pharma companies regarding to normative agreements or clinical trials for natural medicinal drugs ? There is a growth of 11 % of these medecine with a 33 Md$ CA from medicinal plant in the world as BBC Research reported in 2013.

Atta : yes, we have many cooperations with international pharmaceutical companies.

BI3.O : What are the political measures for the Government to promote this economic developement ? Are you following performing integrated model of Cambridge University with business angels ?

Atta : Many technology parks have been established in Pakistan. One is now being established in our institute.

BI3.0 :  You will increase significantly number of students and PhD ? As a ministry of science, did yo promote students exchanges ?  Do you consider students exchanges very important for the glowing of pakistanese science in the future ?

Atta : I sent 11,000 students for PhD and post-doctoral training all over the world (2). International cooperation and exchange is very important for our development.

BI3.0:  Dr Zhabta Khan Shinrwari received on the 4 th of November 2015 the Avicenne Price In Unesco Paris delivered by the COMEST and the CIB (Comité International d’Ethique). Specialised in vegetal science and agriculture biotechnologies, he is Secretary general of Pakistan Academy of Science and President university of biotechnologies from Islamabad. He received this price which considers ethic involvment. I suppose you are collaborating with him and share the same vision of future.

Atta : We are all delighted at UNESCO Prize for Prof. Zabta Shinwari. We do share the same vision and work closely together.

BI3.0 : What do you think about the tragic events which happened in Paris last Friday 13 th november? Your moral values seem to be at the opposite. Do you condemn Daesch ?

Atta : This was a terrible tragedy and we all condemn it in the strongest words. However the root causes of such terrible acts need to be understood and addressed. The root cause is the cruel repression and the resulting frustration of the people of Palestine who have been deprived of their rights and live as prisoners in their own homeland. The greatest hoax in recent history was that perpetuated by the illlusion of «The Weapons of mass destruction », and it resulted in an unjust invasion of Iraq. This has been followed by the perpetuation of the same policy resulting in the devastation of Libya, Syria and other regional countries. The problems of terrorism will not be solved by bombs—they will be solved by justice.

Interview by Thérèse Bouveret, Chief Editor Biotechinfo3.0

(1) » One of the most striking aspects of HEC since its inception is the emphasis on excellence and high quality in every sphere of its activities. Expectations were set high from the outset. Quality goal targets were set as international standards and expectations. Faculty promotions, publications, PhD dissertations, research grants, and many of the HEC programs were subject to these standards including evaluation by external peer reviewers. In keeping with its focus on quality, the attitude of the leadership of the HEC was that “quality is much more important than quantity ».

(2)With United Kingdom because of tradition where you belonged from, but also with Germany (Prpf Atta ways fellow and prof in University of Tuebingen) or even France, where MAE (Ministère des Affaires Etrangères) reported 6 pakistanese doctorants. Or even in the Muslim countries, Malaysia, Iran, where Dr Atta gave many conferences.

A KEY FIGURE  IN PAKISTAN

Doctor Atta-U-Rhaman published more than 900 scientific publications in the field of organic chemistry including 34 patents, and more than hundred books or chapters of books. He is a well known and recognised researcher all over the world and received honours in  Pakistan, and abroad. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society on 14th July 2006.

As a professor, associate from 1974 to 1976 and then co-director of H.E.J. Research Institute of Chemistry, University of Karachi, from 1977 to almost 1990, he became then director until september 2008.

He was appointed as Chairman of National Comittee for South and Central Asian Medicinal and Aromatic Plants for Unesco (SCAMAP) before (1982-85). Then he became an eminent personnality in Pakistan and abroad you are member of several main Science Academies (Swiss, russian, New-York) and american societies.

He won Grand Prix de l’Unesco en 1999 in Budapest not only as a famous scientist (the first Muslim scientist who received this distinction) but also because he was involved in his country scientific development and promoting education.

He has been Federal Minister of Science & Technology & Information Technology, then Federal Minister/Chairman and then Advisor to the Prime Minister from the early 2000 to september 2008.

He is a key figure not only in the occidental World but also in the Islamic World, first through his fellowship in Islamic Academy of Science in 1988 and later when he assumed the responsability of Coordinator General of COMSTECH (Comittee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation) in Islamabad during 16 years (1996-2012), part of the global Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) between the 56 member countries.

In Pakistan, he is member of the board of Governors of both Karachi Education Initiative (KEI) and Karachi School of Business and Learning (KSBL) in 2011. And elected again as a director of Academy of Science in Pakistan the same year (2003-2006 and 2011- 2015) He is also  President of the Network of Academies of Sciences in the Countries (NASIC) of the OIC.

Presently, he are Patron-in-Chief of International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences.

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