• Saturday, September 20, 2014

Looking back over

Farseem M. Mohammedy
Photo: Star
Photo: Star

Looking back over one's shoulder, since the emergence of independent Bangladesh in 1971 till now at 2014 – a span of 43 years – what have we achieved in our Science and Technology (S&T) sector? This is an important question for the policy makers, economic analyzers, industrialists and entrepreneurs, researchers and academics in the relevant sector. To a young and aspirant S&T researcher of the land, what vision can we present? Will s/he ever take on S&T subjects as her/his career? Even if s/he does, will s/he take-off soon after graduation to seek a position in a foreign land?  The following essay is my take on an assessment of the scenario on a qualitative and empirical basis. This essay will try to answer the questions and raise new ones; will throw challenges at the face of young and patriotic researchers. To the least, this is an opportunity to raise a level of awareness in this regard.
The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen acclaimed Bangladesh and her achievements in the socio-economic indexes in his latest book The Uncertain Glory (co-authored with Jean Drèze, Allen Lane, 2013). Sen mentions that Bangladesh has achieved a GDP of US$1569 (at 2011) and that this was a 112% increase over a decade of relentless economic activity. This figure has been attained through vigorous social and economic activities based on visionary policy-making. This has been made possible, as Sen suggests, through the opening of equal opportunities for women, especially in the Ready-made Garments sector. At the same decade, India has achieved about 169% increase in its GDP which stood at a towering figure of US$3203 at 2011. Sen also acclaims the development of Bangladesh in other indexes of development – literacy rate (male-75%, female-78%), life expectancy at birth (69), access to improved sanitation (56%) etc. It is almost irresistible to share Sen's eloquence,
 “… Bangladesh has made rapid progress in some crucial aspects of living standards, particularly in the last twenty years … The roots of [this achievement] are not entirely transparent … [but] some likely clues are immediately worth noting. Perhaps the most important clue is a pattern of sustained positive change in gender relations. … For instance, women's participation rate in the workforce is almost twice as high in Bangladesh as in India. This, along with greater female literacy and education, is recognized across the world as a powerful contributor to women's empowerment, and Bangladesh has made much greater use of this avenue of change than has India.”
In order to carry forward such growth and development, in terms of economic indexes and such like, involvement of S&T is a must. In 2007, the Centre for Policy Dialogue had published a slim 50-page volume on 'Vision Bangladesh 2021'. In that booklet, a panel of specialized and distinguished citizens of Bangladesh had identified 8 different objectives and points of action. The plan was simple – make plans and execute actions based on those clear objectives, and Bangladesh will become a country of middle-income by 2021. A careful review of these eight objectives will reveal that the inclusion of S&T has been tacitly assumed (specifically objective numbers five, six and seven). In short, if you want to see Bangladesh at a respectable position in the global community by the fiftieth anniversary of her independence, you need to seriously think about Science and Technology. That is because research, progress and achievements in S&T will sustain our economic growth. Our neighboring country, India, has trodden the path long before we recognized it; and slowly but steadily, India has risen to such heights that it sends its own probes to Mars, it has its very much indigenous space and missile program, nuclear energy research and what not. One of the prime technological visionaries for India is the revered technologist and ex-President of the republic, APJ Abdul Kalam. In his book India 2020 (Viking, 1998), he mentions,
“India's needs are very clear: to remove the poverty of our millions as speedily as possible …; to provide health for all; to provide good education and skills for all; to provide employment opportunities for all; to be a net exporter; and to be self-reliant in national security and build up capabilities to sustain and improve on all these in the future.”
In order to achieve all these, the team headed by Abdul Kalam at first identified the 'core competencies' of the country – things in which India is in plenty. They identified their population, natural resources and living resources as principal core competencies. Based on this finding, the team asked in which areas  does the Indian S&T has manifest strength, or what are the areas of S&T that can dramatically alter the Indian future, or identify the focus of indigenous technology development, or what new technologies will pop up in 2015 or 2020 or 2030 etc. This search resulted in a mammoth 25-volume document on 17 different areas. Kalam writes, “We believe that there are many ignited minds in different parts of India, in different age groups. The Technology Vision will generate multi-missions and each mission in turn hundreds of projects. This ambience will make the nation achieve the status of a developed nation”.
What 'ambience' do we have, or what 'vision' for that matter can we envision in Bangladesh? There is one, though not very well-researched nor based on rock-solid foundations, but nevertheless, an S&T Action Plan. This Action Plan for S&T 2011 has been approved by the Govt of Bangladesh through a gazette on 2012. This Action Plan consists of 15 aims, 11 strategic objectives and 246 actions. It has been anticipated that these actions will be executed within a small term, medium term and long term basis – based, respectively, on the nature of the individual actions. A cursory look at the document will give the reader a feeling that whatever could have been conceived of qualitatively about S&T in Bangladesh has been written within the confines of this document. As such, this Action Plan is very much empirical rather than analytical as opposed to those findings and visions proposed by the team led by APJ Abdul Kalam. Nevertheless, at least we have a document to make arguments for or against certain projects, to win project fundings, to criticize or acclaim. Or we may choose not to do anything whatsoever.
With this document in hand, with Kalam-like visions in mind, and such Sen-like economic growth in paper, we may now choose to look at our institutions of education and research, and ask ourselves – what to do with all those hand-mind-paper stuff on one hand and with the universities such as ours and their facilities on the other hand. Clearly, we lack facilities. Some of our existing research facilities are on the wane, due to years of neglect and fund-shortage. Some new facilities are in the making, but have questionable future, given the history of past facilities and their decline. Someone posted a picture on the Facebook of a research facility in the making in one of our universities, and a senior colleague lamented on the future of such a gigantic structure. Since, a similar structure in one of our prime universities was just 'wasted'. The root cause of such 'failure', in this particular case, was the lack of competent personnel. To give training and to maintain competent personnel is a challenge in this country. Unattractive salaries and due to socio-economic causes, we have a very large stream of brain drain to the West. A senior colleague of mine once lamented to someone that our university has become the greatest and most successful Export Processing Zone, since most of our graduates end up in foreign lands, right after graduation. They are tuitioned with public exchequer and yet when it's their time to deliver to the nation, they go abroad and deliver to that foreign land. This is the ultimate dilemma of our research sector. Some do return, but their numbers are dwindling. According to one estimate, in my own department in the last 15 years alone, only 15-to-20 faculty returned to their old post. The university that I serve, has had an annual budget of approximately 90 crore taka in one of last three years, and most of it was for salaries, pensions and other stuff, only a few lakhs were allocated for research funding. Several ministries do support funded research, but that is not enough, if you are looking at the right number of GDP growth rates. Funded research, as opposed to salaried-research (research conducted through voluntary efforts with least financial involvement), has the ability to ensure quality and depth. Without such infrastructure, only superficial research can be produced. My own department on electrical engineering is one of the oldest in my university. It has 40-plus doctorates as full-time faculty members. Still this department has only two research-grade laboratories. This is very frustrating for a 43-year old country. As engineering university, we should have had the best facilities in the region, or at least comparable to other regional institutes. But alas, we are mostly an undergraduate university! Most of our research is theoretical requiring computer power, since computers are cheaper than world-class equipment. With the nominal laboratory facilities, our undergraduate teaching goes smoothly, but a university is also a place for new knowledge. The tools to create new hands-on knowledge are absent in our country. If you attend any engineering conference of international standard, you will see that results based on experimental data are highly valued. While it is true that many other universities in our country do possess some fine equipment, and experimental works are getting published, and in this regard one cannot but mention the high-class research regarding the unveiling of jute genome and such like. But the overall situation is not encouraging at all.
One way to improve research in S&T is to increase and nurture funded research. Also the faculty earnings are to be scrutinized. Bangladesh has a low teacher income: its estimated ratio of teacher salary to per capita GDP is 1.0 whereas for India it is between 5 or 6 (see Sen, above, p.133). That is a high figure! For university faculty, this figure is slightly better. About two years back, I had the opportunity to converse with an associate professor belonging to one of the Indian Institute of Technologies. He earns about one lakh Indian rupee, whereas my salary is about half of that figure, and that too in Taka ( 1 US$ = 60 INR = 78 BDT). So unless we settle the purchase power parity for university faculties, they will be eternally busy with projects, consultancy and part-time teaching. Research will be the last thing on their minds. Our independent research institutes are also not offering any great alternatives. The Indians have overcome these difficulties. Now in West Bengal and Assam, a primary school teacher does have the capability to purchase a small car for the household. I was told a north-American doctorate-holder can have a funding of 40 lakh rupee for 5 years, once s/he returns to India. With this, s/he can support novel research, build laboratories or whatever. This is on top of his/her regular salary.
We cannot think this big! But with a little incentive, we can do big, I am sure. What incentive society agrees upon depends, however, on the society itself. Now it is our time to decide.

The authour is General Secretary, Science Popularization Society, Bangladesh (SPSB).

Published: 12:00 am Monday, March 17, 2014

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