Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman FRS, N.I., H.I., S.I., T.I.
On 10th January 2020, President Xi Jinping addressed thousands of scientists in the great Peoples Hall and honoyred 9 foreign scientists with the highest scientific award of China, “the International Science and Technology Collaboration Award” of China. It was a truly humbling experience to receive the highest honour from President Xi himself in recognition of my services to build strong network of collaborations between China and Pakistan in many key scientific fields such as Artificial Intelligence, Virology, Hybrid Seed Production, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Genomics and many others. In 2014 I had received the Friendship Award from President Xi, and I had been elected as Academician (Foreign Member) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the highest Academic Honour of China. On 24th of October 2019, a very special function was held at the Hunan University of Chinese Medicine in the city of Changsha, in Hunan province of China when a large 6 storey research institute was named after me on the occasion of a major international conference. I was told that it was the first building to be named after a Muslim scientist in China, It was named as the “Academician Professor Atta-ur-Rahman One Belt and One Road Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Research Center”. The function was attended by our Federal Minister of Science and Technology, Mr. Fawad Hussain Choudhary.
In a recent report, published in the world’s leading science journal Nature, it was highlighted that “From 2000 to 2017, R&D spending in the United States grew at an average of 4.3% per year—— But spending in China grew by more than 17% per year during the same period. Several other countries, including Germany and South Korea, also increased their spending at rates that outstripped that of the United States, but they remain solidly behind the two global leaders in terms of total funding. The United States accounted for 25% of the US$2.2 trillion spent on R&D worldwide in 2017, and China made up 23%. Preliminary data from 2019 suggest that China has already surpassed the United States in R&D spending”, Unquote.
My first visit to China was in 1974 when I delivered a lecture at the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry. Even then China had begun to acquire leadership positions in some fields. The first synthesis of insulin was accomplished at that institute by Prof. Wang Yu. Massive investments in training of human resources since 1978 has propelled China as among the leading countries in the world in many fields of science, including nanotechnology, quantum computing and artificial intelligence. The amazing developments in the field of science and technology in China during the last 3 decades, has demonstrated that nations like Pakistan must give the highest priority to education, science engineering and to innovation in order to emerge from the shackles of poverty and deprivation.
China focused on Foreign Direct Investment for the joint production and export of high technology products. The stunning average GDP growth rate of 8-11% since became possible through acquiring advanced technologies from abroad and training manpower in top foreign universities to a level that has grown to 600,000 per year. About 500,000 trained students are now returning to China each year. As a result China has become a world leader in many cutting edge technologies and it has set up many highly ranked universities.
A key factor of Chinese success has been the encouragement by the Chinese government to start their own companies. The Torch Program started in 1988, provided massive funds to such enterprises and encouraged scientists working in government institutes to start businesses with government funding. A historic “Decision” taken by the State Council of China in 1999 was to take a number of measures to boost scientific enterprises. These included : (a) tax breaks to private Enterprises investing in R & D, (b) tax exemption for all income derived from the transfer or development of new technologies, (c) a reduced 6% value-added tax rate for software products developed and produced in China (d) complete VAT exemption and subsidised credit for high-tech exports, and (e) the listing of new high-technology companies on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges. Pakistan must do the same.
We must also establish a major national Innovation Fund. The Innovation Funds and Science and Technology Promotion Funds were created in China for the promotion of R&D activities. Starting from 6.3 billion yuan in 1978, the allocation was systematically increased to 124.4 billion yuan in 2004 and to over 200 billion Yuan in 2018.
In the subsequent Five Year Plans, the government has continued to emphasise the improvement of R&D capabilities and the development of its indigenous technology. This has successfully contributed to upgrading its industrial structure. The Chinese government’s R&D policy has nurtured indigenous innovation capability; developed an enterprise-centred technology innovation system and promoted the innovation capabilities of Chinese ?rms. This has contributed to huge development of technology-intensive industries in China , and resulted in increased exports of high-tech products. These include computers and telecommunications products which constitute the major share of the total high-tech exports of Special Economic Zones. In my recent meeting with the Chinese Minister of Science and Technology, H.E. Mr. Wang Zhigang, it was agreed that a joint China-Pakistan Committee should be set up for manufacture and export of high technology products involving Chinese and Pakistani industries. This could be a game changer for Pakistan if we can persuade leading Chinese industries to establish manufacturing operations in Pakistan under the CPEC initiative.
Pakistan needs to embark on the same road as that taken by China. We must start a programme to send at least 10,000 students annually to top universities of the world and attract them back through excellent salaries, research funding and infra structure. This will allow us to develop top Centers of Excellence in emerging technologies that are predicted to have an impact of US $ 100 trillion over the next decade. This requires complete commitment from our visionary Prime Minister so that Pakistan can embark on a road to developing a strong knowledge economy, as achieved by China.
The author is the Former Federal Minister of Science & Technology, former Founding Chairman of HEC and Co-Chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology & Innovation