Prof Dr Anwar Naseem, eminent scientist, short-story writer and the newly-elected secretary general of the Pakistan
Scientific Society, is credited with ground-breaking work in botany and biochemical genetics, and he maintains that Pakistan cannot make economic progress unless the state attaches importance to scientific research.
He holds a distinguished position among the world-class Pakistani scientists like Prof Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, Prof Abdus Salam, Dr Raziuddin Siddiqui and Dr Nazeer Ahmed.
Naseem is also the visiting professor at the Dr AQ Khan Institute of Biotechnology & Genetic Engineering (KIBGE), University of Karachi (KU).
The News interviewed him during his short visit to Karachi earlier this week. Excerpts from the interview follow:
Q: Kindly let me know about your educational background and your scientific achievements.
A: I did Masters in Botany from the Punjab University in 1957 and bagged a gold medal. Then I taught for two years at the Emerson College, Multan. Then I joined the Government College, Lahore, and taught Botany there until 1962. Thereafter, I went to the Edinburgh University, Scotland, and did PhD in biochemical genetics in 1966. After completing my doctorate, I moved to Canada and stayed there until 1989. During my career in Canada, I was also simultaneously involved in research in Germany and the United States. From 1989 to 1993, I was associated with the King Faisal Specialist Hospital, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I was there for four years.
Then I returned to Pakistan where I worked as the executive secretary of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences for two years, and during 1996-2011, I was the science adviser for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s Standing Committee on Scientific & Technological Cooperation. The most recent development is that I have been elected as the Pakistan Academy of Sciences Secretary General. This is a non-governmental organisation. I was also the chairman of the Natural Commission on Biotechnology under the Science & Technology Ministry. Unfortunately, the commission was wrapped up by the government in 2009.
Q: India, People’s Republic of China and other countries have made enormous progress in biotechnology and benefited immensely. Why has Pakistan lagged behind?
A: This is because the policies of the government in Pakistan are such that there is little emphasis on advances in science and technology, which is so crucial for economic development. What I really wish to convey is that my passion has always been science and I have emphasised it in several of my earlier interviews. However, unfortunately, this dream remains unfulfilled. Once again, in my capacity as the secretary general of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, in collaboration with my colleagues, we shall try our best to explore avenues for strengthening science and technology in the country. In genetic engineering, I have authored eight books and monographs. In addition to science, I also have a keen interest in Urdu literature. I have a collection of short stories in Urdu and a collection of humours collection as well.
Q: Why have we not been able to compete in science with India?
A: This is because science and technology has never been a national priority in Pakistan except for a few years when Prof Ataur Rahman was the science & technology minister.
Q: Don’t you agree that primary and secondary education is much more important in countries such as Pakistan than producing PhDs?
A: Primary and secondary education is equally important because elementary education provides the foundation for higher education. There can be no higher education without sound elementary education.
There are many examples of self-made people in Pakistan who emerged from very poor backgrounds such as Prof Abdus Salam. I, too, hail from a poor village in Jhelum.
Q: What about our science budget? Don’t you agree it’s very nominal?
A: Our science budget is dismal! It’s only 0.5 percent of our budget allocations. It should be at least 2 percent.
Q: You have been working in the domain of biochemical genetics. What is your opinion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?
A: After devolution, there is no adequate infrastructure to provide regulatory guidelines for the release of GMOs. The Environmental Protection Agency is still looking for some degree of stability and continuity.
Q: And how do you view organics? There is a trend across the world to go for organics as compared to GMOs, despite the fact that the former are relatively expensive.
A: Options such as organics should be critically examined, and if found appropriate from the human health point of view, should be practiced. But to answer any of these questions, one needs a rich source of scientific expertise.
Q: India is exporting herbal medicines on a grand scale. We too have herbs, but instead of preserving them and earning money, we are negligent and are destroying them. I know a former KU vice chancellor who destroyed species at the campus that could have served as a botanical garden for students as well as teachers. Would you comment?
A: Medicinal plants are a useful source for compounds that can be beneficial for human health. However, the unfortunate reality or situation is that we do not go into any in-depth analysis of the potential of such resources.
Once again, there is a need to examine the possible impact of such rich plant materials. In this country, with the exception of Prof Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, there has been no authentic report of success in this arena.