Author Profile: Syed Aseem Ul Islam is PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA, specializing in adaptive and model-predictive flight control systems. He received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad, and his master’s degree in flight dynamics and control from the University of Michigan.
In parts one and two we discussed the various policy and administrative measures that could be taken to rescue Pakistan’s R&D capability from a dangerous slump. Where part-two discussed management styles, secrecy, and compartmentalization, part-three will discuss the right approach to research.
If implemented, the recommendations presented in this article can allow military and strategic state-owned enterprises (MS-SOE’s) to utilize existing resources to greatly improve Pakistan’s R&D capability and achieve new technological heights.
In effect, these recommendations are “R&D force multipliers” in that they are quick, easy, and cheap to implement, and can have dramatic effects on technological prowess of MS-SOE’s in all fields.
The importance of technical prowess of individuals and the value of merit is nowhere as crucial as it is in research organizations, where the success of the organization relies on the ability of good researchers to reach the top and spread their ideas. Thus, it is vital that policies are implemented that allow such people to be attracted to and flourish at MS-SOE’s.
Research flourishes when talented experts can frame their own personal research goals that serve an overarching organizational goal. That is, the entire organization should not be working exclusively towards the detailed implementation of the plans of a single individual, however gifted they may be. The potential of each researcher in the organization should be fully utilized by letting them do exploratory and lateral research, instead of assigning them developmental grunt work.
As an example, consider the R&D of a new cruise missile system. The current organizational structure will have a few people design the cruise missile and spec out most (if not all) of its components, and the “R&D” will now involve an army of overqualified researchers toiling over implementation of the design.
As opposed to this style, a better approach is to specify rough specifications for systems, and have multiple teams develop several solutions that rely on different ideas to meet the specifications. This approach ensures that the research capacity of the researchers is fully employed, and a much more refined system is produced at the end. Furthermore, when researchers are valued for their ability to propose new ideas, then their morale is boosted and their productivity increases.
Finally, no organization can be successful without good leadership, and consequently, a conscious effort to cultivate leadership should be made. The unfortunate and widespread practice of leg pulling of talented individual needs to be countered. When smart, motivated, and young researchers join an organization they work under superiors that feel threatened by the ability of these young researchers to rock the boat.
Many instances of managers intentionally sabotaging assistant managers have been narrated to the author in confidence. Poor annual performance reviews are given to “uncooperative juniors” and time served is sometimes enough justification for promotion for “cooperative juniors.” Team leaders must promote the interests of those in their team. This idea needs to be taught to all levels of officers in these research organizations.
Funding university research is not given its due importance in the research ecosystem of Pakistan as detailed in a previous article. It is usually seen as a token action done to advertise “academia-industry linkages”, with little or no output to show for it.
Unfortunately, MS-SOE’s have unrealistic expectations and therefore do not believe that universities can help their cause. In essence, MS-SOE’s dramatically underestimate the funding needed to conduct research in universities, and invest paltry and token amounts, while expecting grand returns.
There are several notions held by MS-SOE’s that need to be corrected.
Firstly, conducting research requires dedicated graduate students that can be counted on to conduct research for years, working together with professors. That is, professors on their own cannot conduct meaningful research.
Secondly, research requires projects to last 3-5 years as research is a slow-moving endeavor. That is, research can rarely produce output rapidly, as it is expected by MS-SOE’s that fund research in Pakistani universities.
Thirdly, university professors in Pakistan are primarily hired to teach undergraduate courses, where they are expected to teach 9-12 credit hours each semester. The norm in the United States is for professors to teach 3 credit hours each semester and do research. Not surprisingly, Pakistani professors have little or no time to dedicate towards research.
Finally, the amount of money allocated to most projects is dismal. Moreover, expectations of what this money is supposed to be used for, and what the funding agencies think it is used for, are very different things.
Funding is primarily used to pay for the graduate student’s university fees and a stipend. This incentivizes graduate students to conduct research, and it costs much less to pay a graduate student than to pay an officer in a research organization.
Next, funding is used to pay the professor for their time spent on the research. Since the professors spend time researching instead of teaching undergraduate students, they are paid by the funding agency for their effort.
Finally, funding is used to buy hardware that is usually owned by the university, which is an investment into the university’s future capacity. This incentivizes universities to seek research projects as it leads to direct capacity building of universities. This is in stark contrast to how MS-SOE’s currently fund research in universities, where paltry amounts are given for single year projects, which do not even cover the cost of the professors’ time.
The advantages of funding university research are many.
Graduate students can conduct research in an unclassified environment and thus have access to the latest software and international research. Furthermore, graduate students cost much less per hour of work than any officer in a research organization. Additionally, the university environment encourages and allows much more lateral and “out-of-the-box” thinking, leading to more innovative research. Also, graduate students trained in such research are well-primed to join research organizations where they can continue their research and bring their research ethic to the organization. Finally, universities that have advanced research programs will bring prestige to Pakistan and allow collaborations between Pakistani universities and international universities and companies.
To accelerate the pace of technological advancement in Pakistani research organizations, foreign-trained professionals are required. Fortunately, our planners realize this and there exist numerous programs where officers and university faculty are sent abroad for funded PhDs. Unfortunately, this program has had limited success due to several reasons.
Firstly, obtaining a PhD from a well-reputed international university is often not enough to gain a significant amount of experience. For that, industrial experience is required. As these PhD students are expected to return to Pakistan immediately after completing their degrees, they merely possess degrees and abstract knowledge, but little or no practical experience. Furthermore, these individuals’ motivation has not changed, and they may be pursuing foreign degrees for extended vacations and promotions when they return.
Secondly, individuals that opt to go abroad for state-sponsored higher education have highly likely not lived outside Pakistan before. This presents two risks: they will experience the world outside Pakistan for the first time and decide they do not want to live in Pakistan anymore, or their intention was to go abroad in the first place.
Thirdly, the state of Pakistan spends scarce tax-payer money on the education and living expenses of these students that cannot potentially start returning the investment for up to 5-7 years. Finally, due to the aforementioned issues, most people that serve will attest to the fact that officers that are any good apply to universities abroad during their final years and leave the country to never come back.
The solution to all these problems lies in more carrot and less stick.
Firstly, to limit brain-drain of truly talented experts we must reform our research organizations as listed in this article. Secondly, we must pursue a class of Pakistanis that is much better suited for what we want to achieve: expat Pakistani experts. We must aim to attract these people to Pakistan to inject valuable knowledge and experience into our research organizations at a rapid pace.
Expats are already living abroad and are not going to use tax-payer money as a “ticket abroad.” Any expat who chooses to come to work in Pakistan is doing it for Pakistan, and this motivation cannot be guaranteed anywhere else. They also have advanced degrees that the taxpayer has not had to pay for.
Furthermore, these individuals are often working in industry and academia at senior positions and possess a wealth of experience that no fresh PhD can ever possess. Most importantly, these individuals can start working for Pakistan immediately without the dead-time of 5-7 years seen with sending people abroad for PhD’s. Finally, these expats are well suited to train and groom local talent in a way no one else can.
Over the three-part series of articles we have discussed recommendations for revamping Pakistan’s military and strategic R&D sector in the areas of long-term policy, medium-term administration, and short-term research management.
It is imperative that recommendations from all parts are seriously considered and implemented for the sake of Pakistan’s national security as failure to keep pace in this age of rapid geostrategic realignment can be catastrophic.
Given the rapid increase in the pace of technological advancement, now would be the absolute worst time to be left behind technologically, especially due to easily fixable faults in our systems.