The Scientific Indian

The paradox of Pakistan

Nature talks of the paradox where military generals have helped science more than politicians.

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Pakistan’s first fully fledged military coup. In 1958, it fell to General Mohammad Ayub Khan to “save the nation” from what he called “discredited politicians”, and later to offer himself up for election to consolidate his power. Today’s general is a different one, but the justification for continued martial law sounds depressingly familiar.

Such governance may be undemocratic, but both science and education tend to receive more investment when the generals — backed by generous aid from the United States — are in power than when a elected party is in control. It is no accident that many of the country’s scientifically most productive institutions were established during the US-backed army rule of General Ayub Khan, again under Zia ul-Haq’s rule in the 1980s and now under Pervez Musharraf.

Elected governments led by both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif placed science among their lowest priorities. That reflected mistaken thinking that science is an unnecessary luxury in so poor a country, as well as the tendency of these rulers to fill science and education posts with friends in need of patronage. But it is widely accepted that science should have an important role in countries such as Pakistan, helping to develop a skilled population, build robust institutions and assist rational policy-making.