Where billions vanish

Pervez Hoodbhoy in Dawn:

Hoodbhoy2GEN (retd) Pervez Musharraf, aided by his trusted lieutenant and chairman of the Higher Education Commission, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, lays claim to a ‘revolutionary programme’ that has reversed the decades-old decline of Pakistan’s universities.

The higher education budget shot up from Rs3.9bn in 2001-02 to an astounding Rs33.7bn in 2006-07. But, in fact, much of this has been consumed by futile projects and mega wastage. Fantastically expensive scientific equipment, bought for research, often ends up locked away in campuses.

An example: a Pelletron accelerator worth Rs400m was ordered in 2005 with HEC funds. It eventually landed up at Quaid-i-Azam University, and was installed last month by a team of Americans from the National Electrostatics Corporation that flew in from Wisconsin. But now that it is there and fully operational, nobody — including the current director — has the slightest idea of what research to do with it. Its original proponents are curiously lacking in enthusiasm and are quietly seeking to distance themselves from the project.

Now for the full story: in his article published in Dawn (June 25, 2005), Dr Atta-ur-Rahman announced the HEC would fund a ‘5MW Tandem Accelerator’ for nuclear physics research with an associated laboratory at Quaid-i-Azam University. It was shocking news. First, nowhere in the world of science is a major project approved without a detailed technical feasibility study, and without full participation of those scientists who would be expected to use it for their research.

Second, this machine — whose original form dates back to the 1940s — had long become practically useless for decent nuclear physics research. Whereas it can still be used in certain narrow sub-areas of materials science and biology, to my knowledge there are almost no active researchers in those specialties anywhere in Pakistan.

Immediately upon reading Dr Atta-ur-Rahman’s article, I telephoned him. His answer: Dr. Riazuddin, director of the National Centre for Physics, had approved the machine. That was stunning! The soft-spoken and diffident Dr Riazuddin, at 77 years of age, is not only Pakistan’s best nuclear and particle physicist, but also a man of great integrity. How could he have agreed to such folly? Why did he sign a flaky PC-1 proposal put together in less than an afternoon?

More here.  [Scroll down to third article.]