WASHINGTON DC, July 16, 2005 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com

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Dr Hoodbhoy Responds to HEC Rejoinder

A Van der Graaf Accelerator HEC is buying at Rs 400 Million

HEC Buying Fantastically Expensive Scientific Junk

Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy

ISLAMABAD, July 16: Dr Sohail Naqvi’s response (SAT, 15 July 2005) to my article (SAT, 7 July 2005) is worthy of remark only because it evades key issues and makes implausible excuses for the HEC’s blunders and squandering of public money.

Dr. Naqvi justifies purchase of an obsolete Van de Graaf accelerator worth nearly 400 million rupees for “teaching and general research for which purpose it was, and remains, a very useful machine”. Really, for “general research”? It is amazing that he can talk of “general research” in an age of extreme precision and specialization.

Unfortunately science cannot be done in the HEC way: buying fantastically expensive scientific junk without any credible plans for utilization in research. It is shocking that no meeting of potential users of this large-scale project was called, as is the normal practice in the rest of the world. And no one will have a clue of what to do when this machine finally arrives in Pakistan.

Just ask any scientist in the field what a Van de Graaf machine is good for. In the 21st century it simply cannot be used for meaningful scientific work anywhere, much less for research in nuclear or particle physics where at least a million times more energy is needed. These machines have been superseded decades earlier by much better technology. Researchers in materials science and condensed matter physics also have little use for this machine. Searching on Google, I discovered that all US universities (Caltech, Rice, Carnegie-Mellon,...) which had Van de Graaf machines demolished them years – if not decades – ago. Even the buildings housing them have been torn down.

Dr. Naqvi needs to know that the academic world – not to mention that in India – will laugh at Pakistan for wanting to order this dinosaur. The czars of the HEC are exposing their scientific underbellies by making such decisions. This money – which will create no scientific research of any worth – could have been used for improving science education in Pakistani schools, among other things.

Dr. Naqvi is correct that the PC-1 form requesting the accelerator was sent by Prof. Riazuddin, director of the National Center for Physics, which is located on the campus of QAU. He is the founder of my department and is well-known internationally as a physicist. By temperament he is a shy, soft-spoken man who avoids confrontation at all cost.

But how dare Dr. Naqvi allege that I think Prof. Riazuddin, and others, are “fools and criminals”? Yes, I was shocked by the allegation that he had signed a PC-1 for purchase of a Van de Graaf and so I called him immediately to ask if it was true. Prof. Riazuddin said without hesitation "mujh se baree ghultee ho gaee" (I have committed a grave mistake), and then quietly explained that he had been under severe pressure. He added that in 2004, a little after he had made the mistake, he had spoken privately to Dr. Atta and told him that a Van de Graaf would be a big folly. But all this was to no avail.

The HEC was determined to have the machine. In the matter of Dr. Saadia Chishty and "Quranization Of Science Courses at the M.Sc level": will Dr. Naqvi please tell us why Rs5.5 million were awarded to a project which does not involve experiments, equipment, surveys, or any major expenditure? One does not need to be a big expert to know that something stinks here. I would also like to know why the project title (approved in 2003-2004) on the HEC website was changed the very next day after my article was published in The News and SAT (7 July 2005). A Google cache stands as proof of this embarrassing change.

After my article on the HEC was published, I received the copy of a letter signed by Professor Dr. Muhammad al-Ghazali, head of Islamic Social Sciences Unit, Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad. This was an evaluation of Dr. Saadia Khawar Khan Chishti’s work. Here are extracts from the 3-page letter: "What has been done by the writer is just citing certain verses ostensibly have reference to some of the natural phenomena....to define a vision of scientific enterprise from the perspective of Quranic ontological and epistemological is something which is more than justified in the Islamic ethos.

But to search for theories of Physics and Chemistry is quite a different matter...The lady scholar has not shown any evidence about the basics of Quranic scholarship…..Last but not least, the undersigned failed to appreciate the rationality of the exorbitant amount (Rs. 4,981,000/-) granted for a project that apparently does not warrant any empirical investigation, laboratory experiment, traveling or any other heavy expenditure. This is obviously an extravagant utilization of public funds, if not sheer squandering.” Ghazali then recommends, “following the Second Caliph Umar (may Allah be pleased with him)”, that Chishty’s project be discontinued.

Since the envelope in which I received the letter quoted from above carried no return address, I have no way of verifying whether the above is genuine or otherwise. Perhaps Dr. Naqvi may want to clarify.

Dr. Naqvi defends the grant of Rs5.3 million to Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman, for a chemistry project at AIOU. I suppose loyalty to one’s boss is a good thing. But Dr. Naqvi does not explain, however, how a distance-learning institute can do cutting-edge scientific research, especially since the principal investigator heads 3 other institutions (including the HEC), is principal investigator as well as co-principal investigator of many other projects. And all of this is while he is out of Pakistan much of the time.

This is the second example of HEC bosses giving themselves fat grants. I might add that a Google search reveals that Dr. Saadia Chishty is a member of the HEC’s governing board! Dr. Naqvi stoutly defends his implementation of the HEC "Best University Teacher Award", wherein administrators were asked to nominate the best. He says that the HEC could not possibly interview 250,000 students.

Quite so. But, as he knows, the administrators simply nominated themselves as best teachers. This happened not once, but twice in a row. So if this is how casually and ineffectively HEC programs are implemented, then we are better off without them.

As for the case of dozens of PhD students enrolled under one supervisor at QAU: I certainly did not say that all were funded by the HEC – they presumably have different funding sources. As of February 2005, when I saw the figures, this was true. One also knows from colleagues how many students are registered with which supervisor. Dr. Naqvi tells us that the HEC supports up to 8 PhD students per supervisor. True, but this too is a very large number.

In relation to the disastrous "Physics Master Trainers" program at QAU, Dr. Naqvi claims that "Dr Hoodbhoy asked to be placed in charge of the program when it was first proposed". This is false. There was a 5-person committee of which I was a member, and my demand was that the program should not be handed over to one particular member of the committee whose basic understanding of physics is known to be notoriously weak. Other physicist members supported my stand, but the HEC made its own choice.

I do not know what blinders prevent Dr. Naqvi from seeing that the program is a disgrace and a failure. But then this is typical of his administrative style: make grand claims, throw away hundreds of millions, and then blame someone else by saying that he was not responsible for implementation of projects.

Dr. Naqvi asks why several professors from Austria, Germany, France, etc are clamoring for more Pakistani students selected by the HEC on the basis of “GRE-type” tests, whose quality I have criticized. The answer is simple: it is because the HEC pays a student’s total expenses and helps keep those foreign professors and universities in business. Pakistani newspapers are flooded by advertisements from every kind of foreign university seeking to lure fee-paying Pakistani students.

Sometimes foreign governments see this as a subsidy to their own universities. Whatever the case, I am pleased that more Pakistanis are going to these countries for higher education and I have congratulated Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman more than once on this. However, a far better crop of students could be sent if the HEC were to drop its present test and have one of better quality and relevance.

The indifference of the HEC to issues of quality is apparent in how casually it has accepted fake degrees and fake universities. This tightened up a little only after some months when Dr. Isa Daudpota pointed out case after case in the national press – and then documented them with evidence. Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, his boss, terminated his job almost immediately.

Finally, it saddens me to see that Dr. Naqvi stoops to make numerous petty personal attacks upon me: of my being on “extraordinary leave” so that I could be paid at Rs 45,000 per hour of lecturing, of attacking my research record, and of having set out to defame the HEC for some dark reason.

I will not bother to answer these except to wish that I could be as rich as he alleges I am. Would he be so kind as to point out where I can make that kind of hourly wage? If so I would certainly seek to improve my personal finances. As for my research: good, fair, or poor, some of it may be found at http://www.slac.stanford.edu/spires/find/hep/www?rawcmd=f+a+hoodbhoy

Like many others, I too had many hopes from the HEC in its early days and not only wished it well, but also put in considerable effort voluntarily to support it as my public duty. Sadly its performance has disappointed not just me, but countless others. Unless its all-powerful czars are made accountable, the rot will be unstoppable.

The writer is Professor of Physics at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad

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