Science is important for policymaking - UNESCO laureate Zabta Khan Shinwari

Science is important for policymaking - UNESCO laureate Zabta Khan Shinwari

I first met Prof. Zabta Khan Shinwari at the 2016 meeting of the Asian Council of Science Editors in Dubai, where we had an interesting exchange of views on academic research and publishing and ethical issues in the reporting of scientific research. During our discussions, I saw Prof, Shinwari as a passionate scientist eager to bring about a change in the world around him. This interview is an extension of this conversation where Prof. Shinwari shares his views on several topics close to his heart and related to scholarly publishing.

Prof. Zabta Khan Shinwari is the Secretary-General of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences and Chair of the Biotechnology Department of the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan. Over the years, he has built a reputation as a passionate researcher who believes in the ability of scientists to benefit humanity through scientific discovery and its communication to the lay people. He is also known for his support of biodiversity conservation, especially for the benefit and preservation of indigenous populations, as well as his work on bioethics and the importance of dual-use education in biotechnology.

Prof. Shinwari specializes in molecular taxonomy and systematics, especially in modern plant biotechnology. Following a hard-earned graduation degree from Pakistan, he went on to obtain a PhD and multiple postdoctoral fellowships in Japan. In the course of his research, he identified over 300 plant genes, many of which display tolerance to severe weather and stress. He has also been associated with organizations such as the Pakistan Museum of Natural History, the National Agricultural Research Centre in Pakistan, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Pakistan. He has been the Vice-chancellor of Kohat University of Science and Technology (KUST), where he played a crucial role in developing the university infrastructure and making higher education accessible to women. Prof. Shinwari has done a lot of work in the area of encouraging the sustainable use of natural resources among the local tribal communities in Pakistan as well as in enabling access to higher education among the underprivileged communities in Pakistan. Among his successes is the establishment of a University of Science and Technology in Bannu and of the KUST Institute of Medical Sciences (KIMS). He has also been the Chief Executive Officer of Qarshi Research International (a private research institution) and Vice Chancellor and founder of Qarshi University in Lahore, Pakistan.

Prof. Shinwari’s efforts to promote and foster an understanding of ethics, bioethics, biosafety, and the dual use of biotechnology led to his being awarded the 2015 UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science. He has authored over 300 scientific publications, including journal articles, conference proceedings, books, and book chapters.

In the first segment of this interview, we discuss several topics: the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, Prof. Shinwari’s role in it, his personal journey from being an aspiring student to a successful researcher, and the interconnectedness of science and policy. The highlight of this interview is the discussion around the dual use of biotechnology and the role of ethics in scientific research and publishing.

Let us begin by talking about the Pakistan Academy of Sciences. What is the mission of the Academy and how does it contribute to the development of research in Pakistan? Also, what is your role as Secretary General of the Academy?

That’s a great first question! The Pakistan Academy of Sciences (PAS) is not unlike other similar agencies across the globe, like the Indian National Academy of Sciences (INSA) or the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Such agencies recruit top scientists from their respective countries and encourage scientific development. PAS was established in 1953 and it aims to promote scientific research in Pakistan, solve some of the most critical issues facing the nation with the help of science, participate in global discussions about scientific research and development, and provide local and international opportunities to Pakistani scientists. PAS has elected 85 fellows who are prominent researchers from different disciplines; it also has an elected Council, and a Secretary General (who is a Chief Executive Officer). New scientists are elected for these posts every 3 years. I volunteered for this role, and as the Secretary General, I am responsible for bridging the gap in communication and understanding between scientists, government representatives, and delegates representing scientific organizations across the globe.

I must mention that all of the 85 fellows of PAS volunteer to take up their positions and their services are offered pro bono – we do not draw a salary from the Academy and our association is purely out of our passion for scientific research. The idea is to work and collaborate together in a way that benefits humanity and forges better scientific communication nationally and globally. This is also the reason why my conversation with you, with Editage Insights, is special. It surpasses the ongoing political rife between India and Pakistan and focuses on what is most important – research and development. What I am trying to say is that I feel lucky to be in an influential position where I can talk to anybody regarding science and technology and can play an advisory role for the Pakistani government. PAS fellows are independent and free to interact with scientists from any part of the world.

Okay, so you try to influence policy-level decisions with the help of your knowledge or access to scientific information.

Yes, and I will highlight two words from the statement you just made to point to something really important - “science” and “policy”. We need to think in terms of “policy for science” – where you create policies that would influence science – and “science for policy” – where you would apply scientific knowledge to influence policy level decisions. Science is essential for policymaking; for example, to formulate a policy to improve the transportation system in a country, you need scientific knowledge and advancements and technology to make things happen.

You’ve completed a major part of your advanced education in Japan. Why did you choose Japan? How easy or difficult was it for you to adapt to the culture? And how has the experience changed you?

I’ll choose to give you a long but candid response. I belonged to a poor family. My father was a laborer and had to fend for a large family of 9 children, without the support of parents or siblings. You can imagine how difficult things were for him (he migrated from Afghanistan before the separation of Pakistan from India). We lived in a small hut with no electricity. I also remember that we had four goats in our room. I completed my education under these conditions but I do remember that I had the crazy idea of becoming a scientist to overcome all of these hardships and lead a better life. There was no role model to guide or inspire me. After my schooling was complete, the principal of our school asked me about my future plans. I expressed my desire to go to college but I didn’t have any money for higher education. That was when he advised me to apply for a scholarship (I was the school topper) so that my education would be paid for. I thought this was sound advice and enrolled for college education in West Pakistan’s Kohat district. I was asked to pursue the life sciences stream because of my academic record.

I feel that I have been lucky as far as my academic career is concerned. It was as though there was a higher power supporting my dreams. Despite all hardships I completed a Master’s degree and began working towards getting an MPhil. I was also learning German at the time because I had intended to pursue further studies in Germany in the future. I learned about a cultural scholarship available to Pakistani students which would enable them to study in foreign countries. I got a scholarship to study in Russia and this is something I did not want, given the political turmoil in the country. I remember being extremely frustrated about this.

In the following year, I got PhD scholarship for a Japanese university, which accepted my PhD application. But I had to undergo 6 months of Japanese language training followed by 6 months of preparation for an entrance exam. Only then would I be allowed to start academic research. I refused to follow this system because I was hungry for growth and success. I had worked hard and overcome several barriers to get to this point. I didn’t have the patience to wait for such a long time. I wanted to do something for my father. I was told that I was crazy because the research stipend in Japan was quite good and students usually extended their research term to about 7 years, and here I was, asking for a 3-year PhD! I told them that I had grown up in poverty and knew how to survive with less money. Luckily, my proposal was accepted and I cleared the entrance exam. I only struggled with the Japanese language initially. I now speak Japanese fluently.

The early years of my PhD in Japan were quite difficult. I was put up in a guest house that was over 20 km away from the university and I had to change trains to get there. Every day, I would be the last student to leave the university and the first to enter it the next day. Sometimes, while changing trains, I would end up in the same train again, lose my way, and walk about 10 km to reach the university or my room. Eventually, I requested accommodation close to the university, even if the place was small. I got assigned a tiny room called the “tatami room”. I remember this clearly – being tall, I would find it difficult to stretch my legs! But I didn’t care about this because I slept little and was busy working on my PhD. I managed to complete my PhD in about 2.5 years. So my time in Japan was initially difficult but fruitful.

That’s truly inspiring! You first studied botany and then went on to pursue research in biotechnology. What made you switch scientific disciplines?

I’ve already told you about the kind of personal hardships I had to deal with. My situation had given me a steady determination to acquire as much education as I could get access to. So while my general interest and aptitude was in the life sciences, I was open to pursuing any area of research.

I believe that education should be given utmost importance. I’d like to share another anecdote here. Once when I was in the 9th grade, the teachers in my school went on a strike to protest low salaries. Without teachers, the school would be shut down. I gathered a bunch of senior students and requested the head master of the school to allow us to teach our juniors. The head master welcomed our idea. I’ve always stood up for what is right and this got me a lot of good (and bad) attention during my student years and I was sure that nothing would stop me from getting the education I wanted. I was also sure that I would teach at the university level.

When I completed my PhD, biotechnology was taking the scientific research industry by storm, and my supervisor told me how it would change the future of life sciences research. I was attracted by this unexplored avenue and decided to pursue it further. That’s how it all started. Over the years, the more I delved into biotechnology, the greater was my realization that the ethical aspects are as important as the scientific discoveries we are making with the help of biotechnology. We should be developing cures for deadly diseases with the help of the advanced lab equipment we have started developing. But we are busy trying to create harmful things like atomic bombs. I am against the use of biotechnology for creating weapons of destruction. Among the positions I held was one at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), where I became acquainted with the real life troubles of farmers. That was when I realized that the common man has rights, too. This includes the right to live in a protected environment that is not encroached upon and basic community rights. It became clear to me that ethical principles are important everywhere – scientific research, academic publishing, nature conservation, healthcare, biotechnology, etc.

So, I guess what you’re trying to say is that an awareness of the long term implications of scientific technology is what got you interested in bioethics. Is that right?

Yes, that’s right. Let me give you two examples here. Today, because of developments in synthetic biology, you can actually create a human being – if you did not have ethical guidelines governing scientific research. Given the pace of scientific discovery, 10 years from now, you need not have a social companion, marry, or have a test tube baby. All you need is the right chemicals that might just create the perfect human being you need in your life. Let’s look at another example. Today, we have a synthetic polio virus and other synthetic viruses. Perhaps, the next step is creating synthetic bacteria and multicellular organisms. Before you know it, we would have created synthetic human beings. You will also be able to edit genes. Let’s assume that you want to have a baby and you have clear and specific ideas of how you want your baby to look. Gene editing might even make that wish come true! All I am trying to say is that biotechnology holds great potential for helping the scientific community make great strides. But the focus should be on helping humanity deal with the most critical problems of the day, instead of creating weapons of destruction or trying to play God by synthesizing human beings. Even if we work on gene editing, it should be for the benefit of human beings instead of trying to overtake or control nature for the sake of it.

Since we’re talking about larger issues, you have also done some work on enabling women to access higher education in the rural areas of Pakistan. Could you tell us more about that?

That’s a very good question, again. I didn’t stop at a PhD in Japan. I continued with a postdoc. Once, while I was visiting my family in Pakistan, I received a request from the Governor who needed my help with some issues in a province in West Pakistan. He wanted me to take up the position of Vice Chancellor of Kohat University of Science and Technology (KUST), my alma mater. I declined the offer because of prior commitments. My friends thought this was a bad decision. Later, when I reconsidered my decision and agreed to take up the position, I found out that I was the youngest Vice Chancellor in the country.

The Governor told me that the system and quality of education at KUST were major issues, and the biggest problem was that he could not get any women to enroll and access higher education at the university. KUST was located at the heart of a tribal community that had its own set of rules and customs. Also, most families in these tribes lived in low economic conditions. So when the time came to send their children to school, they would prefer sending the male child who was also expected to be a bread winner. This was a tough battle to fight but I knew their problems because I belong to a tribe from the same province.

On my first day there, I visited the ladies hostel to speak to a few female students. Gradually, I was able to convince them that KUST is a safe place and accessing higher education is a right women are entitled to as much as men are. I had to invent several ideas to make higher education attractive to women. For example, I declared that female students who clear exams would be exempt from paying fees - financing their education would be my responsibility. There were also cultural barriers to be overcome. I reassured the parents of female students that they had nothing to worry about. I would protect their children as though they were my own daughters, as long as the parents didn’t prohibit them from studying. Another problem was that KUST’s administrative staff had no female representation. So in the first month, I hired female administrative staff for various roles such as assistant registrar and assistant controller. So, the presence of women reduced the female students’ hesitation to enter our office (often female students would be hesitant to communicate with men). I also interacted with the students personally to make them feel safe and confident. By the time I left KUST, the female student population had increased from 4% to 25%.

During a visit to the University of Tehran, you mentioned that due to the high speed of production of science in the world, it is necessary for universities and research centers to devise new systems of teachings for education. What new system are you referring to and why do you say that this is because of the increase in the productivity of scientific research?

Based on my experience as a student, researcher, teacher, and academic guide, I feel that, today, teaching is a science and so is learning. Why do I think so? About a decade ago, I knew that the focus was on teaching. But today, it’s on learning. What matters is how much does a researcher learn under you. This is a paradigm shift. When I was a student, I would take notes on paper, make copies of relevant notes, write assignments, and buy textbooks. Today, we have laptops and mobiles. People have Google or other search engines to seek the information they need. Methods of instruction have also changed over the years. Today, it is more important to get students to understand things themselves and apply that knowledge effectively. Unfortunately, in a lot of third-world countries where access to education is an issue, the educational system is still old-fashioned and encouraging this approach is not possible. This creates a great barrier for students who aspire to be scientists or researchers but do not have the access to competent higher education or the means to afford it. We must think inclusively to ensure that scientific knowledge reaches everybody, benefits society, and engages students so that they are motivated to pursue an academic career. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, the education system at all levels is not inclusive or accessible to the privileged and under privileged alike. The problems of researchers also need to be addressed. Researchers are so busy trying to stay afloat in the rat race to get published and get promotions that they forget that what really matters is the science underlying it all. I think it is possible to convince policymakers about the need to build a better, more informed academic community so that we can create conducive situations for future generations of researchers.

That’s an interesting perspective! When we met at the ACSE 2016 conference in Dubai, you lent me a printed copy of Dual-Use Education Concerns in Biotechnology – A Pakistani Perspective. In this booklet, you say that it is critical for scientists to gain the support of people. How can scientists do this?

I think the best way to answer this question would be to talk about the scientists in this subcontinent. The primary issue here is that when scientists make an important observation or discovery, they are more concerned about how it would benefit them instead of thinking about the significance of the finding for society. The desperation to publish in high impact factor journals often makes them resort to unethical means to achieve their end goal. But they forget the important fact that the funding for their research comes from taxpayers and it is their responsibility to communicate their findings to society and think of how they would benefit humanity. People trust scientists to come up with solutions to problems and improve the quality of life. So, for scientists, the first step towards getting the support of people would be to realize that science is funded by society. Another area for improvement is communicating with society. Scientists work in a very closed environment and they need to come out of it and hold debates with the lay people about scientific issues.

This interview with Editage Insights is a classic example of how scientists can gain the support of the public – you’re conducting an interview with me today. Tomorrow this will reach out to several thousand people who will read it and identify with the causes I am talking about. They will realize that this scientist is on my side. They will support me and other scientists like me and will take an interest in research. Researchers need to talk to people through various channels – blogs, media platforms, social media, etc. As scientists, we need to be cognizant of this responsibility and reach out to the general public.

I must mention that mass media play a major role in bridging the gap between scientists and the public. Unfortunately, this is a fact that mass media/journalists fail to grasp. Instead of focusing on the shock impact of a science “story” (e.g., by making a bold statement such as “coffee cures cancer”), journalists must ensure that the facts are communicated to the people. And researchers must ensure that they convey the facts to the media. 

This brings us to the end of this part of the interview. In the next part, Prof. Shinwari shares some useful tips and advice for researchers to help them navigate the publication process.

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