ORIC – Why Is HEC’s Key Initiative Failing to Produce Fruits?

Broken light bulb

In 2010, the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan mandated the establishment of Office of Research, Innovation & Commercialization in institutions of higher education in Pakistan. The results have been far from what was envisioned, writes Dr Sohail Rao

t remains undeniable that economic stability is the cornerstone of any country, institution or enterprise for its longevity and for sustained growth and prosperity. The defining factors in ensuring economic stability are quality education, cutting-edge research, innovation and commercialization. 

 

“What we need is an entrepreneurial society in which innovation and entrepreneurship are normal, steady and continuous”

Peter F Drucker

In 2010, Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (“HEC”) issued a policy document mandating the establishment of the Office of Research, Innovation and Commercialization (ORIC) in institutions of higher education in Pakistan. There are at present 66 ORIC established in Pakistan that are partially funded by HEC. The distribution of these entities in various provinces in Pakistan is highlighted in Table 1:

 

PROVINCENUMBER OF ORIC (%)
AZAD KASHMIR01 (1.5%)
BALOCHISTAN01 (1.5%)
KHYBER PAKHTUNKHWA12 (18.0%)
ISLAMABAD CAPITAL TERRITORY11 (16.6%)
PUNJAB23 (34.8%)
SINDH18 (27.8%)
TOTAL:66

 

The driving mission of this initiative was “Transforming Pakistani Universities to Drive High Impact Innovation, Applied Research and Entrepreneurship” with the ultimate visit of “Making Pakistani Universities a Powerhouse of High Growth Innovation”. These were laudable aspirations, which if accomplished, would have catapulted Pakistan into a country with unprecedented economic stability in the region. Additionally it would have engineered a transformative and cataclysmic change in the culture of our institutions of higher education moving them from entities that engage students and faculty in a “transactional” relationship, to one that was enduring, resulting in the generation of lifelong learners with insatiable passion for discovery and innovation. 

While there have been some anecdotal successes, very few established ORIC’s in Pakistan have produced any new innovation that would be of material commercial value

Success Ratio 

The question is how successful has this venture been? While there have been some anecdotal successes, the reality is that almost a decade has passed since the inception of this truly pioneering concept and yet very few established ORIC’s in Pakistan have produced any new innovation that would be of material commercial value to boost the economy of the country. I predict that many individuals in HEC and in institutions of higher learning would disagree with my proposed conclusion, but the fact is that it would be a veiled attempt at self-preservation given that productive critique is an unwelcome guest in our society. 

 

“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old”

Peter F Drucker

We have a tendency to mask our shortcomings and to create a false narrative that best suits our situation. I am not certain if any attempt has been made to look at both soft and hard return on investment, but one can predict with certainly that it would not be a positive net margin. As an individual who has been engaged in developing and leading many federally-funded research programs in universities and health systems in the United States that continue to serve to nourish and sustain the growth of incubation centers in the region, I decided to undertake “root cause analysis” of this challenging and perplexing situation in Pakistan. Again, let me iterate that my epistle is not meant to malign any particular agency, institution of higher education and/or individual(s) in Pakistan. I harbor utmost respect for what has been accomplished and this is an honest attempt to initiate an affable discourse among the valued colleagues who are in a position to make a difference. There are three core elements that are determinants of success of innovation and entrepreneurism in any system, which are depicted in Figure 1, On the contrary, innovation sits at the cross roads of invention, collaboration/teamwork and entrepreneurship. 

 

Missing Ingredients 

Let us look at the most basic requirement for innovation…quality workforce. We have both individually and collectively contributed to the gradual deterioration of the education system in Pakistan. Mediocrity is abound; quality is secondary or perhaps in many cases a Quaternary mission of institutions of higher education; the performance of our feeder programs (K-12) are inadequate with minimal oversight of quality of education and training imparted to the young and impressionable minds; and cultural and societal acceptance of traits such as plagiarism, deception and dishonesty are just few of the elements that have yielded a generation of graduates many of whom are programmed for survival.  Thus the available workforce lacks the appropriate experience and expertise to support the mission of ORIC in institutions of higher education with the unintended outcome of recruiting less than qualified individuals for HEC-mandated positions in these entities.  Inadequate infrastructure with lack of tools that would facilitate translation of these ideas in a timely manner into outcomes are acutely lacking in institutions of higher education in Pakistan. Little is being done to create state-of-the-art research centers, incubation parks and core facilities where these ideas could be cultivated into maturity. More significant is the lack of collaborations between existing facilities, which essentially work in silos contrary to the stated mission and vision of ORIC.

New, and at times, contradicting rules, regulations, policies and procedures by various federal and state agencies are yet another factor that proffers a serious threat to this endeavor. For successful outcome of a venture that has the potential for significant national economic impact, it must be developed and implemented in a coordinated fashion between all regulatory agencies/departments both at the federal and state level.  It is undeniable that incentives drive innovation. Individuals have differing views of what truly is an incentive. For some, the very discovery of a new product or genesis of an earth-shattering idea is sufficient to inspire creativity. For others, simple recognition of their efforts with modest sharing of financial gains would be adequate for them to continue their inventive journey. “There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something tomorrow”

 

Orison Swett Marden

How the individuals are incentivized is perhaps the most difficult task to comprehend and yet, least amount of effort is expended on this issue. It is the most difficult dimension of human behavior, and if managed optimally, has the potential to be the most significant factor in vitiating all other aspects of innovation. 

 

Possibilities 

Public-private partnerships (P3) are the most promising model for financing research, innovation and commercialization. It requires coalescing the power of R&D in private sector with that in public institutions. Many countries have developed focused initiatives in this area. A very good example is the Canadian Council for Public Private Partnerships (CCPPP), which in the area of healthcare, has yielded a positive outcome.  For innovative ideas to thrive, we need to develop a culture where individuals work collaboratively as teams and the environment is supportive of ideas and concepts that are “outside the box”. Conventional thinking has to give way to radical concepts that serve as catalyst for change. Unfortunately the leadership in institutions of higher education in Pakistan as well as in agencies that afford accreditation are products of a generation that was raised with a mentality that continues to demand and expect obedience, conformity, and subservience…the very elements which are antithesis of sustaining an environment of innovation and entrepreneurshipAn unintended consequence of such a milieu if allowed to blossom would be that the institutions of higher education in Pakistan would gradually devolve into a phase of self-disintegration with a catastrophic outcome for the country and its people.

Dr Sohail Rao [(MBBS (Dow), MA (Boston), DPhil (Oxford)] is a noted medical professional with years of expertise in the health sector. He is the Executive Vice President for Research & Development, President & CEO, DHR Health Institute for Research & Development, DHR Health System, Texas, USA He can be reached via drsohailrao@gmail.com.