By: Dr. Athar Osama
Of late, the National ICT R&D Fund has been in the news a lot and its performance (or lack of it) over the last several years has been a source of much concern for IT professionals and informed citizens like myself. It is no secret that since the departure of its last CEO, the ICT R&D Fund has become the subject of a power tussle between those who think that it had served a useful purpose and must continue under the leadership of an able professional and those who don’t care who runs it as long as it serves their vested interests. The Fund is too precious an experiment for us to allow it to fail and the people who have fought long and hard thus far to keep it alive have done a great service to Pakistan.
However, there is a third set of opinions about the Fund that also must be taken into account. For some of us, National ICT R&D Fund’s performance leaves much to be desired, though, it does not in any way lead to the conclusion that the fund must be dissolved or become irrelevant. In fact, it leads to quite the opposite conclusion, namely, that the Fund must be redesigned and reformed to ensure that it is able to deliver on its promise. That in its current form (and with its current focus) it is not designed to deliver the kind of innovation that the society expects from it and may in fact be duplicating the work of other agencies, such as the Higher Education Commission (HEC).
Failure to Deliver
When it began (initially as PTCL R&D Fund), the National ICT R&D Fund was a beacon of hope for those who wanted the ICT industry to flourish within the country. The unique and innovative mechanism through which the Fund was created and funded held endless possibilities for the future. I, like so many others, also thought that National ICT R&D Fund’s example could be replicated elsewhere, to provide much needed and critical resources for research and innovation across a whole range of sectors such as health and pharmaceutical, engineering, textile, and automotive, etc. – not just in ICT.
Unfortunately, though, instead of becoming a shining beacon that could inspire such initiatives in other industry sectors, the Fund has so far failed to deliver on its promise. Even though hundreds of millions have been invested over the years in a number research projects, the performance of these projects, particularly in terms of their commercial impact, leaves much to be desired. What has led to this lackluster performance?
For those who have been close to the Fund and have interacted with it, it is quite common knowledge that the Fund wasn’t really designed to deliver what it sought to do. More importantly, it wasn’t even clear to those who have closely watched the Fund what it really sought to do. And whether whatever it wanted to do was possible in the first place. The Fund’s last CEO made it amply clear that it took him a long time to establish processes and procedures to carry out peer review of the proposals that were being submitted to the Fund. Even then, the industry grapevine is full of stories that it took a long time to get a proposal through the Fund’s system of evaluation that was decidedly far from perfect in the first place. It is also known that the Fund, right from its birth, was hardwired and burdened by cumbersome bureaucracy that made sure that anything innovative will probably not go through.
Ingredients for Success
To my mind, the ICT R&D Fund needed (and will still needs) four critical ingredients to become successful. If any one of these ingredients is missing, it will fail to deliver on its objectives. These ingredients are, in order: i) a clearly defined set of objectives, and a structure that is geared towards achieving these objectives; ii) a realistic strategy for achieving its objectives (including an in-depth technical understanding of each problem-set that it seeks to target and technical challenges inherent within those) and a program of activities aimed at tackling these challenges; iii) a capable leader at the helm who has experience of delivering similar programs; iv) systems and processes in place (and flexibility, where needed) to allow the fund to achieve its objectives instead of getting bogged down in never ending bureaucracy.
Going through this list, it becomes quite evident why and how these ingredients are so critically interlinked, in that the failure to provide one will render the others in-effective. For example, if the Fund was not designed right, it would hardly matter how capable a leader it has at its helm. Worse still, an ill-deigned Fund that doesn’t know what it wants to achieve is not likely to attract a capable person in the first place. Similarly, even the most capable of the leaders is likely to fail without appropriate processes and systems (and flexibility) to support him or her. The singular factor responsible for the Fund’s lackluster performance is the lack of understanding of this cause-and-effect logic.
I believe that the National ICT R&D Fund should focus on near-market opportunities that find commercial applications in short-to-medium term (1-3 years). This would require funding ideas that target a clear market opportunity and keeping the recipients of the Fund’s support responsible for delivering a commercialized product. This would ensure that the Fund will not just duplicate the work of the HEC but would add additional value within the innovation continuum. It would also force the universities and the industry to work together in a manner that would lead to commercialization of research.
Re-designing the Fund
The upcoming change in the leadership at the National ICT R&D Fund provides an excellent opportunity to assess the performance of the Fund so far, and, more importantly, to develop a coherent set of objectives, strategies, roadmaps, and systems to empower it to deliver on national objectives in the future. This will require, perhaps, going back to the drawing board. This, I believe, is necessary and the appointment of new leadership without addressing the critical weaknesses in the objectives, strategy, and structure of the Fund would mean another 3 years of wasted energies.
Redesigning the Fund to deliver on its promise will require 4 distinct elements described below:
The importance of identifying realistic and achievable national goals and laying out an initial policy framework that will allow the National ICT R&D Fund to resolutely move towards those goals cannot be over-emphasized. Before expecting the Fund to achieve some objectives, we need to clearly define what those objectives are. These national level objectives must be clear, concise, measurable, and realistic. One cannot simply expect the Chief Executive of the Fund to dream of what would be in the best interest of the country as he goes along investing money and creating new programs. It is not enough for the Fund to say that it seeks to “promote” an innovation-centric ICT research and development eco-system in Pakistan. The Fund must define in much greater detail what it seeks to do and how what it contributes to that goal. The definition of the strategic direction and policy framework will ultimately define what programs and interventions are needed.
A technology road-mapping exercise, if properly carried out, will involve extensive consultations with experts within an industry both inside and outside the country to first identify an (almost) exhaustive list of technical challenges and bottlenecks in achieving the objectives and then laying out alternative approaches that may be followed to address these challenges. For example, if one of the objectives is to develop a smart network management system, the first task is to define what the current level of performance is, what would be the desired level of performance from this system, what are all of the technical bottlenecks in achieving that performance, and what alternate approaches can be used to address those challenges. Once a list of all possible alternative approaches is developed, one is in a better position to match ones resources and capabilities with how the objective might be achieved. This exercise must be carried out in consultation with stakeholders (IT and Telecom Companies and Universities etc.) within the country so as to identify approaches that are realistic and achievable and in line with current capabilities. The existence of such a roadmap will help the leadership of National ICT R&D Fund to develop and fine-tune precise programs or priorities aimed at solving a pre-defined set of technical challenges that may lead to new products and services in the market.
Once we know what we want to achieve, and how to get there, the Fund needs a toolkit of policy instruments – i.e. different kinds of funding programs – that will enable it to achieve its objectives. This programmatic design must be informed by the Fund’s objective and the strategic roadmap. For example, would the Fund require some basic research? Would it need to fund industrial collaborations? Do we need a proof of concept program that will need to be supplemented by development funding later on? Do we need to support entrepreneurship – and how? Could an “Innovation Prize” be used to solve the problem? These are questions that would ultimately define the programs and instruments in the fund’s policy toolkit. In designing new instruments and restructuring older ones, one must also learn from the past by analyzing the current portfolio of the Fund and understand how the Fund’s current toolkit aids or hinders innovation, where the big gaps are, and how might it be strengthened to remove the bottlenecks towards commercialization and commercial impact.
The final ingredient of a well-designed and effective National ICT R&D Fund must be an evidence-based policy and performance assessment mechanism that continuously assesses, informs, and improves the Fund’s performance. An effective organization must be a learning organization. This is much more true for an R&D Funding Program than for any other type of organization primarily because it must deal with processes (i.e. research, development, and innovation) that are inherently unpredictable and ever-changing. The Fund must also be flexible enough to deal with this unpredictability and adaptive enough to learn and maneuver in the changing techno-economic landscape. The performance assessment system I am talking about is quite distinct from financial reporting that is already in place at the Fund but instead focuses on developing mechanisms to assess and improve the effectiveness of how the Fund is doing in its ability to achieve its final objectives – not just whether it is spending the money it was supposed to spend. Unfortunately, the latter is often the practice with much of program funding in the government but this may represent a critical gap in designing and managing an innovation funding program.
Taking into account the above 4-step approach, I believe, will significantly improve the focus and performance of the National ICT R&D Fund and empower it to realize its full potential.
I believe, for one, that the basic concept of setting aside a share of revenues to invest in research and innovation is noble, sound and creative way of providing much-needed resources for investing in our long term economic future without burdening the fragile short term public finances of the country. It is my sincere hope that the National ICT R&D Fund could be re-drawn to enable it to deliver on its promise of promoting meaningful goal-driven innovation within the ICT sector and hence become a shining beacon for other sectors to emulate.
Dr. Athar Osama is a science policy consultant and advisor and is the lead author of a paper published in the prestigious journal Nature titled “Pakistan’s Reform Experiment” that analyzed the effectiveness of Pakistan’s investment in the Higher Education. Dr. Osama has been, for over 15 years now, a student and a practitioner of the science and art of science and innovation policy and has been an advisor and consultant to The Royal Society (UK), OIC, PSEB, PASHA, and SciDev.Net. He worked at one of the world’s leading public policy think tank where he was a part of a team that helped restructure the R&D and Engineering infrastructure of a major US public agency, analysed the performance of US Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Programme, and helped form a public sector venture capital fund. Athar is the founder of Muslim-Science.Com. He maybe contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published at STEP.