The LUMS SSE Newsletter, June 2005
The Theoretical Physics Group at Quaid-e-Azam University
Lessons for the LUMS SSE
| Faheem Hussain |
Between the years 1966 – 1968 a brave young band of highly qualified and bright theoretical physicists
headed back to Pakistan with the aim of setting up a graduate school in physics. The average age of these
people was about 28 – 30 years. They were lured back with the exciting idea of setting up the first
research group in physics in Pakistan. These names are worth recalling in this article as they will be
remembered as the pioneers of physics research in Pakistan: Riazuddin first of all, Kamaluddin Ahmed,
Arifuzzaman, Fayyazuddin, A.M. Harun-ar-Rashid, Faheem Hussain, Ghulam Murtaza, M.S.K. Razmi,
Saifuddin, A.Q. Sarkar amongst the theory group. Till that time there was no concept of research in
universities in Pakistan. Universities were considered as places where knowledge was passed on and not
where knowledge was created. This goes back to the fact that the British had established higher education
in Pakistan with the express aim of producing people who would be good civil servants of the raj and
nothing more. Although in India before partition there were already scientists doing research in
universities, in Pakistan the situation was quite different. There was no scientific research being carried out
in universities till the 60s. Why did this change and how was the Islamabad group set up?
The Islamabad theoretical physics group was directly inspired by Abdus Salam (the first Pakistani Nobel
Laureate). Seven of the ten theorists in the group mentioned above had been trained in Salam’s group,
while the pioneering experimental physicist in Islamabad, Ijazurrahman, had also obtained his Ph. D. with
the particle physics experimental group at Imperial. By the late 60s Salam’s fame was widely known to
physics and mathematics students in Pakistan particularly at Punjab University and its affiliated colleges.
Several bright students inspired by Salam went with the help of the PAEC or on their own with
Commonwealth scholarships to Imperial College, London, with the hope of doing their Ph. D. with Salam or
his group. There were others, like myself, who went to England for an undergraduate education ultimately
hoping to work with Salam and his group. There were some who went to other universities in the UK to do
research in theoretical physics.
Imperial College was an exciting and at the same time a difficult place in the 60s. It was one of the first
physics departments to introduce graduate courses on the lines of the courses in US universities. Until
then all those who got a British B.Sc. degree went on to do research work without further courses other
than what they had studied in their undergraduate years. This was all right for British students who got a
good undergraduate education but when Pakistanis went to do their Ph. Ds. directly after their M. Sc. in
Pakistan the results were usually disastrous specially amongst the experimental physicists. These people
who went to some of the prestigious universities of the UK did not learn any physics. (At that time in the
50s and 60s there was not a tradition to study in the US). All that they learnt was how to take data from
machines and they wrote up their theses without even a minimum understanding of the physics behind
their data. I had direct contact with some of these people (I won’t mention their names) and they proved a
disaster for the development of physics in Pakistan.
Salam specifically introduced these courses in the guise of the Diploma of Imperial College which one had
to obtain in the first year before actually starting research towards the Ph. D. degree. He did this realising
that students from developing countries needed these courses to round off their undergraduate education.
The policy at Imperial was to take a lot of students from developing countries and to mix them with
students from the UK. To be accepted for a Ph. D. one not only had to pass the examinations but also had
to be among the top 5 or so in the final results. The fact that in the early 60s so many Pakistani students
qualified to be accepted for the Ph. D. programme shows that first they were bright and that the PAEC
made a wise selection and secondly that the M. Sc. from Punjab University was not so bad.
During the mid-sixties the prospects for these bright young people was not so bright in Pakistan. There
were no universities or research institutions, which could or wanted to absorb them. The PAEC was not
interested in theoreticians. However, Dr. Raziuddin Siddiqui, the Vice-Chancellor designate of the newly
established University of Islamabad, as QAU was then known, somehow convinced the authorities in
Pakistan, specifically President Ayub Khan, to make the proposed University a research institution. This
was to be an elite university with no undergraduate education and geared specifically to research. Dr.
Raziuddin Siddiqui was competent and understood the needs of such a University. He invited Salam’s first
Pakistani student, Riazuddin, who was at that time at the University of Pennsylvania, to become the
founding Director of the Institute of Physics and Dean of the Faculty. Riazuddin, with the help of Salam,
convinced Dr. I. H. Usmani, the then Chairman of PAEC, to send all the theoreticians in PAEC to the
Institute of Physics at the University of Islamabad so that a viable group could be formed.
Riaz in 1967 and 1968 personally made a tour of the United States and England to convince us to return to
Pakistan with a promise of a world-class university and good conditions of work. What convinced us to
return was the excitement of this endeavour and also the general patriotic feeling which all of us had at
that time. To quote Riazuddin: “It was the idealism of the youth which not only enabled many of us, who
could have stayed abroad, to return, but also infused a great enthusiasm to succeed in the pioneering role
of establishing a new institution from scratch”. Remember that the year 1968 was special. That was the
year of revolutionary upheaval throughout the world and Pakistan was not immune to that. Even those
who did not take part directly in these events or in the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations of the 60s were
convinced that there was the possibility of change in the third world and that we could do something
positive for our countries.
The situation in physics at that time was such that all of those mentioned above could have gotten jobs in
universities in the West and nearly all of them had offers. But they chose to come back for the reasons
mentioned earlier, patriotism and the idea of a new university. Three other factors have to be mentioned.
One was that we knew that the Institute of Physics was headed by Riazuddin, already an internationally
known theoretical physicist, who had made important contributions to the field. The second was that we
knew that we would not be isolated and that we would be working in a group of very smart people with
whom we could discuss physics and the third was that we were assured of mobility to maintain
Let me summarise, with thanks to Riazuddin then, what the important factors were for the successful early
stages of QAU:
1. Patronage at the Highest Level
President Ayub Khan was personally interested in the development of the University of Islamabad.
2. A Competent Vice-Chancellor
In Raziuddin Siddiqui we had a VC who understood the exigencies of a research-oriented university.
3. A New Concept of Structuring the University
This was organised in the form of institutes rather than departments. Each Institute was headed by a
Director, who was also the Dean of the Faculty, enjoying considerable autonomy, particularly in
4. Critical Size
Perhaps this was the most important factor for the success of the group named above. We were ten
people working in the same field. One could discuss physics problems with a large group of one’s
peers. Such a large group has never been assembled again in Pakistan.
5. Attractive Starting Positions and Salaries
Young faculty were attracted by offering them positions at a level higher than what normally they
would have got in any other university and assuring that they would not be isolated. People in their
late twenties and early thirties were appointed at associate professor level. (I, myself, was appointed
associate professor at the age of 26, perhaps being the youngest associate professor ever in the
history of QAU.) However, (and I mean this specifically for those young Pakistanis abroad who are
now reluctant to come back for low salaries) these were only relatively attractive salaries. In fact we
came back with enormous cuts in salaries without complaining. My own starting salary in October
1968 was Rs 1175 per month with a house rent allowance of Rs 600 per month. One might say that
things were cheap in Pakistan those days but considering that the US Dollar was about Rs. 7, these
were still quite low salaries. So I was getting a salary of less than 200 dollars a month and I had just
left a postdoctoral salary at the Enrico Fermi Institute of $9,500 a year and I would have been assured
of a much higher salary if I had stayed on to join a tenure track position in the US. We came back to
Pakistan with a salary at least less than a quarter of what we would have got in the States. And let me
remind you that it was easy to get a job then; so it was not pressure that we could not have found
more lucrative jobs elsewhere. I don’t mean to be critical but I find that some of the younger people
now are concerned with getting high salaries. The idealism of youth seems to be lost but this is a
worldwide phenomenon in this age of rampant neo-liberalism and the market economy.
6. Mobility and International Contacts
To ensure greater mobility of faculty and to provide international contacts the following steps were
i) Liberal sabbatical leave rules which would enable faculty members to get sabbatical
leave after every three years of service
ii) International support and its effective utilisation in the following form:
a.) A Ford Foundation grant used for short term international contacts. This enabled
Riazuddin to invite distinguished visitors from abroad for visits lasting one to
three months in the fields in which research was being done at the Institute.
Riaz’s and the group’s prestige was such that international visitors were willing
and happy to spend some time in Islamabad. Also, under this grant funds were
available for the members of the Institute to attend international conferences.
b.) The support of the newly founded International Centre for Theoretical Physics at
Trieste, Italy for visits of the faculty to that centre during the summer
c.) A UNDP grant which was mainly used for the development of experimental
facilities and for long-term visitors relevant to the fields to be developed.
7. Idealism of Youth
8. Low Teaching Load
As there were no undergraduate classes, except for the two-year M. Sc. programme, and classes were
small the student teacher ratio was excellent and we had ample time for research.
9. Quality Assurance Through the Tenure System
To maintain quality of research, for the first time the concept of a tenure system was introduced with
the work of a faculty member being evaluated after 3 years before giving him or her tenure. The
evaluation was done by international experts outside Pakistan.
These were the basic ingredients to those years. In the words of Riazuddin:
“The results were spectacular and most rewarding; within the first 4 years the
Institute of Physics was on the international map. For the first time in the history
of Pakistan, a graduate program leading to a Ph. D. degree in Physics was started
on a regular basis. The Ph. D’s produced were of international standard”.
Inspired by the success of the theoretical physics group some reasonable research was also started in
experimental physics but that never achieved the level of international recognition of the early years.
Now comes the sad part. What led to the decline of the theoretical physics group? There are several
factors, which need to be considered here in my opinion. Some were external to the group and some
were our own faults, which one must admit openly.
The Institute of Physics existed in a university where unfortunately the high standards set up by us
were not applied to other Institutes, like Chemistry and Mathematics. Economics was an honorable
exception. Appointments were made of low-grade scientists and some of these were also made in the
experimental physics part of the Institute of Physics. This meant that the theory group was a
singularity in a sea of mediocrity not only inside Pakistan but also to some extent inside the
University. The standards set up by our group were too much for the others to follow and soon these
standards were being attacked.
The immediate casualty was the tenure system. By the end of 1971 some of us had undergone the
strict review process with our research being evaluated by foreign experts. However it was evident
that those who had not produced research work during this period would attack the system and they
did. I won’t name names but when the first weak cases (and these were full professors!) came up for
evaluation, enormous pressure was put on the Vice-Chancellor to get rid of the tenure system and in
spite of our resistance this is what happened. This allowed incompetent people to stay on in the
university. This episode is a warning to new attempts to set up a good research university or group.
Accountability is a must and one has to be ruthless. Also one has to make sure that the wrong people
are not appointed specially in senior positions. (Just because somebody has a Ph. D. from the West
does not make him a good scientist). If that happens then one is lost because not only will they not
leave when asked to but also they will try to block bright young people from joining.
The second factor was the independence of Bangladesh. We lost two very good members of the group,
A.M. Harun-ar-Rashid and A.Q. Sarkar who left to work in Dhaka in 1971-72.
The third factor was the change in political leadership after the division of Pakistan. I will not comment
on whether the leadership was good or bad for the country but this time was definitely bad for the
University of Islamabad. Being populist, the leaders were against elite universities not realizing that
research is unfortunately an elite activity. They wanted the now Quaid-i-Azam University to increase
enrolment while sacrificing standards. However we did resist to some extent that we did not increase
enrolment dramatically to the detriment of the student-teacher ratio. But the prime minister
appointed a Vice-Chancellor during whose term the university deteriorated dramatically. She got rid of
the Institutes and made departments instead. Earlier we only had the Institute of Economics at the
University but now a Faculty of Social Sciences was set up in which all kinds of vague departments
were set up which were basically used to provide jobs for the ruling political party's stalwarts.
Appalling appointments were made disregarding selection criteria and procedures. Attempts were
made to influence results to favor their own students (although it must be admitted that there were
already teachers, with counter political inclinations, who were favoring their own party's students).
During those years ridiculous criteria were introduced for appointments of faculty. Seniority
requirements were introduced meaning the requirement for a certain number of years of work after
the Ph. D., before one could become an Associate Professor or Professor. Instead of getting research
work being evaluated by one’s peers, laughable quantifiable criteria were introduced as for example
requiring that to become a professor one had to have eight (!) international publications. This is a
ridiculous number. It is too small for 15 years of work after the Ph. D. (the seniority requirement to
become a professor) and on the other hand this criteria combined with seniority precludes the
appointment of a very bright young person who does not have seniority but who has published work
of real significance without reaching the magic number eight.
These were some of the external factors. However there were also some crucial decisions, made on
the part of the members of the group, which led to its decline.
I have already mentioned that the group was a singularity in a sea of mediocrity and the interaction of
this singularity with the environment soon led to its decay. I think Pervez Hoodbhoy has put this very
well, in his usual acerbic style, in his comment on the first version of this article:
“But after less than a decade most of this merry gang (I wouldn’t say most. F.H.)
soon realized that the way up did not really demand doing good science. Their
social and professional environment had only a dim sense of what science was
about. So other things became more important to them. In time they grew to be
the establishment itself and began using techniques that are familiar in the rest of
Pakistani society. Some of them (no names!) blocked bright young people who
wanted to come from outside Pakistan for fear of competition. Others became
plagiarists (and were internationally exposed but at no cost to their forward
movement). They did things which I'm sure they'd never have done if they had
remained in the US or Europe. I'd call this the process of equilibration into our
society and its generally held values and practices. It's not a question of
individuals being intrinsically bad, but the norms to which they adjust to over
time. The remarkable thing is that a few of them retained their integrity even
after nearly four decades.”
The biggest mistake we made was that we did not regenerate the group. Young people graduating
from the Institute who were being sent abroad were encouraged to go into other fields, particularly
condensed matter physics particularly in experimental physics. In some sense this was natural as we
were a disproportionately large group and we realized the necessity of developing other fields of
physics. This policy did lead of course to having very good people in other branches of physics.
We also had a policy of avoiding inbreeding. In the early years we convinced some bright young
students to do their Ph. D’s from Islamabad rather than to go abroad guaranteeing them a very high-
class education. But we did not promise them jobs. In fact the first two Ph. D’s from the Institute,
Ahmed Ali and Masud Ahmed, who later had very distinguished careers, were not hired precisely for
the reason that we did not want inbreeding. This is a tough policy and I know this cost Ahmed Ali a lot
as he could not find a job anywhere in Pakistan and he could not easily find a postdoctoral position
until he was rescued by, guess who, Salam. But the subsequent history of QAU shows that we were
right to do this.
To this was added the fact that we stopped taking Ph. D. students in particle physics, one because we
encouraged them to go abroad to do research in other fields and secondly because we found that
other universities preferred Ph. D’s from abroad rather than from Islamabad although we knew that
ours were better. Ahmed Ali was refused a job by both Punjab University and Karachi University. In
the case of Punjab they took a candidate who was clearly no match for Ahmed Ali. The only
regeneration came with the joining of Pervez Hoodbhoy in the Physics Department and Asghar Qadir
in the Mathematics Department in the mid 70s but by then the group was in decline.
Here I must also admit my own culpability in the decline of the group. I stopped doing research
between 1973 and 1980 because I got interested in social and political issues. Remember that that
was the time of great political and social upheaval and we all felt that the revolution was around the
corner so what was the point of doing physics research. There were other things, which seemed more
attractive. Then Riaz was seconded to the PAEC as Member (Technical). That was 4 gone already
including the 2 who had left for Bangladesh.
Salam also played a crucial role in the decline of the group as he had in its setting up. In those years
whenever we met him in Trieste he would tell us to quit particle physics and move to some other field
of physics that needed to be developed. Some of us ignored him but two members of the group took
him seriously to the good of other fields but to the detriment of the particle physics group. During the
late 70s Murtaza successfully shifted to doing research in theoretical plasma physics and ultimately
founded a good school in this field. The other was Razmi who switched, also fairly successfully, to
research in laser physics. That was 2 more gone.
I think that the final blow came when both Riaz and Fayyaz, senior members of the group, left to work
in Saudi Arabia (where they were for many years) and I left for Trieste in 1989. Riaz was forced to
leave the university in 1982 as his services were illegally terminated on the minor question of him
signing a bond to extend his leave without pay. In fact it was after this that he went to Dhahran. This
episode also shows the uncaring and arrogant attitude of the university towards not only one of its
pioneers but also undoubtedly the leading scientist of the country.
All this was fairly rapid depletion and the group obviously could not survive, as there were no younger
people to replace them.
By reciting this history I do not mean to say that scientists should not change their orientation or
move to another institution. That is the beauty of being a scientist as one follows what one wants to
do and if people want to change it is their right to do so. Also the fact that people leave a university to
go to another university or another job is also quite common in universities. However when this
happens there are usually other younger people who are hired to continue that particular line of
research and this is what did not happen at QAU. The problem was that there were no new qualified
Pakistanis in theoretical physics after the mid-seventies. Fortunately that is changing now.
However it is not at all certain that these young people will want to come back to Pakistan. For
example NCP has been around for 6 to 7 years but it has not been able to attract people back. Again
in the words of Pervez:
“We need to reflect on this. Is the pool of accomplished young Pakistanis outside
Pakistan now nearly dry? Has idealism and the desire to change things
disappeared? Is there a disdain, in Pakistan society at large, for science and the
scientific method? More seriously, is the mere trickle of returning Pakistanis
indicative of a disillusionment with the notion of Pakistan itself? I don't claim to
know the answers.
The question of regeneration is also important in another sense. Young people bring in new ideas and
particularly in our field most of the important breakthroughs are made by people in their twenties.
Older people continue do reasonably good work but in set ways and cannot make or follow the new
trends in the field. Thus a continual turnover and addition of new talent is crucial to the health of any
scientific research institution. Thus I think one other important element to the success of any scientific
group was missing at QAU which ultimately led to its decline:
10. Turnover of Faculty and The Continual Hiring of Young Talent
This was the story of the rise and fall of the particle physics group at QAU. However there is also a
parallel story about the decay of the Department of Physics in general. In the early years all the
appointments were those of people who had Ph. D’s from other universities, meaning perforce from
the West as there were no Ph. D’s being granted in Pakistan. What started happening in QAU during
the 80s was that influential professors in the department began giving jobs to their own students who
were quite second rate. This is inbreeding and it inevitably leads to lowering of standards. I am not
saying that one’s own Ph. D’s should never be hired. Only that this should be done if they are really
exceptional and outstanding, and unfortunately this is not what happened at QAU. People were
appointed who did not even have one international postdoctoral experience. These in turn, as they
came to senior positions, appointed their own students. I know that this is a difficult and sensitive
question but it needs to be addressed. One of the causes of the relative decline of the Imperial College
group after the 60s, apart from the fact that Salam, Matthews, Streater, etc. left, was the fact that
they hired their own graduates. This inbreeding at QAU was compounded by the fact that the level of
incoming students at M. Sc. level has declined considerably. The really good ones went off to the West
for their Ph. D’s and under pressure to produce Ph. D’s and to have grants second rate students were
kept on to do their graduate work at QAU, and these were later hired.
I think I have gone on too long. The main lessons to be drawn for LUMS are: patronage, critical size,
tenure system, attractive salary package, attractive sabbatical leave, low teaching load, care at the time of
appointment, turnover and the continual renewal of faculty.