Where is the sceptical indian scientist?

Wednesday 29 February 2012

Unless there is independent thinking there is no hope of the country producing good science

imageWhat characterises the Indian scientist? It is a question that scientists might find embarrassing to answer with honesty. A widely prevalent view is that our scientists are a true reflection of Indian society: feudal, hierarchical and reluctant to buck the system. It’s true that a society’s values and attitudes shape the way its citizens think and behave. Does it also determine the scientific culture and thus the outcome of our scientific research? Unhappily, the answer is yes.

Go to any of the public research institutes and you will find these teeming with scientist babus who are as bureaucratic in their attitudes as any long in the tooth IAS official. Given their value system the scientists look up to their bosses for guidance and direction, daring to do little on their own. You could argue that this is necessary in institutions that are putatively working towards national objectives. But does that imply all independent thinking has to be jettisoned? After all, good science is about not taking things for granted. So where is that much-needed attribute of scepticism which makes for a good scientist?

Shackled by custom and a passive mindset, Indian science has turned out precious little that redounds to its credit. The me-too research that is underway now in the public sector is reflective of the absence of original ideas. As Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan points out, it is not possible to have good science without complete freedom of thought. The scientist who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on ribosomes had other nuggets of wisdom to offer his fraternity when he came to Chennai in December last year and deflated many of our conceits.

One point he made in particular calls for rumination. It is about the self-correcting nature of science. As new evidence emerges, good scientists refine their hypotheses and theories. “It is this built-in self-correction that distinguishes science from other systems of belief. In science, it is not bad to be wrong, but it is definitely bad to falsify.”

Falsification is certainly a tag that scientists, perhaps more than other professionals, would normally be wary of. While the recent case of the Bikaneri Narma cotton research fraud may be a rare instance, insofar as such matters come into the public domain, there is enough cause for concern. Indian scientists, it appears, are the world’s leading plagiarists. A November 2010 analysis on the website of Nature did a neat job of scalping our reputation by showing the highest rate of retraction of scientific papers due to fraud. The analysis by scientist Bob O’Hara put forward a tricky proposition. “What does this mean for fraud and dishonesty? It may not mean that Indian scientists are more dishonest: it may be that they are no more or less honest than anyone else, just they are caught more often and made to retract.” Now that is a debatable point and would make for a meaty discussion if scientists themselves responded to this provocative theory.

Their hubris, however, makes this an unlikely possibility. Criticism is not taken to kindly by the top scientists who tend to exhibit the George W Bush attitude in double measure: either you are with them or against them. If one is a journalist and has been critical of something, say, for instance, a shoddy scientific report, then one is lumped with the activists, who, of course, are all “anti-science”.

But let’s come back to Ramakrishnan’s point about the self-correcting nature of true science—and not the kind of research that commercial interests pass off as the real McCoy. In the US, numerous reports in recent months, including one by the official Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have highlighted the increasing resistance that is developing to Monsanto’s GM or Bt corn and herbicide-tolerant seeds and the emergence of super weeds that is forcing desperate farmers to return to lethal pesticides. Naturally, this has sparked renewed fears worldwide about the effectiveness of Bt technology.

Have India’s biotech scientists deigned to confront this issue in a country where GM research is the predominant flavour? Not at all. Instead, there is a tendency to dismiss this as scare-mongering by the anti-GM activists. That scientists can be dismissive of the findings of even EPA, that most lax of GM regulators, is more than troubling. What is unnerving is the imperviousness of our scientists to uncomfortable facts. This is infinitely more dangerous than the activism of Luddites.

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  • Dear Latha Jishnu What you

    Dear Latha Jishnu

    What you have written is correct but blaming whole community is not wise full. Yes there is lacuna but how could you think independently if the whole system force you to become a like that. you should write why indian scientist will have this much false data papers? why they are unable to publish the truth? Is the system responsible for it? everyone wants to continue there livelihood, this is a source of income for them. independent thinking will come when there family is economically secure and support of the system is must. hope you will look into this issues also.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • In this article, Latha wants

    In this article, Latha wants to points out about 'scarcity' of people with radical ideas in Indian milieu. If one has to pursue a scientific idea (in theoritcal sciences), one has to ....and should have the will to pursue it despite all odds for leaving an imprint on history (of science).

    Management of science is an art that we need to learn from some of the finest people that many mother civilizations produced. We in India too had good managers of science for whom it was not the scientific qualification but understanding of science was necessary. We have had our own history of science with weaknesses and strengths. We had a policy of science and technology that has been revised several times. But regrettably the world of scientific research and management is not devoid of politics about which we regularly read in national level news media and even in international journals. Certain sections of these journals carry reports about the influence of politics on scientific activities and its various implications on research environment.

    Today's scientific research, though, does not merely carried on with ideas alone because of intrusion of automated machines and thrust on costly experimentation. However,there is no dearth of space in which ideas can flourish and acceptable too provided we are politically powerful or have a Godfather. The poor fellas only prefer themselves in the role of scientific Babus.

    It is the area of experimental science through which we test ideas and lead ourselves on a path discovey/innnovation of a technology/product that has the potential to serve mankind/markets or rather adds to human comfort.

    Agreed, that the spirit of exploration cannot live by bare ideas because of choice and necessity of developing technologies in certain priority areas but basic sciences can surely thrive. We, in India, have our typical poverty of ideas in science. The void cannot be filled unless we turn original and stop pursuing foreign type of thinking. We should stop looking at the western science for some time to produce original ideas. Alas, Indian science does not flourish in Indian Universities and our Institutes are merely seat of exploitation and bureaucratic comforts ! Scientific research should not be technology driven but thought driven.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Pushpanjali, I concede that

    Pushpanjali, I concede that money is important in any sphere of activity – for teachers, the police force, for workers. But surely this cannot be the criterion for independence of thought and professional honesty? While the column did not intend to tarnish the entire community of scientists, I do feel that scientists in our public research institutes, excellent as many are, have no compulsion to perform. The kind of scientist babu I am talking about is a senior scientist who earns a monthly salary of around Rs. 80,000 plus perks. Is that sufficient to discover ethics and values? I leave that to you to judge. You could also justifiably blame the ‘system’ for many of the ills of our system: there is no monitoring at all of the research work even if it has been going on 10-15 years, there is no accountability. But who makes the system? Shouldn’t the scientists themselves try to change it? The focus of my column was the insularity of scientists, their lack of questioning, the missing scepticism. If developments elsewhere are raising danger signals about the course India has embarked upon shouldn’t scientists here heed those lessons and address concerns? Smugness has no place in the scientific temper.

    Posted by: Latha Jishnu | 2 years ago | Reply
  • I think many Indian

    I think many Indian scientists would perform exceedingly well if the atmosphere allowed it. I may be wrong but there is a total lack of professionalism and accountability in government research labs. I think the money is there and ideas can become fruitful, but our "chalta hain" attitude is a huge problem. Serious tie-ups between the government and the private sector can bring bench-scale technology to the real world within a decade. But how many such examples do we see?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
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