A long road ahead

Despite its vast numbers of scientists and research institutes, Indian science has always fared poorly on the global front. Several reasons have been put forward for the dismal performance, but the only fact that emerges is that there can be no consensus on what afflicts Indian science

Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- (Credit: Illuarations: Rustam Vania)Western scientists set the trends

TO BEGIN with, we must realise there is a lot that is right with it. Even without considering those Indian scientists working outside the country, a significant number of Indian scientists have individually excelled in their fields of research and are easily comparable with the best scientists in the world.

But here is where the problem arises. If this is true, then why aren't there more of such scientists and why is it that collectively, our impact is a miniscule of our potential? Obviously, there are several factors. But we must not confuse the most important factor for the many minor ones.

Indian scientists find themselves in an economically and technologically backward environment that does not give them a fair chance to compete with their Western colleagues. This disadvantage cannot be wished away. The question then really is, can we work around this and do better than we are doing now? The answer is yes.

An important task before Indian scientists is to find reasonable solutions in a short time for the pressing problems of the country -- health, food, sanitation and development. Here, the name of the game is not competition, but results -- quick and cheap. The only possible strategy is to make the best of our plight. Beg, borrow or steal technology, train our scientists abroad, enter into foreign collaborations -- the end is what counts and not so much the means.

But many of us do basic research to build up a foundation of scientific humanpower and expertise that will put the country on the map of the scientific world and equip us better to tackle the country's problems in the future. And that's how it should be. Here, the name of the game is competition -- you don't advance human knowledge unless you work at the cutting edge of collective human knowledge.

This is where our economic and technological backwardness can either be really crippling or virtually irrelevant, depending on how we go about choosing our fields of basic research. And, as far as objectives are concerned, most of us engaged in basic research fail to realise that it does not matter that much which field we work in.

It is this failure that allows Western scientists to set agendas. Indian scientists then inevitably end up following the West's lead and seldom provide the lead themselves. Obviously, this cannot be satisfying after a while and our productivity falls further.

It is common for Indian scientists to work outside the country before embarking on a career in India. Indeed, our institutions either prefer this or make it almost mandatory. There is probably nothing wrong with this, especially if returning scientists choose to tackle a problem that is feasible and one in which they are not likely to be handicapped because of working in India. But it is shocking that most of our scientists, brilliant as they are, seem to be incapable of doing this. Their work priorities continue to be provided to them by scientists abroad. Biologists probably illustrate the problem best. India is endowed with incredibly rich fauna and flora and tropical biology is an absolutely fascinating area in which we have a fair chance of providing leadership. But most of our biologists prefer (it's not so much a preference as it is inertia) to work on a bacterial or viral strain brought from the US. It is as if Indian scientists want Western scientists to make tropical biology more fashionable before taking it up.

Raghavendra Gadagkar is chairperson of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Research is stifled by bureaucracy

WHAT IS wrong with Indian science? A lot. Productivity is not in consonance with the number of "scientists" employed in our establishments. We are supposed to have the third-largest number of scientists and technologists in the world and a fairly large infrastructure of national laboratories, universities, medical and veterinary establishments. However, we cannot claim similar ranking either in original scientific work -- as reflected in publications of significance -- or in the generation of technology with industrial applications.

This said and done, it must also be admitted that the slate is not totally blank. There are some areas, such as space science and a few others, in which our achievements have been significant. In life sciences, a field with which I am conversant, there are about half-a-dozen institutions in the country with research centres whose output is of the highest calibre and as good as the best anywhere. Also, several products and processes have resulted from indigenous research.

We do not lack talent. The high intellectual calibre, resourcefulness and capacity for hard work of Indian scientists is acknowledged the world over. Our scientists and technologists have done notably better -- and many times outstanding -- work in scientific establishments abroad. Two Nobel prizes have been awarded to scientists of Indian origin working abroad. Indian scientists are prominent in key US scientific establishments, be these industry, universities or research institutes.

Why has the Indian scientist not done equally well at home? There are several factors responsible for the overall dismal performance and the low output. Our financial resources may not be as large as in industrially developed countries, but neither are they meagre. Funding has also increased substantially over the past two decades.

What is wrong is the manner in which science is organised and conducted: Scientific institutions are run on the model of government establishments. Though "autonomy" is granted in the charters of institutions, in reality functional control rests with ministries and, by and large, government rules are applied.

The emphasis is on procedure, not on net results. As a result, delays are common and these take away enthusiasm and zeal, lower productivity and raise costs. What is worse is the work culture that it breeds. Scientific institutions tend to work as government offices do, from 10 am to 5.30 pm, with a routine approach to scientific work.

The moment a scientist is appointed in a regular position in a public-funded institution or as a university lecturer, he sits in an office. Authority is vested in individuals who sit in offices and spend their entire time in paper work. Research is left to students or assistants. As the managerial duties and responsibilities of scientists increase, they get isolated from active science.

It is impossible for anyone to be an all-round expert, no matter how exceptionally intelligent a person may be. Consequently, decisions on scientific research may lack proper insight or may be influenced by the views of less talented advisers with vested interests. Correct appraisals may stand compromised and there may be no differentiating between novel pieces of work with broad implications and routine findings. Original contributions may not be encouraged and mediocrity could well be tolerated.

G P Talwar is professor of eminence at the National Institute of Immunology.

No social demand for relevant science

"VERY NEAT," says Sanders, a computer scientist in Michael Crichton's new novel, Rising Sun. "You know how the Japanese can make things this way and we can't? They kaizen them. A process of deliberate, patient, continual refinements. Each year the product gets a little better, a little smaller, a little cheaper. Americans don't think that way. Americans are looking for the quantum leap, the big advance forward. Americans try to hit a home run -- and then sit back. The Japanese just hit singles all day long, and they never sit back." The theme of Crichton's book is that the patient, plodding Japanese have moved way ahead of the Americans. This was also the theme of the address by Frank Press, president of the US National Academy of Sciences, at its last annual meeting. He urged the American scientific community to sit up and take notice of the fact that while Americans may still be winning many more Nobel prizes, the Japanese were way ahead in putting scientific knowledge to productive use. The malaise of Indian science is that we simply waste energy talking about a successor to C V Raman and end up neither winning any Nobel prizes nor making science productive.

Science finds socially productive uses in two contexts. It can be used in manufacturing and processes, such as making aeroplanes or video cameras, generating electricity or tapping offshore oil, or to conserve natural resources by enhancing resource-use efficiency, reducing transmission losses of electric power and boosting recharge of groundwater.

The Japanese are pretty much ahead of the world on both fronts: They make the best cars and cameras, their manufacturing processes are exceedingly energy efficient and forests cover 60 per cent of their land. India is far behind the industrial countries in manufacturing technologies; our energy use is thoroughly inefficient and we are ruining our forests and mining our groundwater.

This is because our scientific effort is not driven by any real social demand. Our industry is happy enough to import technology and the bureaucratic managers of our electricity, irrigation and forest resources have developed vested interests in wasteful resource use. So, electricity boards do nothing about cutting down transmission and distribution losses; they only fudge data and attribute these losses to unmetered irrigation pump sets, for which the figure is 23 per cent -- way above the 12-13 per cent for Thailand and Korea.

The Forest Survey of India produces scarcely believable figures of the country's forest cover -- all they have succeeded in doing is take away the job from the National Remote Sensing Agency, an independent body with no vested interests. So, one way or the other, there is no real social demand for good science of any variety. The natural result is a proliferation of largely imitative and mostly useless scientific research.

The real tragedy is the utter neglect of sciences applicable to efficient use and conservation of natural resources. It is in this sector that we ourselves must do all the research we need -- no one else will figure out for us how to construct dams without triggering earthquakes or how to make most efficient use of irrigation water. Such research is not glamorous; after all, its application is to our own very local situations. But it would be socially a most productive enterprise in the good old Japanese fashion, permitting us to enhance the productivity of our natural resources through small, carefully planned increments each year. Such research will come to be in demand if and when control of the country's natural resources passes into the hands of our ecosystem people. Only then will an indigenous and relevant scientific endeavour take root in this ancient land.

Universities should be involved more

WITH ONE of the largest scientific human resources in the world, a large network of scientific laboratories and some 150 universities, is there anything really wrong with science in India? Or, is science flourishing in our country?

Looking at the indicators, it is evident that despite the impressive "quantity of science" practised in the country, we are still way behind in attaining international standards in the quality of science. Even in the context of national science versus international science, it is quite clear that science as practised in our country has not even touched the lives of the vast majority of the people. Thus, the claim that Indian scientists practise a science relevant to the country and do not hop on the international bandwagon, is also spurious.

So, where is the problem? A scientific bureaucracy that is unaccountable to the people, a plethora of funding agencies, lack of infrastructural facilities, insensitivity of the scientific establishment to the needs of the people -- one could list several obstacles in the way of good science in our country. But, the fundamental problem is never highlighted is the neglect of universities.

Almost all Indian universities offer scientific disciplines and it would appear that most of the spending on research would be in the universities, since that is where there is a concentration of trained personpower. But such a conclusion is grossly misleading in the Indian context. The powers that be have decided that there is no need for research to be done in the universities and that high quality research should be left to separate institutes. So, we have a few select institutes getting an amazingly high percentage of S&T funding, while several university science departments -- not to mention undergraduate colleges -- don't have adequate funds for proper teaching laboratories.

It's not that research institutes don't do good work. The National Institute of Immunology, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the National Chemical Laboratory and the Indian Institute of Science are absolutely first-rate and comparable to the best in the world. However, this first-rate science has not made a difference to the general level of scientific research in our country.

Ultimately, what is required is a change of attitude among S&T decision-makers. It is time they realise that science is ultimately done by humans and a fundamental prerequisite for good science is investing in human resources. Unless our universities are involved in a major way with scientific research, our role in the world of science will continue to be marginal.

Shobhit Mahajan teaches physics at Delhi University.

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