Science without vision

Published: Monday 15 May 1995

BELOW a few shimmering points of achievements, the underside of Indian science is a vast abyss of failure and frustration. The contours of the 7th largest pool of scientifically trained personnel in the world are largely unmapped, simply because any social cartographer's exploration into this field makes for a gloomy voyage.

A recent reconnaissance is the Scientometric Profile of Academic Science in India prepared by the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS). By sample size as well as the operational methodology, this is a very comprehensive study of the performance and productivity of teaching and research in Indian science. The authors of the report stand convinced that their effort accurately reflects the mood and working at the 162 academic science institutions in the country. This enormous establishment produces 4,000 PhDs and 35,000 post-graduates every year.

As expected, the report makes depressing reading. One of its key points is about the dismal opinion that science teachers and researchers have of themselves: 80 per cent of the respondents look upon their profession rather poorly. They feel that the prestige of science teaching and research has declined over the years. About half of them admit that their knowledge is obsolete. Many of them accept research themes and topics out of expediency rather than excitement, and almost totally discount the goal of social and economic utility.

A majority of these teachers and researchers may be left groping when asked to present proof of their performances. Over the 3-year time frame of the study, 14 per cent of the respondents were found to have no published paper; only 5 per cent of the published work was in good quality journals; more than half the surveyed scientists had not read a paper at a science conference or gathering; worse still, those credited with any patent, algorithm, prototype or design totted up to less than 1 per cent of the profession.

By implication, science teachers and researchers in India are seeped in poor morale. This torpid mentality leads them to a softheaded, disturbed search for a way out of the mire. Most solutions arrived at by scientists fail to break new ground. A majority of them want increased funding and better equipped laboratories -- which is reasonable enough. And there is no denying that teachers and researchers must be helped to spend as little time in routine administration as possible. Yet there is no guarantee that freer funding and fantastic laboratories will automatically lead to a better display of talent and dedication. The problem of Indian science academics seems more a matter of the mind than of infrastructure.

This much is indicated by some conclusions of the NISTADS study itself. Interaction, comparison and mutual notes are quite rare in Indian science faculty. A quarter of those surveyed had no exchange from a colleague from another department in the same institution for over a year. The gap between different institutions was even wider. Further, 75 per cent had no contact with industry or the wider community. This is self-quarantine on a mass basis.

And then there is the issue of accountability. Indian scientists have shifted often on this count, but it is time now that they accept this moral and civic principle. The Indian public and media are increasingly aware of the fantastic strides of international science from the edge of the universe to the heart of the matter, from futuristic materials to life long past. Not all this is immediately required from science in India. Even today, scientists are primarily expected to confront the relatively mundane problems of a poor country. But more than ever before, they are now expected to deliver solutions -- or accept being dumped on the wayside of development.

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