Spotlight on a scientist

Published: Sunday 15 May 1994

PERHAPS the most interesting aspect of the speculation in the press about A P J Abdul Kalam Khan's continued association with India's missile development programme was the relatively high degree of public interest evoked by it. Other contemporary gossip about the country's scientific establishment had no such popular appeal. Almost at the same time as news surfaced that the scientific advisor to the defence minister would quit his job to take up academic assignments (reportedly at locales ranging from Madras to Miami), there was also news of discord among scientists in 3 very prestigious scientific research institutions, including the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bombay.

The ways in which both those who create and those who consume public opinion in the country relegated the discord as merely intra-organisational affairs, even while elevating Kalam's future career to the level of a national concern are illuminating. They provide several clues about what Indians expect of their boffins. Here, it becomes important to distinguish the real abilities among these from the red herrings. Thus, some quarters have already concluded that the seeming fetish with Kalam yet again indicates that public-funded scientific research must produce results which show off the nation's strength, especially military.

The latter aspect is markedly popular among circles concerned with peace and sustainable development and never fails to draw attention to the fact that while the earlier generation of figureheads of Indian science came to the fore mainly for their achievements in theoretical research, the more recent ones have been associated with applications in the strategic areas of space and atomic energy. This view has some validity. Nonetheless, it must not be chased into the realm of utter cynicism. In a situation where the country's scientific effort is overwhelmingly sponsored by the state, an orientation towards national goals is only logical. And within this effort, there are also equally impressive funding and support for scientific institutions oriented entirely towards peaceful purposes. The reason for the public spotlight on Kalam lies elsewhere. First of all, his achievement squares with the generally prevalent realisation that, no less for science than for any other field, the term "successful" can be used only if the recipient is internationally perceived to be so. Kalam's long-range rockets have scored, even as other scientific establishments continuously miss the bus on this count.

More important, perhaps, is the consideration that any major scientific effort by India -- indeed, by any developing country -- continues to be handicapped by formal or informal international frameworks created by the industrialised countries to deny transfer of up-to-date technology or scientific information of most kinds. Kalam's greater achievement, therefore, is to have created a plan of collaboration between numerous laboratories, academic institutions and industry that was able to overcome the barriers sought to be imposed by the US-dominated Missile Technology Control Regime. In comparison to such an achievement, most scientific establishments in the country, especially the numerous laboratories of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, resemble moribund bureaucracies, and public response to them continues to be deadpan. This is not to deny their problems, including the crucial one of dwindling financial resources. However, it is clear that if at all they are to evoke any public concern, they will have to show promise of delivering their designated goods first.

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