Senseless science

NONSENSE IN INDIAN SCIENCE·Dilip M Salwi · Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd, Delhi·Rs 125

Published: Friday 15 January 1999

state of Indian science is a grand paradox. Ostensibly one of the largest scientific communities in the world, Indian scientists have failed to produce world class research. Science writer Dilip M Salwi apparently finds the situation amusing since he has written a "fun book" on the subject.

Nonsense in Indian Science is an interesting book to read but becomes gruesome to contemplate on the ironies. There are many people in the scientific establishment whom Salwi calls "genuine scientists" people whose integrity, and even brightness, is not questionable. It is the system that has failed, sinking with it the best of talent.

The malaise is deep-rooted. Some of the most glaring failures are attributed to the scientific bureaucracy that stifles talent, enforces an order that encourages mediocrity and hinders creativity rather than helping it. There are too many rules, too much babudom , too many gurus . To highlight the contrast, Salwi quotes Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the light bulb: "There are no rules here. We are trying to accomplish something."

About India's burgeoning gurudom, from karmacola to spiritually-guided levitation (which, in fact, is a form of frog-hopping), Salwi has this gem of an observation: "In the West, there are research gurus , who may or may not be Nobel Prize winners, but whose word matters in the world of science and technology. In India also, there are gurus but hardly a handful in research. There are gurus in plenty of a wide variety of other kinds. These gurus could be administrative officers, bureaucrats, politicians and even leaders of different religious sects. Much of the irrationality in Indian science can be traced to these gurus who are indirectly controlling its destiny."

Something is severely askew about the gargantuan scientific establishment in India. Otherwise, why is it that the British, over a relatively short period of their stay here, trained Nobel class scientists while the country has singularly failed to achieve much in the 50 years of Independence. There are a number of factors, one of them being attitude. We would endlessly crow about having one of the largest scientific communities in the world, but would not do anything about quality of research. It is the same attitude, writes Salwi, that makes us rationalise the failure to get an Olympic gold in swimming by saying: "Well, we may not have won the Olympic gold. So what? A large number of us know how to swim."

Salwi rakes enough muck to satisfy an average reader's thirst for the shenanigans of Indian science. All that, he explains, is barely the tip of an iceberg, thus whetting the appetite further. He is not prepared to accept the idea that Indian science is lagging merely because of lack of funds. Even if we have enough funds, our scientists may not find enough energy for doing scientific research as all of it is drained in taking wife and children for an outing, making social calls, running around government offices, taking the wife and children to the doctor, and so on. "So where is the energy to do research?" he asks.

Ever wonder what our scientists have been doing in their laboratories? Well, here is the answer: "giving new names to old horses" and coining "big words" instead of doing "big deeds". Salwi explains: "Ask a scientist what he would do to modernise his lab or institute. He will talk about having more expensive equipment, more computers, more space and more scientists. And also, not surprisingly, a new name to a lab or institute."

And what about big words substituting big deeds? Here we go again: "More Indian scientists are adept at coining big words for their small deeds.

For example, technology parks, technology missions, technology polyclinics, etc. They are talked about with a great gusto initially and then forgotten as bad dreams." Is all this amusing? Or disgusting?

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