Time for an “Occupy Science” in India?
In a policy commentary article titled Bold strategies for Indian Science (Nature 484, 159-160;12 April 2012), Gautam Desiraju, a professor of Chemistry in the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the current president of the International Union of Crystallography, held forth forcefully on what he thought were the bottlenecks that seem to be holding back the progress of Indian science. I found much to agree with.
The writing on the wall has been there for some time. At the 99th Annual Session of the Indian Science Congress in early January 2012, in a speech largely filled with self-congratulatory platitudes, the Honorable Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, stated: “Over the past few decades, India’s relative position in the World of Science has been declining and we have been overtaken by countries like China.”
Sayeth Prof. Desiraju, “Yes, we know.”
At present, India has a trickle-down strategy, in which elite institutions are supported in the hope that good science there will energize the masses, and a bottom-up approach, in which the general public is targeted with schemes to popularize science.
When I was growing up in India, there were a handful of elite institutions for higher science and technology education and research. In the recent past, a lot many more have been set up under various programs by the Government of India (See, for instance, this excellent list of autonomous higher education institutions in India, courtesy Wikipedia), especially the five Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), established by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, with the express purpose of science education and basic science research. And although the current budgetary allocation to Indian science stands at a dismal 0.9% of the GDP, the government has committed to increase it to 2% by the next five years. The 24th February 2012 issue of Science, featuring a series focusing on Indian Science, reported on the ambitious proposal:
(at the Indian Science Congress) Manmohan Singh pledged to hike R&D expenditures from around $3 billion last year to $8 billion in 2017… to turbocharge initiatives to create elite research institutions, bring expatriate Indian scientists home, enrich science education, and equip smart new laboratories… Over the next 5 years, an estimated $1.2 billion in public funds will be funneled to a new National Science and Engineering Research Board…
In short, the age-old practice of throwing money towards a problem, with no regards to the need for new strategies or the provision of real solutions, laments Desiraju. As a result, we have glaring deficits at various levels
- glitzy level: no Nobel prize winner since C.V. Raman in 1930, no highly Shanghai-ranked university, no miracle drug for a tropical disease and no sequencing of the rice genome.
- industrial level: no breakthroughs to rival the telephone, the transistor or Teflon.
- organizational level: no postdoctoral system worth its name, and an undergraduate teaching system in a shambles.
- (academic level) We figure occasionally in the best journals, yet we tolerate plagiarism, misconduct and nepotism. And yet, the innate abilities and talents of India are palpable.
Why is it that this country has not been able to harness its strengths into deliverables? Availability of funding is not the principal problem with Indian science, opines Desiraju, but something more sinister, more deeply ingrained, involving “the country’s historical, economic and sociological profile” that needs to be understood and appreciated if India as a nation is to progress in Science and Technology.
Desiraju offers two majorly important factors contributing to the decline in Indian science, namely:
- A feudal-colonial mindset, created by (i) the Indian “cultural value system, backed by Hindu scriptural authority”, as well as (ii) “Centuries of servitude”… that “have made the average Indian docile, obedient and sycophantic.”
- Variants of corruption, including irregularities in academic and administrative appointments, nepotism, regional parochialism, old-boys’ networks, indifference, lack of introspection, administrative vindictiveness, studied silences and so forth, all factors that “conspire to create an atmosphere that lacks innovation and creativity.”
Desiraju believes that this feudal-colonial mentality has had far-reaching and debilitating consequences for research, pointing out two significant lacunae that impact the status and quality of science done in the Indian institutions:
… our lack of the ability to question and dissent that is so essential to science. Most of the faculty in our better institutions have done postdoctoral work in a foreign laboratory of consequence. Unlike young scientists in advanced countries, however, newly returned Indian lecturers typically relive their golden moments as postdocs throughout their research careers. The best research papers from India may be competent, but they do not inspire or excite. Very few Indian scientists are known as opinion-makers, trend-setters or leaders. They follow obediently.
And secondly, perhaps more importantly in the context:
… our unquestioning acceptance – bordering on subservience – to older people. In this part of the world, age is blindly equated with wisdom, and youth with immaturity. This facilitates the continuance of the status quo. Geriatric individuals with administrative and political clout reinforce their positions so well that we are unable to eject them.
Having had first-hand experience of this system, I couldn’t agree more. And these two points may not even be mutually exclusive. The status of science education is abysmal; questions are stifled and dissent is severely frowned upon. We have become a nation of excellent test-takers, who can ace exams by regurgitating rote-memorized material, but fail miserably when it comes to independent thinking and intellectual exercises. Our science curriculum seldom teaches us to be critical and rational. It is no wonder that the country’s education system has been infiltrated by superstitious nonsense and pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo, such as astrology and homeopathy. It doesn’t come as a surprise that higher education and research opportunities are often dominated by clannish cliques with immense power over funding decisions.
As long as these cultural issues and social idiosyncrasies continue to exist, no amount of money will produce a satisfactory achievement or a scientific output that is relevant to our place in the world. As Desiraju suggests, the administration and the authorities must search within themselves the “underlying causes for this lack of satisfaction and relevance. Until then, no amount of bankrolling, populism, bureaucrat bashing or whistle-stop tours by prominent Western scientists will help.”
In the final synthesis, Desiraju suggests a number of short- and long-term measures that can encourage new ideas, as well as enhance enthusiasm and participation of the masses. I would certainly include in this some program or curriculum that will help elevate the public understanding and appreciation for science and the scientific process.
Desiraju also advocates high-level funding for projects of national importance in the areas of sustainable growth and development, such as energy, water and public health, the latter being particularly important given the high infant mortality rate, incomplete immunization coverage, presence of malnutrition and extremely high HIV prevalence (Source: UNICEF India statistics).
In addition, he recommends abolishing “the present system of awards, prizes and recognitions in higher-level science. This would dissuade younger scientists from chasing awards rather than doing good science, and it would reduce the influence of the cliques who allocate prizes.” I am not sure how much this deincentivization would work for career scientists, but a reduction in the dominance of the said cliques would be a welcome change.
The ONLY area in which I differ from Dr. Desiraju is his proposal for “removal of caste-based quotas and reservations in the educational and research sectors”; I know that given the well-known irregularities and politics of appeasement prevalent in the reservation system, many have called for the outright elimination of such quotas, and frankly, I personally find the caste-based inequality and discrimination morally repugnant. Yet, as long as a better and equitable system to protect the interests of the socially and economically marginalized is not in place, the quota system is the only choice we have to serve that important purpose, called social justice. If anything, such intervention encourages the minorities to come forward and participate in the social process which will eventually lead to progress and development. However, this would be a discussion for another day.
Gautam R. Desiraju (2012). Policy: Bold strategies for Indian science Nature, 484, 159-160 DOI: 10.1038/484159a