INDIAN SCIENCE: CATCH UP WITH INDIA, THEN WORRY ABOUT CHINA
(Part of it was published in Current Science vol 100, page 21 (2011))
In the last few years, there have been several comments that compare the scientific output from China and worry about India lagging far behind. Arunachalam has pointed out that the average citations per paper appear slightly better for India than for China, comparing the highly cited papers from both Nations. (Curr. Sci. 99, 738 (2010). This conclusion appears meaningless when one realizes that the total number of papers published from China is about ten times higher than that from India. Giridhar and Desiraju (doi:10.1038/nindia.2010.156) have looked at all the papers published and pointed out that the average citations have remained more or less the same in the last several years and so China’s increase in quantity has not been at the cost of quality and hence, India is way behind. Balaram has written several editorials cautioning against the use of scientometrics going to the extent of calling it a dismal science (Curr. Sci .95 431 (2008)). I have earlier pointed out that over-emphasizing of these parameters have led to many of our scientists working on problems that can be published and not on problems that need to be solved (Curr. Sci 98, 993 (2010)). This has led to the situation that India does not care about her scientists much.
Tata announces the plans to build the cheapest car in the world and builds it. ISRO announces the launch of Chandrayan and does it successfully. According to the book by Bagla and Menon titled ‘Destination Moon’, it appears that the main contribution from the premiere institution in the country (Indian Institute of Science) to the programme is the suggestion that India should not go ahead with this programme. Other contributions from the Indian Institute of Science, if any, are not taken cognizance of either in the Institute or by ISRO or by the Nation. Considering the fact that the first Chairman of ISRO happens to be the then Director of the Indian Institute of Science, Prof. Satish Dhawan, one wonders what happened in between. Chandrayan not only helped in exciting the Nation, the youth in particular, it also led to an important scientific finding: the presence of water on the moon. Naturally, the nation celebrated the ‘scientists’ from ISRO who were part of the Chandrayan mission and the real scientists from the academia feel upset with the attention ISRO deservedly gets.
The negative thinking evident from the suggestion about the Chandrayan programme seems prevalent among many scientists in India today, including some leaders. They are convinced that nothing useful will come out of any of our attempts and it is all right to continue to do the small things sitting in some corner. If an individual comes to this decision and does what he/she can do best, a system is not affected. It could actually benefit the system. If the leadership in Science has this conviction, it can affect the system and many working scientists realize this problem today. These leaders seem oblivious to the fact that it is often the small dreams and positive thinking that leads to solving problems that are considered impossible to solve. While the Scientists are busy nitpicking about who has a larger h-index (as Balaram pointed out, often in the lower end of the spectrum, Curr. Sci. 99, 857 (2010)), India has been progressing leaving Indian science far behind. Indian scientists seem to be living in an imaginary ivory tower with opaque windows. We need to catch up with India before we can worry about matching China.
The problems plaguing Indian science is well known and many have written about it. In essence, independence is condemned and nepotism is rewarded. We have many scientists who are critical about the system privately, but do not have the courage to speak up when it matters. Not only nepotism, often silence is rewarded too. Several committees making important decisions are chaired by people who have been retired for decades. While the system should enable those capable of doing good science to continue beyond retirement, it is not clear why those who have retired even during service should continue to chair committees making important decisions post official retirement. In-breeding is avoided in the best of the Institutions worldwide. Mere mentioning of such an opinion is opposed in meetings here even by those who may personally agree: “That influential person does not like this mentioned”. Indiscriminate in-breeding is still practiced in some premiere institutions in India. Those who oppose do not seem to realize that familiarity breeds contempt, eventually.
While personal ego is not confined to Indians, we take it to the extreme. Some leaders of science are so consumed with their personal agenda that they can not be bothered about the future of an Institution or Nation or Science. They are so proud that without them the Institution can not run, not in the least realizing that history will eventually judge them to be poor leaders. Such uncontrolled inflated personal egos can lead to statements which would be difficult to comprehend anywhere else in the world. An example that comes to mind was made by a minister recently: ‘I will be happy if the commonwealth games fail’. It does not matter if the country is shown in poor light. It is more important for the person to say ‘I told you so’. We have many scientists behaving exactly like this. If I am not in the centre, let the Nation/Institute/Science go to hell. Thankfully, today’s India does what needs to be done to these individuals: ignore them and carry on with the progress.
India is progressing in every other field: sports, cinema, arts, writing, commerce, industry, etc. In these fields Indians are competing with the best in the world and winning. Viswanathan Anand is the number one Chess player in the world. Sachin Tendulkar is the only active cricketer to be named in the all time greats recently. In any case, Mahendra Singh Dhoni becomes the most successful cricket captain India ever had. Abhinav Bindra becomes the first Olympic Gold Medalist from India. Saina Nehwal won the 40th Gold Medal in the Commonwealth Games, which the Minister desperately wanted to fail, and took India to the second place in the Medals tally inching ahead of the Nation that led to the Commonwealth. The Khans not only rule the bollywood, they top the charts internationally. One Mr. Rajni Kanth, a Maratian settled in Bengaluru as a bus-conductor becomes the undisputed super-star of not just Tamil Nadu but India. His recent movie Enthiran/Robot, directed by Shankar, is an example for thinking and achieving BIG. It is a technological achievement equaling or bettering Hollywood. A. R. Rahman wins both Oscar and Grammy awards. Indian Authors are winning Booker prizes more regularly, winning two out of the last five (Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga). Indian ladies have won Ms. World and Ms. Universe. IT industry has done India proud contributing significantly to the GDP, a fraction of which the Scientists are eager to take, often without accountability. Tata is not only making Nano now but has also acquired Jaguar and Rolls Royce. Mallya not only owns an IPL team but also a Formula One team. D. Udaya Kumar, from a small town Kallidaikurichi, Tamil Nadu, an Architecture student of Anna University and IIT Mumbai, comes out with a marvelous design for the Rupee symbol. Not surprisingly, these are fields in which merit and only merit matters. Not so in the closely guarded scientific institutions of India, where defining merit is, not so easy. Often the joke is that, you choose the candidate and then fix the qualifications accordingly.
Thanks to the rapidly increasing economic power of India, today the country is willing to invest big in Science and Technology. We do not seem to have enough scientists willing to ask the big questions and address them. As many have pointed out, most everyone is happy doing incremental science. Many active scientists today are convinced that we can not do difficult experiments here and so are not even willing to try. Even those who learn state-of-the-art-experiments during their training abroad, end up looking for safe alternatives after returning to India. Why struggle? It will take longer to publish and promotion may be delayed. When the experts can do no better than what an elementary school kid can do (count numbers), why bother about wasting time attempting to solve a problem that may take longer. Often solving big problems require meaningful collaboration cutting across disciplines. However, in India collaboration is encouraged only on public stage and not in the board rooms discussing the promotion of individuals. Being an experimental physical chemist, I have mentioned about doing difficult experiments. However, I must point out that this applies equally to both experimentalists and theoreticians cutting across all the fields in Science and Engineering. Not many are willing to take up challenging projects.
Science and may be journalism are still waiting to see such growth seen in the other fields. Rajdeep Sardesai has pointed out that 31 out of the 50 gold medalists in the Commonwealth Games are from rural India, Jat men and women (Deccan Herald http://www.deccanherald.com/content/106478/cwg-success-shows-indias-deprived.html.) He points out that investment in the sports academy in the smaller towns and cities have led to the rise of India in sports. He also points out that Journalism is still practiced mostly by some elites and naturally the talent pool that a diverse India can offer has not contributed to the growth of Journalism yet. This is certainly more applicable to Science. The problem with the elite is that, for them solving mundane problems, however important it may be for the Nation, is not exciting. Their dominance has ensured that very few laboratories building equipments and doing challenging experiments survive in India today. Infosys founder Naryanamurthy has pointed out recently that Indian scientists are not interested in solving problems of interest to the Industries (The Hindu, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/article855303.ece). The problem can be best summarized by the quote by John W. Gardner, who was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson: “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water”. Indian science not only needs excellent philosophers but also excellent plumbers in the Institutes and the scientific community will learn to respect them both equally for their survival.