Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Indian Science: Challenges

Business India, January 2001
Mofussil science

Science in India has echoed the developments in the West with hardly any conceptual or experimental breakthroughs. The current state of science education is alarming

Shivanand Kanavi

“In India, we let existing institutions die and meanwhile plan to build new ones," is the bitter comment made by M.M. Sharma, a Fellow of Royal Society (FRS). Sharma was referring to the plight of our universi­ties, of which he has first-hand experience, having worked in UDCT (of the Bombay University) all his professional life. Today, we have 280 universities but cannot compare any of them to what BHU or Allahabad or Calcutta or Aligarh were in the 1940s and 1950s as centres of science. It will look prepos­terous to even consider comparing them to Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Cornell, Berkeley or Cambridge, which are some of the main centres of frontline science in the world today.

While the number of universities have prolifer­ated, they have become hotbeds of politics for state governments. "Universities have basically become examining bodies. Ninety nine per cent of the time is spent in organising examinations and results and convocation," adds Sharma. Today, even top universities have no research budget and wait for grants to come from CSIR or various government ministries like Department of Science & Technology, Department of Bio-Tech­nology, etc. Libraries are languishing as they have no money to buy research journals and Internet infrastructure is primitive. The interest of students in basic sciences too is waning as more and more look for some kind of professional education and those that finally take to science are mostly reluctant ones.

Some of the best equipped institutions and laboratories in India are outside the university system and they take no part in science education except for some of them registering students for PhD. Industrial funding for science is not forth­coming. The days of Tatas establishing the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, two of our finest science institutions - seem to have vanished. Neither is industry taking up reju­venation of a few of our universities. In this regard, the interest shown by IIT alumni in contributing to their rejuvenation is commendable though ironical; after all in India, the IITs are supposed to be the rich cousins of universities.

Today, we have very few FRS - just about 17 ­who are alive and working in India,, leave alone Nobel laureates. Only one of them is in his forties and the rest obviously did their work in 1960s and early 1970s. Clearly they were products of university education in the 1950s and 1960s. Are we going to see some more added to this list in the first decade of the 21st century? If there is no serious thinking and action on this front by acad­emics, scientists, industry and government right now, all talk of India becoming a global knowledge player, etc, will prove to be undiluted bombast.

A few bright spots in this dark scenario are the govern­ment's Swarna Jayanthi Fellowships. Sixteen of them have been awarded to young bright scientists in their thirties. They will get packages equal to directors and secretaries of the government and handsome grants for books and equip­ment. Besides the Science Talent Search fellowships of NCERT given to school and college students, CSIR has just started a scheme for selecting the top 50 school children from each state and giving them various incentives like scholarships, visits to top laboratories and interaction with scientists, etc.

The fact that the scientific community realises the urgency of stemming the rot from whatever meagre resources it has - mainly constituting ideas - was apparent in the first Indian Science Congress of the new millennium held in Pune in the first week of January. Normally, a gerontocracy of Indian science, gives all the keynote lectures, Millennium lectures, evening lectures etc. and the delegates go sight­seeing with their families. However, this science congress presided over by R.A. Mashelkar tried to be different. All lectures were given by 22 bright scientists in their forties. There were special sessions for children and students as well.
The result overwhelmed not only the scientists gathered in the Pune University campus but all civic and police authorities of Pune. Lakhs of school and college students poured in not only from Pune but from Jalgaon, Dhuliya, Akola, Malegaon, Sangli, etc - the mofussil towns of Maharashtra. It led to long traffic jams and even mild stampedes as the infra­structure at Pune University creaked to accommodate the nearly half a million visitors over four days of the congress. Children and their parents packed water bottles and picnic hampers and rushed to the venue in the early morning chill to stand in the queue.

So if Indian science has been characterised as imitating the western metropolises then today it appears that kids from mofussil India will save the day for science while the Indian city slickers dream of Silicon Valley and derivatives trading on Wall Street or Dalal Street.