For the Love of Science

By Vishu Mahajan

India has 8 Nobel Prize winners but only 5 of them are Indian citizens. Take out Peace, Literature and Economics prizes to restrict to the natural sciences and we are left with the sole Indian who was born here and made his career here – Sir CV Raman for Physics. The situation is equally bleak in Mathematics where we do not have a single Fields Medal winner (Manjul Bhargava was born and brought up outside India). In a country with a population of over 1.2 billion and a fundamental duty (as enlisted in Article 51A of the constitution) to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform, the figure of 1 is a little disconcerting.

Science vs. Technology

In this article we will try to understand what has been ailing research (particularly in science) in higher education institutes in general. At the very outset we clarify an important distinction between two terms confusingly and ambiguously used together – ‘science’ and ‘technology’. Science is what happens in small labs – a systematic study of nature and natural processes that leads to creation of new knowledge and broadens our understanding. On the other hand, technology refers to the use or application of this new knowledge for economic and social progress and improving human life. As an example, Isaac Newton’s study of classical mechanics or Maxwell’s study of electromagnetism is science. Thereafter simple and harmless looking formulae like Force = mass * acceleration and Maxwell’s Equations went on to power the Industrial Revolution and nearly all modern technologies as we see them today. The conclusion is that both science and technology are equally important. There can be no technological progress without science.

The past and the present

Higher education is affected by lack of original research and breakthroughs. Though most well renowned centres of higher education belong to the Western world today, this was not always so. Consider the ancient Nalanda University in the state of Bihar. In the first millennium AD, it was the greatest centre of learning with people from all over the world coming to study diverse subjects (both religious and secular) and a library so large that it reportedly burned for 3 days when set on fire by an army of the Mamluk dynasty. And even before that, all of us know about the great contributions of Aryabhata, Charaka, Susruta, Varahamihira, etc. However this is no cause for complacent arrogance about the poor situation today. No Indian college/university ranks in the top 200 list of either the Times Higher Education rankings or the QS rankings. The arrogance was at full display in this year’s Indian Science Congress where the PM made claims about the existence of flying machinery in India even before the Indus Valley Civilization. Pandering to imagined ancient glory and achievements undermines rational thinking and gives one a false sense of pride.

Policy issues

Some of the challenges before science and research have been listed and discussed briefly:

  • Funds – The Gross Expenditure on R&D (GERD) in India is nearly 0.9% of the GDP which is extremely small in contrast to other well performing Asian countries like China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore. Further, out of even this small amount most of the expenditure (58%) is on the strategic sectors (large mission type projects in space, atomic, defence sectors). This means the proportion of GERD that goes to universities for higher education research is extremely small. In other words, there is more focus on technology than science.
  • Private Sector Apathy – Only about 29% of the GERD is contributed by the private sector. There is a lack of interest within private sector to set up research institutions, R&D labs or research funds. Most of the research in the private sector is in-house and deals with its own commercial objectives.
  • Governance and Administrative issues – The nodal bodies for science administration like Department of Science and Technology and Department of Atomic Energy are modelled on lines of bureaucracy. Since promotions are based on length of service and performance is not given due importance, there is a lack of incentive. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) are outside the bureaucratic setup. The regulatory framework is highly complex with multiple bodies involved like the UGC, AICTE, MCI that literally choke the institutions and strip them of all autonomy. The UGC has been repeatedly accused of toeing the line of the ruling dispensation. This lack of autonomy to institutes does not auger well for quality and efficiency. Independence in decision making has been a key factor due to which the initial IITs and the IISc have flourished.
  • Patenting and licensing incentives – No coherent framework for screening of publications and incentivising the good ones by helping the authors with patenting and licensing. The NIH of the US does this job.
  • Expansion vs. Quality – In chasing unrealistic expansion targets, there has been a compromise on quality. New IITs and AIIMs have been created without concomitant improvement in infrastructure, labs or faculty. As pointed out by many, bricks and mortar do not make IITs. Similarly, the proliferation of private colleges has turned higher education into a business and knowledge creation has taken a backseat.
  • Attitude towards science – Science is viewed as a tool for engineering or medicine and not a career in itself. A change in attitude is required at the societal level. Parents and teachers must encourage young people who are talented in and excited about mathematics and science to pursue their passions. This should be accompanied by Incentives for taking up pure sciences including scholarships, collaborations with foreign universities, industry and research labs, participation in global conferences, interdisciplinary research. We also need to identify talent at a young age and provide them with sufficient exposure like KVPY, Olympiads, etc.

Budget 2015-16

The budget presented a couple of weeks back fails to lift the veil of gloom that has gripped science and research in India. Total increase in budget for S&T is around 4-5% and hardly beats inflation. So it is actually lesser in real terms. In fact in some areas like Ministry of Earth Sciences and Indian Council of Agricultural Research allocations have been reduced. Similarly, Department of Science and Technology (the nodal body for civilian science research), Department of Biotechnology and the amount for fellowships have seen only a measly increase. The only area where significant increases have been made is the nuclear energy sector – Department of Atomic Energy, NPCIL, etc. Even ISRO and Department of Space have received small sums despite plans for Chandrayaan-II and human spaceflight programme.

Need for long term thinking

Some tall claims and ambitious targets have been set out in the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy of 2013 (e.g. increasing GERD to 2%, position India among top 5 global scientific powers by 2020 by increasing share of global scientific publications from 3.5% to > 7%). The document also declares 2010-2020 as “decade of innovation”. But it remains to be seen if it is anything more than merely a document. It is understandable that investment in science and research yields returns far in the future and it is difficult in a democracy to rally people behind a cause that does not deal with immediate concerns. But it is equally important to realise that a society that does not create new knowledge and innovate is doomed. It is upon us to create a scenario through intensive debate and reasoning to create necessary pressure on political parties to make science an electoral agenda.

About the Author: Vishu is a graduate from IIT Bombay and an IAS aspirant. He likes writing on issues which are relevant but often neglected by many of us.

4 thoughts on “For the Love of Science

  1. A very nice article, covering most of the important points. The most important thing is change in attitude of people and rulers it is the only way that we can as a country see some progress.

    PM statements in science forum are unfortunate and they used the science forum to propagate Hindutva agenda,they made it a forum to further their agenda which is really sad. The same leaders were of full praise when MOM succeeded,claiming credit again a political agenda.

    Science needs freedom and funds, I would have love a few words on ARROGANCE of HRD Minister, Institutions need space, announcing new IIT’s IIM’s is easy but giving them proper infrastructure is most imp.

    Over all there is need for lot of Institutional,administrative changes which are essential for scientific community to flourish again and the time is now .

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    • We are glad that you liked the article. We completely agree with your view that politicization of such serious issues is unfortunate. Do spread the message by sharing the article with your friends and discussing the topic in your own circles

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  2. Nice article. While I agree with the article in theme but I want to bring out a tangential perspective. If one goes through any on the development cycles around the world in temporal dimension one can find the following pattern. All the development cycles happens in three stages:
    1) Ensure physical access
    2) Ensure economical access
    3) Ensure sustainable access
    In education field, I think we are currently at Stage 2. Physical access to the institutions are provided by the private schools, colleges and universities. But still, there are lot of people who cannot afford them. So the current aim of the policies are to provide the economical access to them by having state sponsored institutions. And once this is achieved we will move towards ensuring sustainable access where focus will be more on the advancement as the basic premise has been met.
    Well it is altogether different question that even after more than 65 years of Independence we are still at Stage 2. And this reflect in our HDI.

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    • Kumar, you raised an excellent point here. Between quantity and quality, India had to choose quality. But one cannot say that India has to follow the mentioned cycle. I mean India did go from being Agrarian Economy to Service Economy.

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