Millennium Post

Whither spirit of enquiry?

The scientist is a pervasive sceptic who is willing to tolerate uncertainty and who finds intellectual excitement in creating questions and seeking answers,’ an unknown author has said. Science is a process, not an accumulation of knowledge and/or skill. Is science of this calibre alive, or is education as also research degenerating in the country? As computers reign supreme in every sphere, basic science has been literally put on the back burner by all— policy makers, dulling bureaucrats, educationalists, universities and the government.

The recent 2014-2015 Union budget outlays for scientific research reflect a marginal raise over allocations last year with atomic energy, space, biotechnology and earth sciences getting frugal hikes. India’s research and development (R&D) spend remains around 0.9 per cent of GDP — compared with 1.84 per cent in China. It has been 56 years since the first Science Policy Resolution was formulated; three more have followed. The latest, Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP) of 2013, focuses on a strong and viable Science, Research and Innovation System for High Technology-led path for India (SRISHTI). The STIP 2013, which has laid the roadmap for use of science, research and innovation to shape the country’s future, listed some interesting ideas. But, but one year down the line their implementation is yet to bear fruition. Will it go down the way of the STIP 2003?

What ails our science education and research? The problem starts with science education in schools. Though, over the years, there have been vast improvements in curriculum, these have not been carried forward to higher levels of education. Research and laboratory facilities of scores of universities remain poorly funded and lack the resources to even procure and maintain modern scientific equipment; they currently receive only around 10 per cent of the R&D budget but are expected to produce most of the country’s Ph.Ds. With hardly any motivation to take up pure research as career, most of the science students pass out of schools, set on a career course to pursue engineering or computer science followed by an MBA. Then they get hooked on to the booming IT industry. The new breed of scientists is becoming a broadly-trained expert in statistics, computing, algorithm-building and software design. Consequently, research has become data-driven; this phenomenon is only increasing.

In this pursuit, how does one inculcate any commitment in young minds to pursue scientific inquiry with national spirit? A few who do undertake research aim to join the academia. And among those who become teachers at universities mostly restrict themselves to becoming guides to researchers and get research papers published in peer-reviewed journals. They keep ruing that academia salaries are not on par with the industry; it is true.

India has declared 2010-2020 as the ‘Decade of Innovation’ and established the National Innovation Council (NInC). We are half way through and there are no signs of innovation. Generally, students’ research projects are basically studies based on existing data aimed at getting a doctoral degree. Qualitatively and quantitatively, research outcome is abysmal. Innovations that get patented are very low.

Nehru’s scientific temper is an obsolete phrase today. Mahatma Gandhi’s swadeshi is long defunct. So also are ‘indigenous’ products and processes, as FDI rules supreme in every, including science and technology, field. Scientists who once used to claim that the products and processes have been produced indigenously are unable to utter the word anymore. 

Today, the buzz word is PPP. Post-Independence, no Indian, working in a laboratory in India, has won the Nobel Prize for any scientific or technological discovery or invention; despite India making great strides in space, atomic energy, biotechnology, radio astronomy, pharmaceuticals, and worldwide reputation for its IT industries.

Thus far, ‘three Indian-born scientists have won a Nobel prize — biochemist Har Gobind Khorana (in 1968), astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (in 1983) and molecular biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (in 2009) — but for work done entirely outside India. And Indian institutes and universities do not feature in the world’s top 200 higher-education institutions,’ remind Mathai Joseph, a computer scientist and independent consultant, and Andrew Robinson, an author, writing in the Nature journal.

They call for ‘an end to the stultifying bureaucracy that has held back the nation’s science for decades.’ Administrators and bureaucrats have no proper understanding of fundamental research. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), formed in 1942, receives the maximum science budget. Its 40 laboratories are yet to come out with ground-breaking research or a breakthrough. The other is the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). It is ironical that both have failed to excel.

The main challenge facing the country is to improve the quality and quantity of scientific personnel. While scientific research requires massive funding, it does not need government control. Funds are allocated to different labs to conduct research on the same specific subject. Instead, a talent pool comprising creative minds should be formed to brainstorm and come out with innovative products. It is imperative that they are provided with adequate funding. The government is yet to initiate the 
endowment concept; though big names in the industry have set up such trusts.

For students, tinkering labs like those set up by various IITs are a good starting point. A tinkering lab is a platform for creative minds to come out of their ‘think space’ to a more hands-on ‘tinker space’, to transform their ideas into real-time engineering objects, and eventually to products and patents. The labs have been inspired by the MIT’s ‘Fab (fabrication) labs’. MIT, which started its first such lab in 2001, now runs 351 labs in 61 countries, from Boston to rural India (six).

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