Science in India

Ashutosh has already written an excellent post on Science in India that summarizes the original set of articles in the Chemical and Engineering News and adds a significant missing point - the need for change in the Indian mindset when it comes to science. I would highly recommend reading that before you read the following. Here, I want to mention a few additional points and also put certain issues in perspective.

Whither higher education in India?
This is a subject which is worthy of a whole slew of posts. I have seen both sides of the coin for roughly the same amount of time in India and in the US. Here, I am more of a cross-disciplinary scientist-cum-engineer. After my first month in the US, I stopped making comparisons between Pune University and the University of Michigan. They might both be universities, but the two are entirely different; almost different genera.
Why is this so? We all know the reasons - India is a developing country, with more pressing needs than 'wasting money on research that might lead to something'; the legacy of British bureaucracy permeates through all institutions and academia is more about how to deal with red-tape than about R & D; then we have the age-old caste, religious and cultural biases compounded with the politics of 'reservation', which have totally distorted the meaning of merit and fairness. So the mantra is 'pack your bags for the US, the sooner the better.' But does this apply only to us, Indians?

In the past four years, I have come across a whole lot of European students, post-docs and professors who have chosen to leave famous places like Cambridge and Oxford to pursue their careers in the US. Most have cited reasons or excuses that any Indian provides when asked to justify his presence as a scholar in the US - better funding opportunities, more career growth options, an international experience that will be valued back home in Germany, Sweden, the U.K. and elsewhere. Even friends who went to study in Europe looked or are looking for the first opportunity to hop on to the US bandwagon.
While the US school system has its own problems, the system of higher education in the US currently has no equal and I think that is the way it will be for the next few decades. The American model is being applied in other countries, notably in Asia - in China and Korea this wind of change is turning into a gale, but not surprisingly, it is still a light breeze when it comes to India. While I wish there was a more bold initiative from the government and a clear policy with regards to R & D and science, I am encouraged by recent moves.

Public Funding
I find it rather encouraging that funding from the government for Science and R&D in India has increased over the past decade and it looks like it will keep increasing. In the US, universities and professors vie for national grants and funding from governmental agencies such as the NSF, NIH. In time, I hope that such agencies are created in India, current agencies are given more autonomy and awards have the same sort of transparency and minimal interference from bureaucracy,not being scuttled by political considerations and appointments. For example: I greatly like the model of the NCSB and also its special program for attracting young scientists and providing them with generous start-up funds.

Private Funding
Another aspect of the US model is the huge private funding from large foundations such as Whitaker, Kresge and Hughes and other personal donations. Such contributions, though not in the league of governmental budgets are nevertheless very important in endowing chairs, providing funds for buildings and taking specific initiatives. In India, alumni giving is not particularly big. Apart from the few usual suspects and recent donations made by people who made it big in the late 90s in the computer industry there isn't much of a culture of alumni donations. This needs to change. Universities here try to hit alumni for cash, the moment they graduate in whatever way they can. So far, I have yet to receive any sort of demand for contribution from my college in India.
It isn't like there aren't Indians with cash to spare. Currently, there are 23 Indians in the Forbes list of billionaires, more than the combined net worth of the ones from Japan. I would like to know how much of their charity goes to education, and in that specifically to funding research. On a personal note, I see a huge waste of funds in fattening the various denominations of swamis and gurus by the general public. Why not directly build temples of learning? Or invest directly in the future of lakhs of students instead of going through these fraudulent religious intermediaries? I bet there is tons of money right there.

The traditional mindset of Indians
Quoting from Ashutosh's post,
"... the lack of respect for science and humanities in our society, and indeed almost anything that does not involve a professional career. No matter what changes, unless people's mindsets change, nothing will finally ever change. I personally find this to be the single most important lacuna in our lack of progress."
I cannot but agree. But how does one exactly change the mindset?
One definite way is to make it more remunerative and on this I would like to slightly disagree with Ashutosh. I agree with him that most of the mad scramble in India for whatever degrees, diplomas you can lay your hands on is for a better pay or job. But Mammon is the great archer. Modeling was certainly not considered very respectable a decade ago. The liberalization in the early 90s led to a rapid rise of consumerism and hence a modeling boom (don't give Ash and Sush all the credit!). Parents have quickly gotten over their sons and daughters strutting about in their underwear. There will be an automatic respect for TV producers, disc-jockeys, historians, writers and scientists when parents are reassured that their talented children will keep up with the Kapoor's next door and won't have to be doctors or engineers to do so.

While I agree with Ashutosh and the general premise that there is more freedom to choose an alternative career in America, the desire for parents wanting their children to become a doctor or an engineer is quite strong, more than one would think (and this is not just Indian parents and their American-born children!). My colleague Tim (a neuroscientist) has this theory which I formulate thus:
"A reasonably intelligent person will continue on a straight line towards being a doctor if not suitably acted on by forces that make him choose otherwise."

If the mountain does not come to science, then science ...

Can we make science attractive? I still don't think we will ever be at a point when you will see a scientists being asked to endorse toothpaste/cars/suitings on primetime television but more space needs to be devoted to science and humanities in magazines and newspapers. Most Indians can name all members of the Indian cricket teams but will be hard-pressed to name more than half-a-dozen Indian scientists who are still alive. There has to a better platform for outreach for scientists. In the US, I face constant requests from outreach programs to teach kids about the brain, judge science fairs and talk about my research. I don't once remember a chemist or a physicist (even a grad student) coming to my school and talking about what he/she did and how much fun it was. The rare opportunity was the Exploratory program run by the Center for Scientific Research(hope I got this right) that selected students on basis of a city-wide test to participate in a unique class that was taught by eminent scientists. Perhaps more of such programs would have led me to chose otherwise and earlier instead of my current circuitous path towards science.

I am rather optimistic about the future of higher education and science. Cricketeers will still make more money but at least kids will grow up with heroes other than them.

Sobering Note
I agree that are other problems of implementation, scale and feasibility. In reality for half of India's 1.1 billion who are below 25, higher education is less of a burning issue than tackling the poor and unfairly distributed primary and basic education. Much of what can be our strength is currently worth just as much as cattle.
But, that is another issue. Where do we start and where do we end?


Born a Libran said...

Hirak, I agree with some of the opinions you have voiced on Science in India.
I agree that higher education is a problem in India. So far, we have had a great amount of emphasis on getting good engineers (IITs), managers (IIMs), but we are lagging in good scientists because there are very few institutes like the IISc, NCBS, TIFR, etc. for a country as big and as highly populated as India. In addition, the "brain drain" happens not only because USA is a much more attractive option in terms of oppurtunities and remuneration for your efforts here but it is also because the system in India needs a lot of working on it. I can say for myself that if you give me an equal oppurtunity in India, I would ditch USA anyday. We can only learn from equivalent people in another generation and the advice 4/5 times from the older profs in my department in IIT would be to stay on here. I have been fortunate enough to have gone to NCBS for a couple of summers and seen the other side of science in India but there are so few of these centers that we still have to work a lot towards promoting science in India both in terms of funding and in terms of making it attractive for people. I agree with you that though people are more liberal here towards arts, they are still biased towards the sciences. A classic example is the hardships a grad student in the arts faces for funding as compared to a science/engg student. I also agree that we need a prominent figure in India to promote young people to take up science. Here, there was Einstein. His theory of relativity is understood by very few people. Though I respect him immensely for his work, I think the reason he is truely so widely known is because he has become the poster boy of science here - more so during the final years of his existence and after his death than at his peak. We need an Einstein in India that people would like to emulate - much the same like the cricketers and movie stars are worshipped in India, we need a poster boy for the geeks. Enough said for now.

Hirak said...

More encouraging news is that there might be a Linear Collider in India, but is India going to go out of its way to make sure we bag it and not China?

In the same edition of Science there was a discussion about China's new plan for Science and Technology.

(If you don't have access gmail me: achilles and I will send you the articles.)

Born a Libran said...

My feeling is that resources might have to be improved and stuff like the Linear Collider project will certainly help but before that, we have to still figure out how to use what we already have in an optimal manner. Unless those questions get answered, I cant see even the Linear Collider being used optimally by our guys.

Ashutosh said...

Great this prompted another post from me!

Ashutosh said...

Hirak, I always think that if we Indian students here donate 1-10$ to some college or university in India, a substantial amount of money could be raised every year (even if 50% of all of us do it). But someone needs to set up a scheme and guaranteed method whereby this can happen.