Posts Tagged ‘science’

Delusions of Science (2007)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 1st, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Times of India Editorial 31 January 2007

Delusions on science
Rajesh Kochhar

Addressing a scientific meeting in IIT Mumbai, prime minister Manmohan Singh very rightly expressed his concern “about the decline in the standards of our research work in universities and even in the IITs”.

He spoke about the “disconnect between research and teaching in the sciences” and wanted “more and more of our bright students [to] opt for a career in science”.

The audience could not have helped notice the disconnect between the PM’s address and that of the state chief minister which preceded his. The CM showered fulsome praise on Indian S&T, declaring that “our research works are of international quality”, and that “India is virtually ruling Silicon Valley”.

Why is there such a divergence of perception about the state of science in India? If a problem is to be solved, first of all there should be an agreement that the problem exists.

Nation-building seems to have been sacrificed at the altar of globalisation, and self-delusion has begun to get rid of the guilt feeling. If we close our eyes we can see India shining.
Addressing a scientific meeting in IIT Mumbai, prime minister Manmohan Singh very rightly expressed his concern “about the decline in the standards of our research work in universities and even in the IITs”.

He spoke about the “disconnect between research and teaching in the sciences” and wanted “more and more of our bright students [to] opt for a career in science”.

The audience could not have helped notice the disconnect between the PM’s address and that of the state chief minister which preceded his. The CM showered fulsome praise on Indian S&T, declaring that “our research works are of international quality”, and that “India is virtually ruling Silicon Valley”.

Why is there such a divergence of perception about the state of science in India? If a problem is to be solved, first of all there should be an agreement that the problem exists.

Nation-building seems to have been sacrificed at the altar of globalisation, and self-delusion has begun to get rid of the guilt feeling. If we close our eyes we can see India shining.

A couple of years ago, the visiting Chinese deputy science minister told this writer and his colleagues that since China could not compete with the West on the cutting-edge technologies of today, it was making money from technologies of yesterday and investing them in technologies of the future.

India, on the other hand, is so busy celebrating its petty successes on the services front that it shows no eagerness to graduate from wages to royalties, leave aside develop new technologies.

China honours those of her countrymen who return home and strengthen its economy. India honours those who leave the country and succeed abroad.

The golden age of Indian science occurred when universities and colleges were a nationalist seat of learning. During World War II, the western countries tempo-rarily transferred all available manpower to assist in war effort.

As soon as the war ended, the intellectual capital of the universities was restored. Unfortunately what was an emergency measure for the West was made into a national policy by India, with the result that focus shifted to national labs and universities were crippled.
A university with its informal and slightly chaotic ambience, availability of young, inquisitive and restless young men and women, freedom from the constraints of hierarchy as also the stifling influence of confidential reports is the right place for recognising, nurturing and employing talent.

If the government wants really independent opinion it can come only from uni-versities and colleges and not from government labs.

There is an instructive true story recorded by a bird watcher. Father bird would bring in food, deposit it on the floor of the nest from where the mother bird would pick it up and feed the baby.

The mother died; the father continued to bring in the food and leave it on the floor. But there was nobody to feed the baby who died of starvation. State is like the father bird; science the baby; and education the mother bird.

The writer is former director, National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies.

Going off balance(2006)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 1st, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Going off balance

Rajesh Kochhar

November 21, 2006 Hindustan Times Editorial

 

 

There is an interesting scientific principle at work on the surface of the earth. Nature believes in counter-balance. Oceans are large bodies of water with low density. As if to compensate, the rocks beneath oceans are very dense. Similarly, mountains are masses of high density, but the soil below is of low density.

This principle seems to operate in human affairs also. In the Indian context, the rigidity of the age-old caste system has at long last found a counterweight in the demand for promotion by right in government service. The altruism inherent in the setting up of the world wide web and the ease in flow of information on the internet is sought to be balanced by insistence on intellectual property rights.

In the years immediately following World War II, people were acutely conscious of differences in ethnicity, culture, language, food habits, dress, etc. As a balancing exercise, commonalties were sought, leading to a general atmosphere of liberalism. Today, when homogenisation in areas such as entertainment, food and dress has become overwhelming, there are attempts the world over to accentuate differences.

The same phenomenon is visible within the domain of science and technology too. There was a time when differences in availability of technologies were glaring. Now that levels of accessible, everyday technologies are more or less uniform, science is being asked to supply differences. Since mainstream science is rather unglamorous and predictable, the task has been assigned to pseudo-science. That would explain why interest in science is going down and mumbo-jumbo is gaining currency.

Media coverage of events presents a good illustration. All television channels have the same technology, the same viewership and the same ground to cover. Yet, each channel wants an exclusive story. During the recent Kashmir earthquake, television journalists dug up a university professor, who declared that the earthquake was related to the appearance of spots on the surface of the sun. This was exclusive indeed. Because the standard view, at least at the current level of knowledge, is that it is not possible to predict earthquakes. There is no correlation of earthquakes with solar activity, planetary conjunctions or mating habits of snakes.

The lure of two minutes of prime-time immortality encourages people to come up with theories for consumption by the media, knowing fully well that scientific journals would dismiss them with the contempt they deserve.

In the past, the whole population utilised its mental faculties at more or less the same level. Now an increasingly smaller number of people are using their intellect and  skills to higher levels to devise a technological world where ever-increasing numbers of people do not have to use their brains at all. While we enjoy more and more the fruits of science, the respect for science is going down. Some counter-balancing this!

 


Is studying science history? ( 2008)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on November 29th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Hindustan Times New Delhi (Off track) 15 May 2008

 

Is studying science history?

 

Rajesh Kochhar

At the Indian Science Congress in Visakhapatnam in January, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rightly proposed that 2008 be made the year of revitalisation of science education in the country. The decline of science in India is sad because at one time we were at the forefront of scientific enterprise. The quality of teachers was extremely good. After the Indian Civil Service (ICS), teaching was seen as the best option. C.V. Raman actually left the ICS to become a professor.

In the Nehruvian phase and later, there was tremendous excitement about science, technology and engineering. Science in India during this period fitted in with the nation’s desire to harness science for economic development and as an instrument of national prestige. Paradoxically, while globalisation has been made possible by major developments in science and technology elsewhere, science has lost ground in India.

There are two reasons for this: globalisation has transformed the nature of India’s economic growth and it has provided the middle-class with a pretext to decouple itself from the rest of the country. Throughout the world, science is a middle-class activity. But liberalisation has introduced the Indian middle-class to a consumerist lifestyle, which a science career here cannot support. If they want to pursue science, they go to the US. As it is, India does not offer much of an opportunity to conduct world-class science research.

A major reason for the decline in Indian science research and scholarship is that the catchment area of education has stopped expanding. That’s why the education system must bring under its fold the children of illiterate parents. India’s high-growth rate is being driven by the services sector. The West is outsourcing petty jobs to us; in return, we are outsourcing scholars to the West. If the Indian economy doesn’t need science, there can’t be much of a future for science in India.

It is not possible to sustain science as a purely cultural activity over an extended period of time. The purpose of science is to create wealth and the purpose of this wealth is to support science. Unless such a symbiotic relationship is be established, both science and society will suffer.

Rajesh Kochhar is former Director, National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies.