Delusions of Science (2007)

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.

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