Hindustan Times New Delhi (Off track) 15 May 2008
Is studying science history?
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.