Rise and decline of modern science in India (2008)

National Academy Science Letters (Allahabad), 31 (5&6) , 171-174, 2008

Prof. R.C. Gupta Endowment Award Lecture of National Academy of Sciences India, Allahabad, delivered at Panjab University, Chandigarh, 18 Jan.2008


It is a matter of great honour for me that the National Academy of Sciences India, Allahabad, has bestowed on me its Prof. R.C. Gupta Endowment History of Science Lecture Award for the year 2006. More than an award to an individual it is the Academy’s statement in favour of a rigorous, detached, open-ended approach towards history of science. I am particularly happy that the lecture is being organized by my alma mater, Panjab University. When I entered the University in 1962 I was barely 15 years old. My first and the lasting impression of the University is about its Central Library. The schools I had gone to had no library worth the name. The college where I spent a year had a beautiful library, but the library staff tended to view us as potential thieves. I am not sure whether I alone was under suspicion or others also. But, in the Panjab University library we had the whole storehouse of knowledge at our disposal. I mention this because much has changed, and changed for the worse, in the last four decades throughout the country.  I am not singling out any particular university or college, but drawing attention to a common phenomenon. Book prices have gone up, rupee has gone down, and the library, and laboratory,  budgets have been slashed. Although today I am talking about rise and decline of  modern  science in India, I could be talking about scholarship in general. There is a growing concern in India about the state of health of science education and research. It would help if science decline is viewed not in isolation but in the larger context of  a general  scholarship decline.


My basic degrees from this University have been in Physics/Astrophysics. It was a happy accident that I strayed from modern Astrophysics into History of Astronomy and the History and Sociology of Science. Whenever I gave a talk on science in British India, the question at the end was invariably this. It is all right to talk about George Everest, J.C. Bose or C.V. Raman but what about today? It is this persistent query that led me to look into the post-independence science in India. My stint as Director of NISTADS helped me gain familiarity with the scientific developments in the globalization era and benefit from the research work carried out by my colleagues. To understand the modern situation, it is necessary to form a perspective on recent history.


Since there are very many  in the audience who are students, science students, biology students, I would like to  make some comments on the state of the world science today.


World science today

We notice first of all that  the faith societies and nations had placed, in the years immediately after the second  world war , in  science’s ability to deliver solutions has largely vanished. There is now a wide-spread cultural fatigue of, and backlash against, science the world over.


As is well known globalization has been made possible by developments in information and communication technology. A less obvious feature of globalization is the round-the- clock free flow of financial capital across the world. Concerted efforts are being made to provide mathematical basis for the behaviour of world capital and stock markets. Many persons with high skills in physics and mathematics are being employed in these endeavours. These experts may otherwise have gone into science. Indeed, natural science now has a serious rival.


We shall now look into   the  developments within science. In the 1930s the Nobel-prize winning nuclear physicist , Lord Rutherford, made an interesting observation. He said to te effect that physics was the only science; everything else was stamp collecting. Why did he say that? Those were the days when botany and zoology were mere taxonomy. Of course, now they are lab sciences, wherein manipulation is possible at molecular level. Just as the years  immediately after the war belonged to physics, the present, and the near future, belong to new biology.


The first stage was when Nobel-prize level research could be carried out in small, even private, laboratories. Then came the stage when, while cutting-edge physics research required high technology, reasonably competent research could still be done with relatively modest equipment. Physics has since advanced to a level where this is no longer possible. But now biology is probably  in a similar state. The dynamism in new biology may continue for another twenty, thirty or more years. After that, whether physics will stage a comeback in a cyclic fashion or whether science itself will become listless, only time can tell. Instead of venturing into fool-hardy guessing game into the next hundred years of science , we will instead look at the past century of Indian science with a view to understanding how we have ended where we are and where do we go now.


A century of Indian science

Decline in Indian science is ironic because of the fact that India was the first country outside of  Europe and America to take to modern science. Two Calcutta degree-college professors, J.C. Bose and P.C. Ray, were the world’s first non-Western main-stream scientists. C.V. Raman’s Nobel prize was the first one  to go out of the West. It would perhaps have been better for India if Raman had missed the  Nobel. The freak individual honour has raised false hopes and made it difficult if not impossible to carry out  a clear-headed analysis of Indian science.


The Indian pursuit of science during the past eleven decades can be discussed in terms of three sequential phases: (i) Nationalist Phase; (ii) International Phase; and (iii) Globalization Phase. The first phase can be assigned  a precise beginning,1895, when Bose’s first paper appeared. The second phase can nominally be taken to begin with the 1945 setting up of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, by Homi Bhabha. The third phase, now on, began with the onset of globalization


As we move down the phases, there is a general decline in   the quality of Indian science and in its impact on the world. I would argue that there is a striking correlation between these three phases and the stages in the diminishing role perceived by the middle class for itself in the national scheme of things.


Nationalist  phase

The phase that began with J.C. Bose and Ray is characterized by the Nobel prize – winning work of C.V.Raman and the Nobel-class theoretical researches of M.N. Saha and S.N. Bose. These spectacular achievements were made possible by a fortuitous combination of circumstances. (i) Modern science was young then. It was just a short step ahead of, or rather a continuation of, M. Sc.-level studies. Thus Raman could publish research papers in international journals while still a student and establish his credentials as a world-class experimentalist working part-time. Saha and S.N. Bose as young lecturers produced the first ever English translation of Einstein for use as course material. Saha and before him J.C. Bose could identify research problems by reading popular accounts.


(ii) Another very important feature of this phase was that the caliber of teachers was exceptionally high. Teaching was the best career option after the  ICS. Surendra Nath Banerjee after being unfairly dismissed from ICS became a college professor (He taught P.C.Ray). Since Saha could not enter civil services because of his  pronounced nationalist leanings, he  became a university lecturer. Raman left a cushy civil job to become a professor.


(iii) The infrastructural and technological requirements of experimental research were very modest and easily available at the level of a college teaching.  As J.C. Bose  pointed out  in his time  library and lab-wise the Presidency College, Calcutta, was among the best equipped anywhere in the world. Ray had a B.Sc. – failed assistant, Jitendra Nath Rakshit, who “Out of a few bits of rejected glass – tubing” “could improvise an apparatus, which hitherto could be had from a firm in England or Germany after months of anxious waiting”. Raman used to boast that his equipment cost only 200 rupees. Raman misses the point completely. What is important is not the cost, but the fact that at the time state-of–the–art labs could be easily set up in the country.


Now Nobel –prize level work requires billions of dollars worth of equipment which needs continual up-gradation. Basic science has increasingly become a child of high-technology and the days of simple discoveries are long over. It was one thing to theorize on Bose–Einstein statistics using paper and pen ( as S.N. Bose did), but quite another to achieve the technological feat of isolating the predicted condensates (which was honoured with a Nobel prize in 2001). It was the “science application” ‘under the aegis of the British administration that made “science speculation” by the natives possible. But as science developed, India failed to keep pace with science application. Science speculation cannot be maintained in a technological and industrial vacuum.


International recognition won by J.C.Bose and Ray was the first tangible proof that the natives could be the equals of and command respect from their European masters. In recent times there has been much back-dated regret at J.C. Bose’s failure to encash his pioneering experimental discoveries pertaining to radio receivers and transmitters. It is forgotten that at the time being treated as  equal ranked higher than being a part of the industrial machinery. Notably ,  in the same spirit Bose declined a professorship in England and chose to remain in Calcutta.


 The take-off stage of modern physics coincided with the enhanced sense of Indian nationalism. Making scientific discoveries requires a certain amount of defiance. The suppressed anger against the colonial rulers provided that defiance. Paradoxically, while Indian achievements in science were perceived as part of the nationalist movement, at the same time honours bestowed by the colonial rulers were coveted and even flaunted. In the early days when India was new to modern science, it was natural that recognition be sought from the West. But modern science in India never became self-assessing. Scientists have continued looking towards the West for encouragement, support and recognition.


In the early 1950s when the celebrated British physicist Paul Dirac visited India he found to his horror that S.N. Bose was not a Fellow of the Royal Society. Such a glaring  omission showed the Society in poor light. Dirac promptly arranged to have  Bose elected as a Fellow. Interestingly, at the time, there were already a number of Indian Fellows, but none  of them chose to propose Bose’s name. We have here at work what we may call the Sultan’s Harem Syndrome. Inmates of a harem compete with one another to catch the eye of the  Sultan, in this case the West.


In the pre-Gandhian years, the nationalist movement was strictly a middle class affair, with the leadership still making appeals to the Empire’s sense of noblesse oblige. In this scheme science and public affairs reinforced each other. Things changed with the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi on the scene. Leadership remained in the hands of the middle class but its constituency became more broad-based. As a strategy, Gandhi put the West on the defensive on ethical grounds. Since modern science was largely seen as a part of the Western civilizational baggage, it went out of focus during years of Gandhi’s ascendancy. Science returned centre stage with the emergence of Jawaharlal Nehru as the undisputed leader of independent India.


International phase

To fix our ideas we have taken the foundation of TIFR in 1945 as the starting point of this phase. It essentially deals with India from independence till the onset of globalization (and Mandalization). During this phase, at least in the earlier part nation building was a recurrent theme. Attempts at industrialization, reverse engineering, irrigation dams, agricultural production, strategic science, health-care and desire for expansion of science and engineering all placed science (including technology and engineering) in a pivotal place. This rubbed onto basic scientific research also.


Generally speaking, research was of lesser quality than before. This is understandable because in the interim science had developed faster than India had.  Indian science depended on foreign collaboration and visits; and had an eye on the man-power needs of post-war West. Yet, it fitted in with the national desire to harness science for economic development, and as an instrument of national prestige. Although in a democratic set up, political power was transferred to elected representatives, the distance between them and the middle class was still small. The distance has since increased to such an extent that middle class has lost whatever sense of national obligation it had cherished earlier.


Globalization phase

Globalization has transformed India economy as well as the India middle class.For the past many years India has been enjoying an growth rate of 8-9%.While the rate is commendable, it has been driven by the services sector, which is manifestly science-less. If the economy of a country becomes derivative so will its culture. Science cannot flourish in a society whose economy does not require science. If the Indian economy has disowned science, the middle class has disowned India itself. Globalization has introduced India to a consumerist lifestyle that is beyond the intrinsic strength of India economy. This lifestyle can only be maintained by servicing the Western economy.


Throughout the world science provides the quickest, shortest and the surest route to middle class and for upward social mobility. Indian Science and engineering degree-holders from among the middle class  are more than willing to do petty un-intelligent jobbery for big companies for the sake of a salary, which though small in dollar terms translates into a hefty rupee bundle . If they want to pursue science they go to USA,  where a middle class living is still an improvement over their Indian status. At a technical level, it must be admitted, there is a cascading  effect in the decline  of science in India. There is an ever-increasing chasm between the best of Indian science and the best of world science. If any Indian wishes to make a mark in scientific research, they can as well go abroad, especially when the world is culturally far more homogeneous than ever before and travel and communication costs have come down drastically. Interestingly  while politicians, lawyers and doctors want their children to follow their parental profession, Indian scientists would not like their children to become Indian scientists. ( Similarly , while military officers do not like their sons to follow suit, a burning ambition of junior and non-commissioned officers is to see their sons as officers.)


It is noteworthy that American-born young men and women irrespective of their ethnicity are not interested in a career in science. Science in USA is being kept alive by immigrants. This has a lesson for India. The biggest shortcoming of India today is that its middle class has become a closed club; they are no new rants into it through education. If science is to survive in India, the education system must step out and embrace children of illiterate parents. For these, a science-related career in universities, defence, national labs, public sector undertakings, etc., would be a social step upward and therefore acceptable.


 During the colonial period, production of wealth aspects of modern science were looked down upon. There was  an economic role for science  under Nehru’s influence, but the phase soon came to an end. The lessons of the past eleven decades of Indian pursuit of India science very clear to anyone willing to see them. During the nationalist phase there was this desire to show the world. That spirit somehow vanished on the way. It needs to be revived again. At the same time it is important to remember that it is not possible to sustain science as a purely cultural activity for any extended period of time. If science is to survive , leave aside flourish, in India, it must play a leading role in GDP.  Science empowers not its worshippers, but its harnessers.

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