Science and sensibility(2006)

Hindustan Times, 3 August 2006  

Science and sensibility

It is sad but true that pure science is becoming increasingly irrelevant in India. Why this has happened may not be such a difficult thing to understand. In fact, the reason is rather simple. A country’s mindset is determined by how it generates its GDP. Indian economy nowadays is being driven by the services sector, which now accounts for as much as 57 per cent of India’s GDP. Since services are essentially devoid of core science, its very requirement is going out of the system.The extant middle-class has got used to a consumerism-oriented life style that can be maintained only by doing petty jobs for advanced economies. The Indian middle-class is now a closed, non-expanding, self-absorbed and selfish group, bereft of any sense of noblesse oblige. This class is not interested in a career in science. To the end that ‘science’ has become a quick and sure way of social upgradation. In other words, first-generation learners are a fertile ground for cultivation of science. If we sincerely and seriously wish to advance science, we must bring new people into the lower rungs of the lower and middle middle-class.  

In this respect, the situation in India is similar to that in the US. American-born young men and women are not interested in a career in science. They want quick and big money, which only the financial sector and the like can provide. Pursuance of science in the US is being kept alive by immigrants, for whom studying science is an improvement on their status back home, even if it enjoys  lower middle-class status in the US.

Graduates of IITs and other high-ranking institutions go to the US if they want higher technical degrees. If they remain in India, they do an MBA and join the corporate world. Students who do not get into premier science colleges are opting to quit the science stream altogether, choosing instead economics or commerce.

If we wish to judge a nation, we should ask what it considers worthy of celebration. Middle-class India is busy celebrating its recently acquired international mundu-dom. (A mundu is a young boy hired at low wages at a teashop, to do menial work.) We believe we are an IT superpower, even though our share in the world IT-related revenue is less than 2 per cent. The software earnings share in India’s GDP is also about the same. In fact, there are far more legitimate reasons to call India a ship-breaking superpower because in that area, our share is a dominant 35 per cent. Some smart chap has dubbed Bangalore India’s Silicon Valley. If India indeed had a genuine Silicon Valley, we would be on top of the world. No doubt, many international companies have opened their R & D centres in India, but these centres are more ‘R’ than ‘D’. In any case, the patents filed are owned by the parent company,  even if Indian names appear as authors.

It should be a sobering thought that India’s earnings from remittances is about $ 21 billion as against $ 17 billion earned by the IT sector. It should be kept in mind that the latter is a gross figure; the net  after subtracting the bill for import of the necessary  software and hardware is far less.

The world is happy to shower encomiums on our IT prowess. Because our engineers are grossly under-employed, the vendors are getting top-class brains at throw-away dollar prices, which still translate into a neat rupee packet. At a recent ceremony to honour school-level innovators, the winners wanted seats reserved for them in good engineering colleges! Obviously, if we start celebrating the wages stage, we’ll never reach the royalty stage.

Over-emphasis on the service sector is damaging our education fabric. Whatever basic science is taught in the engineering colleges is now considered a waste of time and is being discounted. Our high school and senior school science teaching is devoid of practical training.

We should seriously examine the desirability of having a composite ministry of science and education. We must expand the catchment area for science education, so that new entrants can enrich science as well as themselves.

If the present trend continues, leave aside researchers, we will not even have qualified people to teach science at school level.

The writer is an astrophysicist and former Director, National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, Delhi



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