Until Dec 31,2013, I was a Senior Editor at Forbes India and I usually wrote about science and technology on this blog. I believe while we may have settled into consuming the nicely packaged final products of science - technology being a hand maiden of science - we are distancing ourselves from all the effort that goes into it. This blog was an attempt to bring occasional peek into those efforts and ideas. I've been a journalist for 17 years and have written for The Asian Age, The Times of India, Mint, Red Herring, IEEE-Spectrum, Cell, New Scientist and others. I'm now available at firstname.lastname@example.org You will find my future articles on www.seemasingh.in
What a question, many would say. Particularly in a blog post that is close on the heels of a special report on innovation that we did in Forbes India March 2 issue. Actually, this question emanates from the feedback to that report.
So, does Indian science suck? Yes and no.
Yes, because like so many other enterprises in this country, scientific enterprise is not without flaws, major flaws some would say, and I fully agree. Choking bureaucracy, hierarchy, orthodoxy, mediocrity, follow-the-supervisor (or Godfather) culture, fear of asking bold questions, doing-confirmatory-tests-and-saving-the-skin, science-lodged-in-ivory-tower-syndrome …the list goes on. All the reader comments I got in this story, are true and justified. I even got a few calls asking why didn’t I flag the major issues plaguing the system.
But don’t we know that already? The reason we did this story was to talk about the change that is unfolding. And as my editor says, “Our story isn’t about the state of Indian science.”
So let me take a few criticisms, one by one.
People say the ills of the system are self-perpetuating. Prof Jayant Murthy of Indian Institute of Astrophysics has commented: “The institutions that are being set up have the same old people in charge. These people, by and large with exceptions, are hidebound and hierarchical. In many cases, they are self-perpetuating because they pick their successors in their own mold.”
True, but let me give a few examples of change: When IISER Pune was set up and K Ganesh made it’s director, one of the criticisms floating around was that Prof CNR Rao, chairman of the scientific advisory committee to the PM who promoted setting up of five IISERs, chose his son-in-law as the first director. It was a valid point. I don’t know if there were more suitable candidates, but today IISER is certainly considered to be shaping very well.
If you’ve read the NCBS story in the package, you’d know how S Ramaswamy was brought back from the US to lead a few new centres at NCBS.
While it’s good to have change agents from outside, sometimes even insiders can do the magic if they want to. Prof Pankaj Jalote, an IIT-system product, is running a new institute Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in Delhi. And visiting faculty there sing praises of his professionalism and the speed with which ideas get executed.
Another reader comments: “This initiative has the capability to change India's fortune obviously if properly executed which does not happen most of the times. Nothing less than a revolution is required.”
It’s bang on. Some of the architects of these initiatives understand that and question the limitations publicly. DBT secretary MK Bhan says there is substantial legacy problem in the institutions which are not thinking about younger people who don’t feel part of the system. So, does he only lament or is he doing something?
He is working with the older IITs on this as he is helping them establish research infrastructure in lifesciences. He is setting up network called Bio-Connect in Bangalore that would look after young researchers in life sciences across the country. RA Mashelkar in the last issue of Science proposes a new Academy for the younger generation so their voices could be heard.
Bhan even wonders if “our ambition is larger than what we have in the government” as he seriously wishes the government would do systemic and institutional studies to pinpoint and eliminate the bureaucratic and ideological limitations and do public-private partnerships in the right manner. But does that stop him from innovating in his own department? No.
When I asked DST secretary T Ramasami how can the industry be made part of the innovation process so that both public-funded research and industry work to each other’s strengths, he gave a fitting example: At Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai, a CSIR center with the then budget of Rs 15.8 crore, he raised Rs 13.8 crore from the industry. So the basic question is not whether industry is willing to participate but whether both can work to each other’s time scales. Industry needs to innovate and execute faster, but Indian institutions want to file patents just to be able to publish papers. (Once the patent is filed, they can publish and get their academic credit as our system is more geared towards rewarding publication than innovation). Is there a common ground?
Yes, but covering that sufficiently requires a significant cultural change. It may not happen soon. "Not in my tenure, or even in my lifetime”, says Ramasami. “But if I have to play the role of Rahul Dravid for this country in science, I don’t’ care how long I need to bat, whether I get runs or whether I’m sweating hard or not, I bat.”
I am tempted to tell him (in retrospect, of course) that given the present need, he and other batsmen in Team India Science need to swing for the fences, not just settle for singles and doubles.
This special report is not only about how Ramasami, Bhan, and others are batting, but how they can inspire and facilitate many more, both test players and T-20 enthusiasts, to score quick tons.