Nature India | Indigenus

We need some cheeky scientists

As the year drew to a close, I was invited by one of the leading newspaper groups in south India to reflect on the state of India’s science. I have always thought that a crucial factor missing from the country’s science is some cheek, the spirit of adventure, that streak of impertinence which allows researchers to stand up and be counted.

The following piece (reproduced with permission from Hindu Business Line) reflects upon the spirit of constructive irreverence, a key ingredient for scientific research:

India needs a small dose of impertinence in its science

India needs a small dose of impertinence in its science

Federico Rostagno /Alamy

Some call it irreverence, some politely couch it as the “questioning spirit”. I call it cheek. That’s what’s missing from Indian science today — the impertinence that made the likes of Raman, Saha and Bose.

Over the years, I have seen students get into undergraduate science streams, bubbling with the passion of becoming biotechnologists, nuclear physicists and electronic engineers. In just about a year, they lose steam, bogged down primarily by the examination system that leaves no room for any other creative pursuit. Halfway into their ‘dream streams’, most of these students are either regretting their decision or are resigned to a no-fun future restricted to earning a living through science. By the end of their courses, many turn away from the subjects they initially thought would be the love of their lives, or just stick around in labs carrying out orders from uninspiring seniors.

What is with this country’s science administration that strips our youngsters of their cheekiness, a crucial factor in the pursuit of science? Why is asking questions of senior scientists seen as a mark of irreverence?

Contrary to the spirit of science, why is it that we see science, scientists and policymakers recoil when faced with uncomfortable questions? What is robbing the happiness of our young researchers — most of whom are encouraged to become androids pushing copycat science?

The lack of cheek has pervaded the science administration so deep that when eminent scientist C. N. R. Rao stood up to question the state of India’s scientific funding after receiving the Bharat Ratna last month, the scientific community was pleasantly surprised. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s scientific advisor wasn’t alone in his concern. His public expression of disappointment with the system is the outcome of long years of fighting the system. It is this outrage that many in the science community in India feel but seldom express.

Boom times

These are boom times for Indian science. The national spending on science and technology has gone up in the last few years and is inching towards two per cent of India’s GDP. Though many would still call it peanuts compared to other science-faring nations, it isn’t as bad as the last decade. Hordes of new institutes are coming up, but many feel that simply increasing the number of institutes will not lead to scientific prowess. It is, in fact, a catch-22 situation. The education system needs a complete rethink in order to attract more students to science and produce world class scientists.

India has registered an annual growth rate of more than 12 per cent in scientific publications in Science Citation Indexed journals in the last 5-6 years which compares well to the global average of 4 per cent. India’s global ranking in the number of publications has also seen relative improvement — from 15th position in 2000 to 10th in 2009 and improving.

Given the background, it should look like it is really hunky-dory for scientists working in India. Though good science and research are happening in some brilliant pockets of India, things are not as cheerful in a majority of labs.

Too many bumps

The lion’s share of scientific R&D in India is government-controlled. Scientists complain about the bureaucratic handling of science, poor pay and personal development opportunities, lack of amenities and stifling work environments where new ideas are not allowed to flow freely.

India is also accused of doing ‘copycat science’, duplicating work already done in western countries. The Prime Minister urges scientists to think out of the box and expresses concern over the red tape in science administration at every meeting of the Indian Science Congress. India hasn’t seen a home-grown Nobel Laureate since Sir C. V. Raman who got the prize for physics in 1930, and that is something the government rues time and again.

Also, the ‘publish or perish’ principle of scientific success results in a lot of junior scientists complaining that their seniors take the credit for work they have done and fail to acknowledge them. A lot of angry voices complain about corruption and one-upmanship in Indian labs.

While a handful of such cases have been taken seriously and those found guilty removed from their positions, there is no empirical data to prove that this might be a widespread phenomenon.

However, having said that, it must be conceded that there are labs in this country where the spirit of scientific inquiry is alive. Ideas float around merrily here.

Many of these ideas might be brutally shot down for their sheer craziness by friendly seniors (who prefer to be addressed by their first names). But those that survive are brilliant. That is a democratic and profitable scheme, as against labs that ask for written approval even to ideate!

A scientist friend made a particularly bold statement that I must quote: “Bureaucracy is not something I am bothered about, I can handle that. The sole aim of my lab is to get a Nobel for India soon. That’s what keeps me going.” Good luck, mate!

The spirit is alive. In pockets.

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