Special / Create a research culture for the growth of science in India

Hindustan Times : Feb 06, 2019, 10:11 AM
With our economic and geographical size, and our young population, India shoulders a great responsibility to our citizens and to the world. In this, science has a key role to play. Today, our planet is in a perilous state. Our route to this precipice started at least a century before 1950. Industrial revolutions and their consequent growth pulled hundreds of millions into the middle class.

Some analysts have pointed out that health benefits, education, assured food and housing are available to more people now than ever before. In India, primary health and vaccination programmes, education, the green revolution, and liberalisation have moved us from a near-static economy to the world’s fastest growing one. However, the way we, on earth, have grown, has caused climate change, consequent global warming, and major environmental degradation.

The development of new technologies leading up to, and including, the fourth industrial revolution have also greatly sharpened inequalities, concentrating extraordinary wealth and power in the hands of a global elite. If we are to retrieve our planet, we need to address these prevalent threats as well as emerging ones. This needs to be done while satisfying the legitimate demand to take all our people out of poverty. Success requires a new route and meaning to growth. Here, science in India can define this new approach and shape it.

The most important role for our scientists today is in the training of the next generation to make critical thinking second nature and research commonplace. Our best science and technology research environments cater to less than 5% of our students. Quality research, driven by the search for knowledge understanding, must also be done in our state universities, which cater to 95% of our students, and where first generation students enter in the millions. Tomorrow’s global elite will have the exploitative power, not only from material resources, but mainly from the ability to use data. A poorly educated workforce will make India a vassal state, with our rich data parked elsewhere and our population impoverished by the lack of understanding and control over its use. Mathematics, statistics and data science, along with computer science, need to be added to foundational skilling, through language-neutral teaching material accessible in quality across our geographies.

Our best scientists and science institutions are fully up to this task of expanding the footprint of research and excellence. Over the past two decades, the median quality of our researchers has gone up noticeably. From theoretical physics and mathematics to cell biology and health research, more Indians are globally noticed. Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay and Ritabrata Munshi in computer science and mathematics are examples as are Upinder Bhalla, Yamuna Krishnan and Rohini Godbole in neuroscience, chemical-biology and high-energy physics respectively. Yet these, and many other such scientists come mainly from a handful of institutions. These institutions must now lead in the expansion of quality, so that there are more of them.

Our best researchers must be more daring in the questions they themselves address, thinking with more originality and ambition. Currently, with some notable and admirable exceptions, such as the ones named above, our excellent scientists and institutions aspire, at most, to be as good as those elsewhere. While this does not seem a bad goal, it destines us to be followers of moving targets set by others. We should simply aim to address and solve the most challenging problems, fundamental or applied, national or global. If we do this, we can be better than the best in many ways, while others are the best in their own ways. If we focus on trying to be the best by imitation, we may be very good by global metrics but very boring, unimaginative and without national and global impact. Our best will be admired for their ability to fit in and serve imaginative leaders from elsewhere, but rarely for our ability to break new paths.

Our scientific ambitions can and must be diverse, from abstract mathematics to cosmology, and everything basic and applied, in between. Our major sites of investment in intellectual power, Bengaluru, Pune, Hyderabad etc can leap ahead if they form hubs in each city that link to develop spokes elsewhere, locally or thematically. In past decades, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) have been playing nationally transformative roles. Today, these and other institutions must be ambitious again. They have the leadership to do so. The IISc, for example, can and must form a confederation of major institutions in Bengaluru, which keeps intact and enhances their best features and autonomy but links them inexorably in teaching, research collaborations and ambitious projects. This can be done in other cities too, led by each major institution there. Such clusters have been articulated top down in the past few years. But our great scientists and science leaders need to demonstrate bottom-up hunger too. The population of Bengaluru is comparable to that of the Netherlands. With leadership from the IISc and partnerships from the best institutions in Bengaluru, the IT-Biotech engines, the labs of ISRO, DRDO, CSIR, IARI etc., magic can be worked. And, while doing so, this cluster can help transform our state universities.

India can grow rapidly in a sustainable manner. For this to become reality, our leading scientists and institutions need to combine their competence with a comprehension that moves us to firmly address big issues intelligently. With courage and original thinking, a science powerhouse that is different, but as remarkable as those in the UK, Netherlands or Sweden, can bloom in every major hub. This can actively stimulate the spread of a research culture among our students in the spokes. The creation of such a culture is our primary investment for progress and the only insurance against the vagaries of the future.