Tuesday, 17 January 2012

SINNERS AS LAMENTERS - What was the PM doing at the Indian Science Congress?

- What was the PM doing at the Indian Science Congress?
Ashok Mitra
The Indian Science Congress had its annual session in Bhubaneswar as the old year was ending. The prime minister was there; India, he was heard lamenting, lagged way behind China in the pursuit of scientific and technological development. His comment has diverse implications.
Comparisons are supposed to be invidious. Politicians in, or aspiring to, power nonetheless find it difficult not to succumb to the weakness. They dearly love their people to rouse the latent animal spirit and try harder so as to win greater laurels for the nation in different spheres. This, in a way, is also the mantra of the market. President Obama wants American children to concentrate on their studies in order that they might succeed against competition from Chinese and Indian students. Our prime minister does not ask our scientists to do better than their American counterparts; that will be lèse majesté. But it is all right for him to refer to China: is it not a matter of shame we should fall behind China in the field of science? Something has to be done about it.
The more squeamish ones may not feel comfortable with either the propriety or the aesthetics of the prime minister’s dragging in a neighbouring country when his overt concern is over what is happening or not happening in our own midst. Values and systems differ between countries, circumstances vary; comparing dissimilar categories, it will therefore be suggested, is neither here nor there. But leave that issue aside. The more important thing surely is to unravel the factors underlying the relative lacklustreness of scientific achievements in India. We need not travel far, nor does the prime minister, in this quest. One of the possible reasons for our backwardness is staring glaringly at our face.
Pray, why was the prime minister at the Science Congress, what earthly business did he have there? An annual session of the Science Congress, one would have thought, is an intensely internal affair of the scientists, where they assemble to talk shop, that is, discuss themes and puzzles that challenge them. It provides them a forum for exchanging, in their own code and lingua franca, thoughts and ideas. Instead, the Indian Science Congress, like several similar other congregations of the academia and the cognoscenti, has increasingly assumed the character of a jamboree.
The Bhubaneswar session, for instance, was reportedly attended by, hold your breath, as many as 16,000 delegates. If true, nothing could be more grotesque. A fair number of this crowd, it is worth suspecting, had perhaps not even the remotest connection with science and technology, quite a few of them were drawn in the manner of tourists, or persuaded to be there as tourist attraction. Those attending included two Nobel laureates whose spheres of interests are quite some distance from science and technology. It was no Science Congress, but a public-relations event.
Besides, once a technical concourse assumes the features of a carnival, anything goes. It does not take long for a carnival to turn into a racket either. The atmosphere gets spoiled, scientific pursuit tends to lose its focus, genuine scientists begin to lose ground to hucksters, the inevitable consequence is a pall of shadow over the quality of scientific research, achievements shrivel.
Such intrusion of waffle has a bit of ancient history. Way back in the 1930s, the Indian National Congress was the most formidable platform from where nationalist leaders would spit fire. Most of it was pure froth. But, in the mêlée, Jawaharlal Nehru stood out for the kind of things he said and the manner he said them. He did not talk the diction of a run-of-the-mill politician. He sounded rational, extolled the scientific spirit and gave evidence of an earnestness to harness the wonders of science for the social and economic progress of a future India. The Indian scientific community was bowled over. Here was the man of destiny for them, he was bound to understand the problems confronting science and scientists in the country about to see the dawn of freedom. The nationalist lobby in the Science Congress moved fast. Nehru, no scientist by any definition, was elected president of the Indian Science Congress. He made a beautiful oration, at the annual session, which was on schedule, but whether his imposture served the cause of either science or India remains an open question.
Those who sponsored him knew what they were doing though. Nehru was the future, he was soon going to take over the governance of the country. His patronage would mean access to funds and an escape route from encountering bureaucratic hurdles. In many respects, these enthusiasts were dead right. Without Nehru as prime minister, it would have been most improbable for the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the whole chain of national science laboratories, or the atomic energy department to get established that quickly. But patronage, particularly where the milieu is overwhelmingly feudal, a written constitution with democratic pretensions notwithstanding, has other fallouts. It leads to cronyism, a natural enemy of rationality and, in the long range, a corrupting influence vitiating the system.
It also means subtle, and not so subtle, imprest of the government’s priorities on the mindset of the scientific community. The concept of tied grants seeks to attain sovereign power. Funds flow for scientific investigations, but funds flow relatively more generously to areas where the government is intensely desirous of a scientific or technological breakthrough for purposes of the State, not so much for purposes of science.
The government is in a hurry. It wants scientists to deliver, pronto, an invention or a product or a datum which will have immediate application in military strategy or the making of foreign policy. The emphasis in the allocation of funds accordingly develops a built-in bias. For instance, the overwhelming accent in nuclear research in the country in the immediate past few decades has been more specifically on the development of delivery mechanisms. This has affected research all the way down the academic stream, including re-drafting of courses, syllabi.
In any event, in the frenzy of achieving scientific and technological breakthroughs in a fiercely combative global framework, the tendency grows to dub those who love to stick to basic research as idlers, dreamers or lotus-eaters. That is precisely it. Science advances because individuals — or at most a close group of individuals — while away time to think and dream and speculate. They play with puzzles in their mind. With some puzzles, they reach a dead end. They do not, however, like to give up. They weave another puzzle and keep toying with solutions.
There is a huge waste of resources involved, resources that are a burden on society, but perchance if a magic result comes up, the face of human civilization can get changed. This is how science has progressed past the citadels of history. There is enormous outlay in terms of thought, time, financial resources. All this has to be considered as investment in the cause of science and human progress; waste of this kind is the other name for investment.
All this apart, is it not ironic that so-called received knowledge desists from regarding as waste the continuous piling of nuclear weapons, embodying trillions and trillions and trillions of dollars? The mounting stockpile is judged as indispensable for national security and transcends desiccated cost accounting. The criterion is different for basic research, which is often treated as akin to idling. It tends to be forgotten that had not one or two odd scientists once upon a time indulged in idle speculation over the mysteries of basic particles, there would have been no ushering in of the nuclear era, and the luscious enterprise of nuclear weaponry would not have seen the light of day.
The Republic of India has been sucked into the nuclear delirium. The State’s priorities have become priorities of the scientific community. It is not an unfair question to raise whether this has not stunted the growth of science in the country. Politicians hanging about in academic gatherings, where the agenda ought to be severely scholastic, are no help to the advancement of science. The prime minister was sorrowful over the state of science and technology in the country. He was actually incriminating himself and his tribe. They themselves are the prime sinners.