Monday, November 15, 2010

“India as a Global Leader in Science” Part I … and there was Silence in the House of Judgement.

A somewhat neatly brought up document was delivered by Post from a Science Academy of India. Its title was “India as a Global Leader in Science” and was purportedly written by the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India.

What immediately came to my mind was Oscar Wilde’s fifth poem in prose “The House of Judgement”. I guess it has now dropped out of the English syllables of our schools. Skipping many lines the poem goes like this:

And there was silence in the House of Judgment, and the Man came naked before God.
And God said to the Man, 'Thy life hath been evil, and thou hast shown cruelty to those who were in need of succour, and to those who lacked help thou hast been bitter and hard of heart. The poor called to thee and thou didst not hearken, and thine ears were closed to the cry of My afflicted. '
And the Man made answer and said, 'Even so did I.'
And again God said to the Man, 'Thy life hath been evil, … Thou didst build seven altars to the sins I have suffered, … Thine idols were neither of gold nor of silver that endure, but of flesh that dieth. … Thou didst bow thyself to the ground before them, and the thrones of thine idols were set in the sun. … .'
And the Man made answer and said, 'Even so did I.'
And a third time God opened the Book of the Life of the Man.
And God said to the Man, 'Evil hath been thy life, … Thine enemy who spared thee thou didst snare in an ambush, and the friend who walked with thee thou didst sell for a price, and to those who brought thee Love thou didst ever give Lust in thy turn. ...'
And the Man made answer and said, 'Even so did I.'
And God closed the Book of the Life of the Man, and said, 'Surely I will send thee into Hell.’
And the Man cried out, 'Thou canst not. … Because in Hell have I always lived,'
And there was silence in the House of Judgment.
And after a space God spake, and said to the Man, 'Seeing that I may not send thee into Hell, surely I will send thee unto Heaven. Even unto Heaven will I send thee.'
And the Man cried out, 'Thou canst not … .'
And God said to the Man, 'Wherefore can I not send thee unto Heaven, and for what reason?'
'Because never, and in no place, have I been able to imagine it,' answered the Man.
And there was silence in the House of Judgment.

I don't know why I think of "Silence in the House of Judgement" when the issue of "India as Global Leader in Science" is raised by the same people who have brought Indian Science to its present state so far.
I suppose it is intuitively natural for a 70-ish person like me.

India can be a Global Leader in Science… There is nothing wrong in this Vision.

In my opinion the vision document of the SAC can be dismissed as an ( incredulously shabby hastily written document. It is there for all to see and comment on anyway.

The science advisory council as a unit ia, at best, like the man in Wilde's poem. Always imagined to have lived in hell (lower levels of science) and thereby have no vision of the higher levels

I just wish that much younger minds wrote this vision document.
There does seem to be a breath of fresh fair flowing in the Indian leadership at younger levels in many areas of visibility. But this is despite the visions of the elder but the visions of the world brought to home by multimedia.

Going by the vast contrast in the technical finesse involved in the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games… we should not be surprised if the silence in the House of Judgment after the Science Vision Document was not one followed by peals of laughter.

Still it requires some courage to bring out such a document even if one may be sure that it will not match public imagination!

As a continuing bare-foot "scientist" of whatever kind, I have written this series of blogs positively. The young will deliver with or (preferably) without the Vision Document.

In the fourth part of this series I venture to make some commitments on the "Science of Small Things" that one could pursue, in my present vision of native science.

I. 1. The Legacy of Indian Science

There is no doubt that among the Political Leaders of Independent India who shaped science policy is Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. There is also no doubt that Nehru’s speeches instilled in us, the children at Independence, the desire to participate in Nation Building. The modern Indian temples were said to be those of science and technology. It is Nehruy who I associate with the setting up of the scientific temper of modern India.

Part of this culture arose from the highly glorified requirement of import substitution of a newly born nation wanting to rank along with the most advanced nations, as judged by the standards of advanced nations.

The Indian scientists were told to deliver on import substitution and introducing modern western science and technology. As a result, we are unashamedly happy to be the first to be second. This is of no use as far as establishing priorities of building an independent-nation-worthy scientific culture is concerned. It only helps in being part of an international fan club of an original generic paper with its attendant benefits of international conferences, usually at exotic locales. The ultimate aim of these conferences is to network within a new jargon that promises a delivery to a better land much to the social benefit of those in other countries that create the jargon. They ultimately play the pied piper. We dance our way with unfamiliar steps to borrowed tunes that don’t resonate with the pulse of our blood and end up wallowing in a shallow hole.

As it turned out, at the end of the import substitution or knowledge importing exercise there is little satisfaction or value addition as another set of newly emerging external standards have to be met and worked on. The scientists, no matter how much contribution they may have made to this culture, end up basically as gold-medalled parasites (see my blog on The Golden Bough, Sciencophansy and the * on a Chemist) of an upper-echeloned society of Tennyson’s lotus eaters (“ … they came unto a land In which it seemed always afternoon … A land where all things always seem’d the same … “) who really do not care much either way.

I. 1. Kumaramangalam Effect.
Once upon a recent time, the young Rangarajan Kumaramangalam as the minister of science and technology in India was faced with the problem of funding Indian science of the government funded kind to perpetual mediocrity. Kumarmangalam knew about science and was training to be a scientist before unforeseen personal tragedies got him into the political service of the country. I think he was impressed by some aspects of Indian science, but not all. He demanded from Indian science and technology institutions that they earn their own bread by generating income from their research in a way that would be useful to their country.

It had a remarkable debilitating effect quite contrary to what RK had hoped for.

I was at the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) when this happened. At once, the very scientists who had risen to the top using a government subsidized research ladder, would use their position to negotiate with industrial companies all over the world. They ended up primarily as members of outsourcing laboratories. This was good for the financial well being of the laboratory for a short while. The lights burning late into the night were not only those of people doing science for science sake. The deeply desired Information Technology (IT) outsourcing culture was in place even in the national laboratories. Like others in the IT industry, scientists conference and too instructions in the nights.
I work 9 to 5 but it starts in the P. M.
And I love the sunrise so I step out in the A. M.

The Physical Chemistry Division that I headed “disgraced” itself by refusing to generate outsourcing funds.

I think this source of “out”-funding lasted for a little while at NCL till the bigger “out” laboratories set up their own research space in India. They also grabbed the more able performers to their own fold and kept them as long as they were useful. The funded generated at NCL from within India dried up as there was no more a need for imitative technology especially since the patenting scenario had changed. NCL was stripped of its better talents.

Nobody took the Physical Chemistry Division Scientists. They remained. They did their own research. If there is to be a moral in the tale, the Physical Chemistry Division Scientists are now “important” members of the remnant NCL scientists in various ways in science.

There was, in the end, little change in the earlier mind sets.

Where is the Indian genius?
There is little indication of the modern, ground-breaking pioneering kind of thinking that India should pursue which is in keeping with the genius of the Indian people.

How many of us modern alienated Indian Scientists will be able to say “in a cross my heart and hope to die” sense that the science and the learning we are now doing has any direct connection to the demands of our indigenousness.

The answer we have is that science has no boundaries. True, I suppose.

If I look at the picture from (right below) the Hadron Collider without knowing what it is all about and saying that it looks like a bundle of strings unraveling in their own patterned way, will it help me to understand some pressing but less expensive global or local shortfalls or tragedies?

Of course, it won’t. Nor is it expected to do so.

On the other hand will the cover page (above left, condensed for convenience) of the Science Vision Document of the Science Advisory Council (SVDSAC) give any indication of how far Indian Science is from being a Global Leader in Science? One does not know what was the purpose of the cover unless one takes the cartoon´seriously). The credit for the gene sequence on the cover goes to one Dr. Anuranjan Anand. I could not get access to Dr. Anand’s papers though I found that the google citation for Dr. Ananad’s work rarely went beyond 8-10. The gene sequence itself ---- another string --- has not been made to look remotely as beautiful as that from the hadron collider.

The SAC of the PM does not seem to have a clear idea of what constitutes the kind of research that would form part of their vision. They could have used cover pictures for the purpose.

They were happy to have missed the opportunity of committing themselves to an example.

The Science Vision Document of the Science Advisory Council (SVDSAC) says “it is virtually impossible to exactly predict how today’s basic research will eventually improve our quality of life or to guess the new technologies or markets that may emerge” although they assert in an equally glib and robustly vague manner that the “ … results of basic research are prerequisites for many future technological advances and societal benefits.

I. 2. Indian Internal Science Standard

It is clear from the SVDSAC that we do not have an internal standard for science… something like an ISS (Indian Science Standard) which says specifically that such and such science would have important consequences for such and such problems.

Our highest achievable standard for Science is recognition from the Royal Society of London founded in 1660 and which now acts as the only Academy of Sciences for the United Kingdom and as scientific advisor to the government besides funding research fellowship and more importantly funding scientific start-up companies. A book on The History of the Institution, Design, and progress, of the Royal society of London has been written by Thomas Sprat who Sprat had helped to found the Royal Society. The society was stated at that time to be For the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy experiments of the recoiling of guns; method for making a history of the weather; a proposal for making wine; an apparatus to the history of the common practices of dying; and many more interesting topics.

Thomas Sprat would write.- It is evident, from the universal Testimony of History, that all Learning and Civility were deriv’d from the Eastern parts of the World. He, of course, identified the easterners with Assyrians and Chaldeans and Egyptians. At that time Europeans were not yet familiar with the ancient Indian texts, so we excuse Thomas Sprat (?).

Since that time things have changed slightly as we all must know.

We follow the Royal Society now.

Indeed, we have done better than that. We have five or six national academies that follow the style of the Royal Society. The National Academy of Sciences (India) (1930), The Indian Academy of Sciences (1934), The Indian National Academy of Science (1935), The National Academy of Medical Sciences (1960?), The Indian National Academy of Engineering (1987), The National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (2004?).

With so many academies, good coherent advice for the Prime Minister could not be expected, I suppose, so that a different Science Advisory Council had to be formed.

In the Indian context, the FRS is very meaningful; An FRS on an Indian scientist opens up avenues for collaboration in the shape of supplies of expensive equipments by Britain and opportunities for lavish entertainment at Government expense especially of Directors of the Royal Institution of Great Britain; there is always the hope that an FRS would follow for the Indian host, who is always kept guessing whether the hosting has been sufficient.

If I was the Director of the Royal Institute and I was aware that I was being feted and hosted and dined and wined and toured for extracting an FRS, I may have been tempted to exploit this opportunity as many concessions as possible for my Royal mother’s land from the willing hosts before I nominated them for the FRS.

The British colonial rulers had little interest in improving the Royal Society's learning from Eastern knowledge of the Indian kind. Instead they unleashed Macaulay's Minutes of Indian Education.

According to Angus Maddison’s book on The Economic and Social Impact of Colonial Rule in India first published in 1971 an reprinted in 2006, “… one of the most significant things the British did to Westernize India …” was the impact of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay's 1835 Minute on Education. Macaulay almost begins this Minute with “ … It is argued, or rather taken for granted, that by literature the Parliament can have meant only Arabic and Sanscrit literature; that they never would have given the honourable appellation of "a learned native" to a native who was familiar with the poetry of Milton, the metaphysics of Locke, and the physics of Newton; but that they meant to designate by that name only such persons as might have studied in the sacred books of the Hindoos all the uses of cusa-grass, and all the mysteries of absorption into the Deity.

Maddison would write that “ ... Macaulay was strongly opposed to orientalism and would write “I believe that the present system tends, not to accelerate the progress of truth, but to delay the natural death of expiring errors. We are a Board for wasting public money, for printing books which are less value than the paper on which they are printed was while it was blank; for giving artificial encouragement to absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics, absurd theology ... I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit orArabic ... But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value ... Who could denythat a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia ... all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England.

Macaulay would go on to add “…We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population

Angus Maddison then adds (it does not require much to add this) “The education system which developed was a very pale reflection of that in the UK. Three universities were set up in 1857 in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, … . Higher education was carried out in affiliated colleges which gave a two-year B.A. course with heavy emphasis on rote learning and examinations. They did little to promote analytic capacity or independent thinking and produced a group of graduates with a half-baked knowledge of English, but sufficiently Westernized to be alienated from their own culture

How damning it must be for a society to have to depend on an alienated educated upper class!

I. 3. The Poor shall inherit the Earth.

There used to be a time when science was meant for addressing itself to the needs of the society, by which we understood it meant the needs of the poorer or deprived sections. The Royal Society of London itself was set up during depressing times of the fire and the plague. To its credit it must be said that London prospered after that and the plague was eliminated. The objectives of the society focused mainly on experimental work; one of its first major problems was to ( determine the longitude at sea. Because of their concern with navigation and time they studied magnetism for the ship’s compass and the pendulum clock. All this made the Royal Society prestigious enough to attract foreign members, who proudly write the FRS against their name.

We somehow require being poor in order to extract an image of a poor hard-working scientist that deserves every piece of dole.

Sarojini Naidu—joked once “To keep Mahatma Gandhi poor, we have to destroy treasures. His poverty is very costly.

Instead of using our science to serve the cause of the deprived section by finding new advantages from being first (this is crucial) with our discoveries, we stress on how deprived we are as scientists. It seems to be important that we remain poor to explain our status as poor scientists.

This is our fatal flaw that conditions the science we do.

We love to flaunt our status of a third world nation, implying thereby a less than first world (whatever that means) standard in all things, intellectual or lifestyle. We happily pride ourselves when elected to a Third World Academy of Sciences. This academy is a consequence of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) at Trieste, Italy, started by the Pakistani Nobel Laureate, Abdus Salam after he “… suffered the tragic dilemma of having to make the choice between physics or Pakistan. … Fired by his own unhappiness at having had to leave his country, he was determined to find a way of making it possible for those like him to continue working for their own communities while still having opportunities to remain first-rate scientists. It was thus in 1960 that he conceived the idea of setting up an International Centre for Theoretical Physics with funds from the international community. … Scientists from developed and developing countries attending ICTP activities learn from one another in a stimulating environment that remains responsive to the needs of world-class scientists without neglecting the needs of researchers, particularly young researchers from the developing world, to remain at the forefront of their fields."

Given a well laid out path people find their way to the top especially if they are sufficiently contrasted as in the monetarily poor versus rich societies. Usually it is the poor who would try to emulate the rich. It requires a Gandhi or a Buddha to “live” a poor life by giving up their riches. It’s a mystery to me to see the Indian poor man’s hero, Ambedkar, to be always dressed in Western attire with suit and tie while Gandhi and Buddha would be bare-bodied.

There is a charm and advantage of being exclusively poor among a rich crowd.

An awareness of the society that one has made one’s mark of whatever kind despite being very poor gives one a notch or more up in one’s career graph. This is especially so when one is being judged or handpicked by a member of a well-established ruling upper class family.

Manmohan Singh has little political credentials to be a Prime Minister had he not been handpicked, although we would not know whether he was handpicked by the World Bank or by the head of the Congress family.

Manmohan Singh’s biography on the net reads like this. Manmohan Singh was born into a family of modest means in the village of Gah in Pakistan. For the first 12 years of his life he lived there, a village which had no electricity, no school, no hospital, no piped drinking water. He walked for miles every day to school and studied at night in the dim light of a kerosene lamp. When asked once why he had poor eyesight he confessed that it was because he had spent hours reading books in that dim light. He always stood first and was a brilliant student.

One of the hugely laurelled Indian Scientist, R. A. Mashelkar, has this said about himself on the net. “It was a difficult journey indeed. I was born in a village called Mashel in Goa. My father died when I was six and my mother had to migrate to Bombay in search of a job. She was not literate and had to struggle very hard to make both ends meet. I went barefoot until the age of 12, and two meals a day was a great challenge. I studied under street lights, making use of the cement benches at Janjira Motor Works around Chowpatty in Mumbai. I would study up to 2 am, at the Central Railway station as the platform would be quiet after the last train for Gujarat left at 10 pm. Basically, wherever I could find place I would study. Life was so difficult that standing first in class became a necessity which continued throughout my career.

Mashelkar’s mother was a very quiet, very refined and very dignified person, being a true product of her inherited culture. Like most poor mothers in India or elsewhere in the world.

I think that times have changed.

To come first in the class is good. Especially if you are burning the midnight oil and have little else as source of distraction. It shows that you may understand some instructions faster than the others especially when given in writing and when there is light to read.

It does not show that one can improvise in the absence of written instructions or when one is in the dark about possible directions to take.

I also think that this is no longer the time to continue with the Macaulay-like system which produce “… fit vehicles for conveyingknowledge to the great mass of the population” without the ability “… to promote analytic capacity or independent thinking and… sufficiently Westernized to be alienated from their own culture.

Technologies change fast. This is most true especially for technologies we would like to borrow.

If India is to emerge as a world leader in science there has to be a paradigm shift that originates from Indian and is original. We have to realize that we don’t know how to be original.

By putting to rote text-books for the purposes of examinations and a secure job we lose considerable vision and we lose our freedom.

To become a global leader we require a little more than our deemed poverty.

1 comment:

rajat said...

Thanks for the informative blog.