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Monday, November 18, 2013

Thank you, Dr. Rao!

Professor C.N.R. Rao, the first scientist to be nominated for the Bharat Ratna award since C. V. Raman, has in a recent interview done yeoman service to the nation by shattering some long held and most ridiculous myths about this country – though I am sure that very few Indians will thank him for it. Here is the link to the relevant news item. The text of the report on the front page of my newspaper is slightly different, but no matter.

This is also a subject I have written on, and not once, on this blog. Something very close to my heart, perennially.

I discovered that very little science is done in India – as westerners (who have, let’s face it, done 99% of all the science in the last 200 years) understand doing science – and that very badly, when I was still an adolescent. Otherwise, I might quite possibly have gone in for higher studies in some branch of science myself (and wanted my daughter to do the same): I had the brains, and upto quite an advanced age, sufficient interest. I am glad to be vindicated in my views by a scientist of such preeminence, though it has come rather late in the day, and Professor Rao, being in a very high public position, has pulled a lot of punches, as I don’t have to.

Still, I am glad that he has said a) IT has very little to do with science, and might actually be blamed for having done a lot of harm to science as a whole in the last 20 years (as cricket has done to every other kind of sport), b) a lot of scientific fields have been grossly and persistently neglected, c) the IT-rich (and other rich, and successive governments) have done much less for the advancement of science in this country than they should have, d) our scientists, many of them lazy careerists with too little interest in their work, too little nationalistic pride and ambition, must take a big share of the blame too, e) since Nehru’s time, there might actually have been a sharp retrogression in the development of a scientific temper in our society, f) neither science nor God have anything to do with superstition, which is what is rife in India, g) without spread of mass education with a stress on nurturing the scientific temper, there can be no real and long term development, no matter what the stock market says. I find myself agreeing with every bit of the above.

I wish India would become a truly cultured and progressive nation again. Which would mean being far less fanatical about fads (and I call the recent madness over Chennai Express as well as Sachin’s retirement – not Sachin’s career itself, mind you – fads), far less blindly, narrowly, stupidly, cravenly materialistic, far less superstitious (which – and I am with both Tagore and Subramaniam Chandreshekhar here – means being far more seriously interested in God, art, beauty, justice as well as real science, as distinct from technical gimmickry and dhandaa and hogging and partying), far less interested in pubbing and mall-crawling, far more keen on good reading, far more serious about real education (look up my posts under the label education: cramming a bit of physics and chemistry has very little to do with it). Which means that greater people than Nandan Nilekani and Chetan Bhagat and Anna Hazare must be called visionaries. Which means going back to the golden – or at least silver – age we had just before and after independence, when cerebral men living simple lives were accorded the highest social esteem, at least among those who dared to call themselves educated, when no mere bania, politician, doctor or engineer would have dared to talk as though he were the equal of Satyen Bose or Bibhutibhushan Banerjee or Nandalal Bose or Alauddin Khan sahib, when teachers were accorded the respect due to them because society at least dimly understood the value of what they do, and every Tom, Dick and Harry couldn’t become a teacher, when corruption would become a minor irritant and non-issue simply because the vast majority would have realized that life is not to be wasted making a bit of sleazy money…

P.S., Nov. 19: This editorial in my newspaper today, in connection with Sachin, science and the Bharat Ratna,  is one of the sanest things I have read in a long time.


ginger candy said...

Dear Sir,

This subject is close to my heart since I have worked in an Indian IT company for more than 3 years. I have also spent the last 3 years in a Canadian University where I am currently working on my PhD program after completing my Master's, and have been lucky enough to get involved in some research work during this period. Based on what I have observed in my working life as well as the feedback I receive continuously from intelligent friends still working in the IT industry, there is hardly any innovation in this sector at all, especially in India. Most IT employees, irrespective of their level of education, are required to perform simple, repetitive work day in and day out, only that these menial jobs are dressed up as important since the employees are required to work under extraordinary pressure that cannot be healthy in the long run, and also because the IT environment has somehow managed to provide a false illusion of glamour to a lot of young people in India. Hence, Dr. Rao is absolutely justified in his criticism of the Indian IT sector, and a large section of the Facebook crowd ranting against him should know better to differentiate between mere technicians and scientists. It must also be pointed out that IT, especially the kind of work that is done in this field in our country, is very different from the subject of Computer Science, which is an important branch in itself and produces far more important innovations than IT does. Unfortunately, barring few private companies like Google, not many software companies are interested in investing in Computer science based research, simply because research in this area takes time and involves a potential risk that might not yield immediate monetary returns (and let's not kid ourselves- the only thing the IT companies in India are interested in is to make fast money as quickly as possible until the hype fades out). So it is incumbent upon the government to fund scientific research and promote the scientific community in a developing nation like India. Sadly, as Dr. Rao has very boldly pointed out, our politicians lack the wisdom and will to foster scientific innovation in our country. Whatever little fund is allocated for the purpose of scientific research is hardly enough to motivate any one to pursue science. My senior was offered a measly sum of 15,000 rupees per month to join Harish-Chandra Research Institute (HRI) as a post-doc researcher in the subject of theoretical Physics, where as many American universities warmly welcomed him with a decent stipend for doing the same work. If this is the condition in one of the best research institutions in India (Dr. Ashoke Sen, a Bhatnagar award winner and the first recipient of the Fundamental Physics Prize from Asia is a permanent faculty member in this institute, along with many other prominent theoretical physicists), then it is not hard to imagine what must be going on in other research organizations. Dr. Rao has also pointed out several other problems with the IT sector that I completely agree with- for example, the current obsession with IT has skewed the ecology of engineering education badly, and many fields- not only science, but various other disciplines- have been neglected in favour of IT for much too long. Without proper emphasis on education and scientific innovations, it will not be possible for India to compete with the likes of China and South Korea, leave alone the more developed countries in the world.


Rajarshi said...

Dear Sir,

I hope this note finds you in good health.

Dr. Rao is quite right in his assessment that IT has a lot too blame for the sorry state of science and engineering in this country though this is not the first time Dr. Rao has spoken against Indian IT Industry - always with some justification.

I also think that this whole argument of Indian IT being low end work, with no real innovation, being inhabited by people who are rightly termed as 'coding coolies', has been beaten to death. I mean all these points are quite valid and I myself have written a fair bit on them but how long do we go on flogging a dead horse?

Indian IT is just a phenomenon of global forces of demand and supply, a by-product of how the world of global commerce works, a services sector with low entry barriers (unlike manufacturing) booming on India's cheap labour and promoted by populist governments pandering to lowest common denominator of an unthinking lower middle and middle class. Though much of the former sheen has gone away, it is here to stay for the forseeable future and continue to provide avenues for quite a few undeserving people to make pots of money.

What are more pertinent are the other points Dr. Rao and you have made now and earlier - like how our education system has completely failed us by preparing people to do original, ground-breaking work in any field (be it science or humanities), how our whole social and cultural ecosystem stymies growth of a free-thinking intellect, how too many young people earning too much money (and here we come back to IT) has led to erosion of certain values, how risk averse and lazy we are as a people (any innovation is inherently risky - one reason why the Murthys and Premjis are happy doing manpower intensive services work rather that plunging into software product development).

Now, let us consider the pre-90s scenario before the services industry raised its head on the landscape of Indian economy. How much real innovation happened in core, public sector behemoths of the likes BHEL, HMT, BEL, HAL etc. What they mostly did - and continue to do - is system integration of assorted imported components or building airframes from blueprints supplied by Russian design bureaus. The joke is that they only Indian part in Night Vision goggles supplied by BEL is the metal label which says "Made in India". There was - and is - some meaningful research happening in pure sciences in institutes like IISc and TIFR but how much synergy have we seen between industry and academia, how much integration have we seen between pure and applied sciences in this country. I have a colleague who worked in BARC and he narrates how paucity of funds in never an issue atleast in India's Atomic and Space establishments. So, government is responsible for a lot of ills including neglect of basic sciences and flawed policies which prevent them from supporting private sector R&D but I don't think it is only the government to blame. Pure sciences could have done with a few more visionaries of the stature of Dr. Rao (this is one area where the Atomic and Space establishments have been luckier).

I am not an apologist of Indian IT but I hope we look beyond the obvious and don't stop at the first whipping boy we can find.

With Kind Regards,

Mayuri Mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,

As moment I read Dr. CNR Rao's comment on science and IT, I thought of you and how you have made the same argument over the years.

And while, of course agree with it, I thought this (http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2013_10_28/caredit.a1300237) story is interesting. I don't think it takes away from the points that we have made but perhaps adds a new, somewhat positive, dimension to be conversation.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thank you for the link, Mayuri. Any input from you is gratefully welcome. However, I shall remain sceptical for some more time yet...