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- As we emerge from the pandemic, we can imagine two trajectories that Indian science could take in the future, the author, Prof. Gautam I. Menon, writes.
- The default option, of course, would be to project Indian science in the future with contours resembling how we assess it now, just bigger.
- But the pandemic has also given us the opportunity to reassess. We could, instead, choose to imagine a different future.
- If we did: what shape should it take?
COVID-19 has uncovered our deepest vulnerabilities, even as innovations arising out of the scientific response to COVID-19 have happened at a rate unprecedented in history. The usual 20-year, or more, horizon for the development of new vaccines has been reduced to a single year. New vaccine technologies, such as mRNA vaccines, were first deployed for COVID-19 but can now be used for other vaccine-preventable diseases.
Some of these advances derive from what we knew earlier, and which we have simply repurposed for current needs. Others have relied on the creation of new knowledge, following an unprecedented mobilisation of science and technology at a global scale.
As we emerge from the pandemic, we can imagine two trajectories that Indian science could take in the future. The default option, of course, would be to project Indian science in the future with contours resembling how we assess it now, just bigger.
But the pandemic has also given us the opportunity to reassess. We could, instead, choose to imagine a different future.
If we did: what shape should it take?
India’s Constitution is unique in the world in containing the term “scientific temper”. Article 51A(h), among a number of articles listing the fundamental duties of Indian citizens, says “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”
The use of this phrase is due to Jawaharlal Nehru, who wrote, in The Discovery of India (1946):
“What is needed is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems.”
Of these goals, I will concentrate on just one. It is, simply, understanding the importance of evidence. Evidence-based medicine, for example, is an approach to clinical practice, where patients are treated based on the accumulated evidence of the efficacy of specific interventions.
To arrive at independent conclusions based on available evidence is not, of course, a practice confined to science alone. It is here that the sciences and the social sciences and humanities share common ground.
Current and future trajectories
Viewed from afar, India has respected scientific research institutions, a space and nuclear program, about a thousand universities and more than 40,000 colleges. It produces the fourth largest number of PhD-holders in the world.
But look closer and the image becomes less flattering. There is relatively little research funding that does not derive from the government in some way. We pride ourselves on the IITs but tend to forget that we turn out school-leavers and graduates whose employability is limited and whose knowledge is often incomplete and undigested.
Our industrial research is limited. The fraction of those enrolled in higher education is small, with a GER of around 28%.
These are profound gaps.
Against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, here are some points and questions that I believe are central to reimagining Indian science. I will largely illustrate them using the impact of the disease as an example.
- Understanding the role of science is essential to being a good citizen.
By ‘a good citizen’, I simply mean someone who is broadly committed to the ideas outlined in the Indian constitution, including our democracy. To participate fully in the democratic process requires that we exercise judgement about complex issues. Given that such judgements will require us to evaluate evidence, they must admit science, since understanding the nature of evidence is central to the practice of science.
How do we ensure that we communicate the importance of science to society, not just in terms of the fruits of science, but for what incorporating scientific temper into our lives and actions does for our society?
- Breaking down barriers between the sciences is crucial to the next generation of scientific breakthroughs.
The structure of coronaviruses was discovered using the electron microscope, a tool developed by physicists that uses fundamental principles of quantum mechanics. The ability to project how fast a disease spreads is a problem that intersects both applied mathematics and epidemiology. The PCR reaction, central to accurate tests for the presence of the novel coronavirus, was developed by biochemists interested in something entirely different.
The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that the crucial breakthroughs of the future will likely come from applying techniques from one field to another, and that we should train young scientists to understand this.
How do we develop an interdisciplinary approach to science in what we teach and communicate, without diluting our commitments to the rigour of those disciplines themselves?
- Breaking down barriers between the sciences and the humanities is important for both sides and for society.
Problems such as climate change, environmental degradation, agricultural productivity, hunger and malnutrition, and public health inadequacies are wicked problems. COVID-19 has taught many of us and reminded others that those at the bottom of the pyramid, the most disadvantaged and the poor, are those who suffer the most in a pandemic.
Whatever science can hope to do must be guided by our understanding of where scientific interventions can be most effective and where our efforts should be targeted. For this, the sciences must be equal collaborators with the humanities. If the students we train are to fulfil their responsibilities as citizens in the sense that our constitution envisages, this is a responsibility that neither side can evade.
How do we create a vibrant engagement between the sciences and the humanities, each responsive to the others’ concerns?
- Ecology, biodiversity and conservation should be a central part of thinking of our future.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 spilled over to humans from bats. Three of every four emerging diseases come to us from animals, i.e. are zoonotic in origin. It is simply impossible now, and the pandemic reminds us forcefully of this, to conceptualise human health without thinking of the broader ecology of disease.
There are parts of India among the most biodiverse in the world. Apart from the need to conserve our fragile ecosystems, they could potentially provide new sources of antibiotics and new products and materials. They allow us to connect with our natural environment in ways that have important consequences for our well-being, both psychological and physical.
To do this, one must understand how communities draw from, and give to, the environment that surrounds them. Beginning from this, one can extrapolate to planetary concerns, among them global warming and its consequences, including rising sea levels, pollution and the over-extraction of natural resources.
What sustainable paths exist in the face of wicked global problems and what can individuals do?
- We must reimagine our approach to health and disease, keeping in mind the need for equal access to all.
We should periodically remind ourselves of some statistics. India has the highest number of stunted children in the world. It contains 19 out of 20 of the world’s most polluted cities. India also hosts the largest number of tuberculosis patients in the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of these uncomfortable numbers. It is the responsibility of scientists to try to address these questions in the interest of our society, at this interface between science, medicine and public health.
How do we construct a public health system that will work for all and what can scientists contribute?
- Appropriate small science and innovation are crucial to reaching science to the public.
The Foldscope, developed by Manu Prakash, is an optical microscope assembled from simple components. It costs less than a dollar to buy and must be assembled, giving the user a sense of ownership.
It brings an otherwise costly piece of experimental equipment within reach of every school. It opens up avenues of independent learning that were simply unavailable even a decade ago.
Can we do more, using such frugal innovation, to extend the reach of science to every student in the country?
- Mathematics is important to science and to society.
There are few subjects that the average student hates more than mathematics. Equally, there are few subjects that are more central to modern science and technology. Even subjects that have traditionally been more descriptive than quantitative, such as much of biology, have been enriched through mathematical understanding.
Our education system and our teaching, loaded as they are towards evaluation and an all-or-nothing entrance exam system, often wind up alienating students from mathematics. This effectively creates two classes of students, those who have some level of comfort with mathematics and those who don’t.
How can we promote an interest in mathematics across the board, not just in students but also in the general public, given the importance of being mathematically literate?
- We must bridge basic and applied science
The absence of a direct link between basic and applied science in India, broadly speaking, sets us apart from many other nations of the world with a scientific enterprise of a comparable size. The roots of this are historical, embedded in a scientific culture that rewards abstract thought over concrete action.
But this divide also holds us back from the sorts of close collaborations between industry and academic training that could lead to employment, entrepreneurship and the creation of intellectual property.
How can we create a vibrant applied science community in this country, which can apply what we know from basic science to advancing human priorities, while providing problems that basic science can address?
- Considerations of equity and the removal of all forms of discrimination must lie at the heart of how we act in future.
A heartening change relative to even a decade ago is our increased awareness of the extent of discrimination in our society. Much has been written about the leaky pipeline for women to attain positions of seniority. The numbers of scientists from reserved categories in our top institutions remain far from adequate. There is no escaping the fact that the body of faculty at our institutions do not represent the diversity of this country.
How do we move towards greater equity and representation in our universities and scientific institutions, removing all forms of discrimination and encouraging diversity?
- We must revisit the relationship of science to religion and belief.
The divide between faith and science has often been considered to be unbridgeable. But, given that the vast majority of Indians are religious, failing to address this divide will simply prevent scientists from connecting to this larger fraction of society. If we are to address superstitions and practices that are discriminatory, even if sanctioned by religion, scientists must be able to find the right allies and to be able to relate to them, for only then can we expect meaningful change to occur.
How do we address the gap between religion and science, so that science can convey its core messages, including the need for evidence-based thinking, without necessarily casting the sciences in opposition to religion?
- The importance of teachers to a society.
India is at a crossroads, where the space for independent academic thought is shrinking even as the demand for education increases exponentially. A prerequisite for academic independence is job security and a living wage. This is largely the intended function of the US tenure system.
However, both in the US and India, the shift to contingent teaching staff in its universities and colleges has meant the creation of a vast mass of teachers surviving on temporary, ill-paid contracts that must be renewed regularly. This strikes against the idea of academic freedom and independence, since it views teachers as simply delivery vehicles for canned learning, driving them to express only those opinions that will upset no one.
How do we convince the people that education at all levels is important and that educators deserve the same extent of respect and support that we assign to the most valued jobs in our society?
The pandemic has forced us to relook at our lives as no single world event has within our memory. As we emerge from the pandemic, this is a good time to re-evaluate our priorities. The possibility of transformational change is real, but needs both commitment and clarity of vision.
To do this will require us to place the idea of “scientific temper”, unique to our nation as a constitutional value, at the centre of our thinking.
Gautam I. Menon is a professor at Ashoka University, Sonepat, and at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. The views expressed here are his and do not represent those of his institutes.