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75 Years Later, Indian Science Faces New Crossroads

75 Years Later, Indian Science Faces New Crossroads

As the country waves flags and celebrates the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, it is also time to take stock. What did India’s founders and citizens dream of, how has India fared, what have been our challenges and successes?

The Wire’s reporters and contributors bring stories of the period, of the traumas but also the hopes of Indians, as seen in personal accounts, in culture, in the economy and in the sciences. How did the modern state of India come about, what does the flag represent? How did literature and cinema tackle the trauma of Partition? 

Follow us for the next few days to get a rounded view of India@75.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

While assessing Indian science, we might choose to consider only what can be measured. For example, we could enumerate the expenditure on science as a fraction of GDP, the numbers of PhDs we produce each year, or citations to papers from India in scientific literature.

On almost any such measure, it’s a mixed picture. India spends about 0.7% of its GDP on research, to be compared to China (above 2%) or Singapore (1.9%). We produce the fourth largest number of PhDs in the world, but this is a number that must be weighed against the sheer size of our population. We write the third largest number of academic papers across countries, behind the US and China. Their impact and overall quality, though, is considerably less than that bald number would suggest.

Focusing on only what can be measured sidesteps a different set of questions. How is “scientific temper” reflected in people’s behaviour? Is a nuanced understanding of India’s past achievements being replaced by an attitude that holds, uncritically, that ancient Indian texts contain all of modern science?

Pre-independence Indian science is largely dominated by the figures of Srinivasa Ramanujan, C.V. Raman, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Meghnad Saha and some others. A member of the public would find it hard to name a post-independence scientists, with the possible exceptions of Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai. Practising scientists, however, more naturally think of them as visionary builders of scientific institutions. While the public sees former President Abdul Kalam as a scientist, he was, more than anything else, an inspirational administrator.

Highlights of Indian science after independence

Here are some highlights of Indian science after independence and the names of some scientists who contributed to them. It is inevitably biased towards my own interests, lays no claim to being fair or exhaustive, and omits many names of similar stature. I’ll use these examples only to make a specific point. That point would only be reinforced by adding the names of those I’ve missed.

Obaid Siddiqi, recruited to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR, Mumbai) by Bhabha, initiated the study of molecular and developmental biology in India, setting up the National Centre of Biological Science (NCBS) in Bengaluru. These broad areas of modern biology are now well-represented across India. C.N.R. Rao of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bengaluru powered the study of materials chemistry and materials science across departments throughout India, making internationally impactful scientific contributions alongside.

TIFR, Mumbai. Photo: TIFR website

Schools of chemistry in universities, among them the Universities of Hyderabad, Delhi and IIT, Kanpur, but also in research institutes such as the IACS in Kolkata and the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, have established internationally known groups across multiple branches of chemistry. A group surrounding S. Chandrasekhar of the Raman Research Institute in Bengaluru became internationally famous in the field of liquid crystals.

Govind Swarup and Jayant Narlikar are important figures in Indian astronomy and astrophysics, both fields where Indian science has an international reputation. Schools of mathematics, with centres in TIFR and in Chennai but also in some college and university settings, were established as world leaders by the 1970s and ’80s.  The names of M.S. Narasimhan and C.S. Seshadri are associated with the development of an influential school of Indian mathematics, in the area of algebraic geometry.

The Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), set up by P.C. Mahalonobis, with campuses across Kolkata, Delhi and Bengaluru, has trained large numbers of statisticians as well as pure and applied mathematicians across the years. C.R. Rao, who retired from the ISI, Kolkata, is the most prominent among living statisticians. The single most important breakthrough in theoretical computer science from India was led by Manindra Agrawal at IIT Kanpur.

In physics, starting in the 1980s and ’90s, groups centred at the TIFR and at the Indian Institute of Science in India, in addition to a number of other institutions, made important contributions in the field of condensed matter physics. The physicist T.V. Ramakrishnan of the IISc is an internationally known figure. Deepak Dhar of TIFR and later the IISER, Pune was recently awarded statistical physics’ highest international award, the Boltzmann medal.

Particle physics, both in experiment and theory, has been a traditional Indian strength. The string theorist Ashoke Sen, at  TIFR and then later at the Harishchandra Research Institute in Prayagraj, was largely responsible for placing that Indian city on the map of global research in fundamental physics.

My point is that post-independence peaks of individual excellence in Indian science would have been considered of special significance in the world. And that Indian scientific leaders, working in India, helped develop specific scientific fields where India has an international reputation. Exceptional science departments at the IIT Kanpur, in particular, as well as universities such as the Universities of Delhi, Madras, BHU, JNU and AMU, produced some outstanding students, including a number of those who I have named here.

Apart from this, the contributions of those born or trained in India but who worked largely abroad are vast. Names here would include the Nobel prize winners S. Chandrasekhar, Har Gobind Khurana and V. Ramakrishnan, but also the Abel Prize winner S.R.S Varadhan, the Turing award winner Raj Reddy and the Godel Prize awardees Sanjeev Arora and Madhu Sudan. Expanding this assessment of outstanding contributions to the Indian diaspora would swell this list still further.

Systemic challenges

But there are also parts to Indian science that are remote from its global frontiers. Some scientists confine themselves to largely repeating the same measurements on a succession of materials, each marginally different from the other. (A physics teacher of mine coined the term “karma physics” – one repeats what one’s PhD advisor did, while they in turn repeated what their advisor did, in an entirely pre-ordained manner. Another relevant term is “piggy-back science”, referring to the publishing of minor variations on an influential paper or trend from abroad.)

Examples of both of these abound, across the sciences, of a lack of ability to take scientific risks or to think independently. All Indian scientists can point to groups producing work that is, at best, uninteresting and repetitive and at worst, of suspect quality. (To be sure, this is not a uniquely Indian failing.)

A government-funded research ecosystem that has still not figured out how to pay the salaries of junior researchers on time, has deep problems. One cause of this is historical: small, relatively more financially autonomous, government-supported research institutions have traditionally flourished at the cost of university-based research, a situation that is only gradually being remedied. But the larger problems are structural, both with budgetary allocations to government scientific departments themselves being delayed or because of the layers of bureaucracy that these departments encase themselves in.

For most government-funded projects, funding in the initial year is not followed in time by later amounts budgeted. In some cases, the first funding instalment is also the only one an investigator receives before the project ends.

Permanent positions across any college or state funded institution are drying up. (Delhi University’s physics department last hired a faculty member about 12 years ago.) The situation across college departments across the country is equally dire. Teaching is often sustained by an ever-shrinking number of permanent faculty, balanced by a rising number on year-to-year contracts. A well-known Delhi college has only sen permanent teachers in physics, supplemented by about 25 ad-hoc ones.

Photo: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash

A general tendency to self-censor views that overlap politics is disturbing. Such censorship is augmented by broadly formulated “conduct rules” that suppress any criticism of government policy. It is the rare scientist who publicly comments on scientific issues relevant to the public.

The Indian academies of science – there are three of them – have not been particularly outspoken either. In recent years, increasing restrictions on organising international meetings have been placed. Visas to attend scientific meetings have been denied to researchers simply on the basis of their country of origin.

Corruption in the appointment of school teachers, college lecturers and university professors is only occasionally highlighted in the media. But it is a fact of life across most, if not all, Indian states. Government-appointed members of selection committees and boards of institutions increasingly appear to be chosen on the basis of their political affiliations and not for their insights into science or its practice.

Even setting aside more outlandish claims, funding policies that assign a special significance to the cow and its natural products effectively treat such studies on par with other, more regular branches of science. The reasons for this are political, certainly not scientific.

It is now increasingly common to hear, from politicians, that ancient Indian texts anticipated the western scientific canon. The implication is that our efforts should simply be directed towards their discovery and explication. Such a nativist view hinders genuine  attempts at understanding what Indian scientists and mathematicians achieved in the past.

The progress of a country’s science must be seen in the background of its priorities, social and otherwise. Levels of representation from disadvantaged caste groups remains abysmally low in Indian science. The numbers of women at the faculty level in Indian scientific institutions is small. On issues of equity, more privileged and better funded science institutes do substantially worse than the universities.

What of the future?

For a country with vast pre-existing levels of inequality and divisions across caste, religion, community, language and culture, to achieve what we have since Independence is commendable, even given our failure to address our problems in adequate measure. We have, indeed, come far. But what of the future?

We could advance towards a better integration with global science, infused with an Indian flavour. We could emphasise those problems with special relevance to India. These would include our ecology, our needs for appropriate technology, our own spectrum of neglected tropical diseases and our own sets of “wicked” problems, including studying the long-term impacts of climate change for India.

We could move towards having more inclusive institutions. In the light of our current employment crisis, we could explore novel ways in which a training in science could support and encourage entrepreneurship.

On the other hand, we could regress, weakening our institutions through further neglect, corruption and a lack of investment coupled to heavy-handed control, replacing an emphasis on objectivity, rigour and the scientific method with the attitude that evidence is irrelevant.

Seventy-five years after Independence is a good point at which to look both back as well as forwards towards the future. What seems clear is that we are at a different cross-roads from the one we encountered when our journey as a country first began.

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 his institutions.

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