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10 January, 2011

Pursuit of knowledge

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The old adage ‘Knowledge is Power’ is rarely heard these days. This is not surprising in a world ruled by the idea that power booms out of the barrel of the gun or flows from the money in the chest. But the emerging economic powers are rediscovering the truth of the old saying.

China, which has already edged all developed countries except the United States in economic terms, has just got through the first five years of an ambitious science and technology development programme designed to make it an innovation-oriented nation by 2020.

Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Indian scientists to “think big, think out of the box, think ahead of the times” and announced plans to designate 2012-13, when the Indian Science Congress will complete 100 years, as the Year of Science.

The emphasis the two nations are placing on science and technology reflects increasing awareness of the need to acquire a leading role in knowledge creation to claim their place in the comity of nations. Even a cursory survey of history will show that creation and application of knowledge were critical elements that contributed to the ancient glory of many lands. These factors played their role also in Europe’s emergence in the 18th and 19th centuries and America’s in the 20th.

India had set out with certain advantages. The universities established during the British period had promoted English education which gave some Indians easy access to the knowledge created in the advanced West. They had also sustained a small but devoted band of scientists who had attracted attention worldwide by undertaking original research. One of them, CV Raman had won the Nobel Prize in Physics as early as 1930.

The first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, envisaged the use of science and technology to overcome the backlog of development left behind by the colonial rulers. The Indian Institutes of Technology set up with the help of various foreign countries and the research laboratories established under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research bear testimony to his far-sighted approach.

Nehru initiated a programme for use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes. After China conducted a nuclear test in 1964, Indira Gandhi gave the go-ahead for a nuclear test. Although the space research programme launched in her time, too, eventually acquired a military edge, its primary objective was to use space technology for education, health, communication and other activities which could improve the lives of the poor.

Thanks to the bold early initiatives, by the 1970s India had the third largest reservoir of scientific and technological manpower in the world after the USA and the Soviet Union. But the country fell behind subsequently.

Having come under the control of political parties with limited vision, the universities lost the ability to lead. There are now more than 450 of them but not one has found a place in the Times Higher Education’s list of 200 top universities of the world. Six from China and three each from Hong Kong and Taiwan figure in it.

Now China has the most scientists after the USA. Having had to slash funds for research and education in the wake of the economic slowdown, the USA and the European nations are in no position to stop its moving into the top spot. It is boosting its prospects by trying to attract home Chinese scholars living and working abroad.

Establishment of new institutions of higher learning on the lines of the Ivy League universities of the USA, improvement of academic standards of existing institutions and grant of incentives to industries willing to invest in research and developments are among the plans drawn up by the Indian government to ensure that in the years ahead scientific development keeps pace with economic advancement.

A fatal weakness of Indian research effort so far has been the tendency to follow in the path struck by Western scientists. This is not a problem that money can solve. It calls for minds capable of original thinking.

The Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, who is heading a body constituted to revive the Buddhist-era university at Nalanda in Bihar, outlined before the Science Congress his vision of a modern centre of learning where scholars from different lands will gather as at the ancient institution. To begin with, he said, it would teach history, languages, social sciences, international relations, management and information technology. Sadly, he added that physical and biological sciences would have to wait for reasons of cost. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, Hanuary 10, 2011

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