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08 January, 2019

Science on the decline

BRP Bhaskar

In the colonial period undivided India had made a mark at the global level through the pioneering work of scientists like Jagdish Chandra Bose, who was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1920, CV Raman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930 and Satyendra Nath Bose whose name is clubbed with that of the century’s greatest scientist in Bose-Einstein statistics.

Jawaharlal Nehru attached great importance to science. A decade before Independence, addressing the Indian Science Congress, he had said, “The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science.”

Promotion of the scientific temper is one of the directive principles of the Constitution framed under his leadership. As the first Prime Minister, he initiated the nuclear programme with the proclaimed intention of using atomic energy for peaceful purposes. He set up the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and national-level research bodies in physics, chemistry, medicine, agriculture etc.

He also established Indian Institutes of Technology with the help of advanced nations. Several of their graduates migrated to the West, giving rise to concerns about brain drain. But many stayed behind and contributed to India’s development.

All through his 17 years at the helm, the Indian Science Congress invited Nehru to inaugurate its annual session. It is still the Prime Minister’s prerogative to open its session although few of Nehru’s successors have shown his understanding of the importance of science.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi created a sensation in 2014 by mouthing the pseudo-scientific claims of his Hindutva school. Addressing a gathering of doctors, he referred to the elephant-headed god Ganesh and said, “There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who put an elephant’s head on the body of a human being.”

He turned to the epic Mahabharata, which says Karna was not conceived in his mother’s womb, and added, “This means that genetic science was present at that time.”

His first address to the Science Congress also contained such wayward ideas, but in later speeches he avoided them. This year he gave the Science Congress a new slogan: Jai Vignan, Jai Anusandhan ((Victory to Knowledge, Victory to Research). It has probably come too late. 

At least two papers presented at this year’s session were straight out of Hindutva’s book in which scientific terminology and mythology are hopelessly mixed up. One of them proclaimed Newton and Einstein were wrong without adducing any evidence and proposed that gravitational force be named after Modi.

India’s recent achievements in science are a repetition of what others have done already. There has been little original contribution since the days of the two Boses and Raman.

In the list of more than 4,000 world-class researchers of 2018, drawn up by the firm Clarivate Analytics on the basis of production of multiple highly cited papers, there are only 10 names from India. The United States with 2,639 names, the UK with 546 and China with 482 top the list.

CNR Rao, Director of the Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore, one of the Indians on the list, told a newspaper that 15 years ago India and China were at the same level, but now China’s contribution to global science is 15 to 16 per cent and India’s only three to four per cent.

Although India is lagging behind in research, Indians are not. They are doing well in other countries. The Clarivate list contains far more Indian names under the US than under India. Names of Indians figure also under other countries like Canada, China, Singapore, Denmark, Finland and Saudi Arabia.

In the 1960s, British scientist JBS Haldane, who had moved to India protesting US military presence in his country, said science was growing slowly in this country not because people were stupid or lazy but because professionalism was weak and there was an obsession with degrees.

More recently, Yamuna Krishnan, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago, who had spent 15 years at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore before migrating to the US, identified a herd mentality and paucity of early mentorship as factors that inhibit growth of science in India.

Writing in Nature, the international journal of science, she said, “To catapult India into the top five scientific nations, the country needs enabling policies that money can’t buy.”

Those who believe that all worthwhile knowledge had been gleaned by their ancestors in the misty past cannot be expected to give scientific research the push it needs to blossom. - - Gulf Today, January 8, 2019.

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