Science in India: Moon shot or bust?

Written by  //  March 1, 2012  //  Science & Technology  //  5 Comments

This week’s issue of Science has a special set of articles on science in India which highlights both the pitfalls and promises for the future of science in that country. There are lots of interesting points in there, but as someone who is rather closely familiar with the system, I also think there’s some key issues that are left out. I thought this would be a good opportunity to collect together my thoughts about the potential, the perils and the possibilities. Since the problems are complex the thoughts are many, so I have divided this post into sections to aid comprehension. I am hoping it will provide at least a partial primer for those unfamiliar with the juggling act that’s Indian science education and research.

The good news

First, the good news. The funding scenario for science in India is better than ever, with lots of infrastructure, startup funds and facilities provided to young aspiring professors. A major recent initiative has been the creation of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) whose primary goal has been to meld undergraduate education with research, something that’s traditionally been almost completely missing in India. Expensive new centers including a neutrino observatory, a clean nanotechnology lab and most impressively, an open-source tuberculosis drug discovery project are highlighting India’s ambition and capabilities to focus on relevant and cutting edge fields.

In addition there’s a surplus of faculty positions at some top institutes that will make faculty candidates in Western countries feel jealous. A great example is the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore which provides a premier research environment. Many of these institutes have year-round hiring. There are also a few lucrative fellowships designed to attract expatriate Indians back to their country to set up their labs. Some of them allow you to start a lab anywhere that you want in the country. Purely in terms of facilities and funding, this is a good time to do academic science in India. And after a long, fallow period of scientific entrepreneurship, there are finally opportunities for Indian scientists to turn their discoveries into profits, although time would tell how efficient the system is in reality.

In addition, being an assistant professor (or any higher middle-class working professional for that matter) in India has its perks; one gets cheap access to maids who will cook and clean for your family and a driver who will drive you around. The maids will also double as baby-sitters and will occasionally shop for your groceries. Science institutes in India often offer highly subsidized housing and meals. Adjusting for these perks and for purchasing power parity, it’s not a big exaggeration to say that being an assistant professor in a top Indian research university is a comfortable prospect.

The bad news

Now the bad news, which unfortunately points to some rather deep structural problems which have beset Indian science education and research since its post-independence conception. To gain some insight into these it’s worth looking at some history.

For a developing country India has always been pretty big on science. Nobel Prize winners like H. G. Khorana (who died a few months back) and C. V. Raman emerged from the old education system which was modeled after the British system. In some fields like statistics India has consistently produced world-class researchers. After India became independent in 1947, science was one of the top priorities for the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a Cambridge-educated lawyer. Even today Nehru remains India’s most scientifically literate leader and he was instrumental in establishing both the well-known Indian Institutes of Technology and several leading federal research laboratories.

Unfortunately, Nehru’s undoubtedly visionary outlook on science was severely crippled by his equally fervent belief in Soviet-style socialism. While this did not lead to the genocidal horrors seen in the Soviet Union and China, it did lead to forty years or so of socialist “reforms” and “five-year plans” modeled on the Soviet system of education under which science and especially basic science floundered. Constraints were tightly imposed both on funding and on financial incentives for Indian scientists. Scientific entrepreneurship leading to intellectual property was virtually non-existent. Keeping in line with the Soviet system however, there was heavy investment in both atomic energy and the space program and India emerged as a leading power in these sectors. Today there is a nuclear weapons complex, but more promisingly there is advanced nuclear reactor research trying to produce electricity from thorium. And as the article notes, the advanced status of the space program has led India to make ambitious plans for a manned moon landing.

But basic science has been neglected, and even after the opening up of Indian markets in the early 90s, the old system remains deeply ingrained in Indian science primarily in two debilitating ways.

Indian education: A riddle wrapped in a straitjacket

One huge hurdle is in the form of extremely limited undergraduate science education that still heavily relies on rote memorization without true understanding, discourages teamwork and most importantly, is almost completely uncoupled from research. As the articles note, this is most obvious in the large number of state-run universities in India that provide the bulk of the science education in the country. Almost no Indian state-run university offers decent research opportunities for undergraduates, a pronounced oversight that is starting to be remedied by institutes like the IISERs but still on a very small scale. An interesting contrast is that compared to top science institutes which can be awash in funds and facilities, state-run schools remain not just woefully under-equipped but blatantly ignorant of safety regulations. It is not uncommon to find chemistry labs even at respectable colleges without a single fume hood inside them.

In addition, the curriculum in most of these places is outdated. For instance, much of the biology curriculum still asks students to memorize intricate details of invertebrate anatomy and physiology. Physical chemistry courses include outdated textbooks from the 1950s by Samuel Glasstone and Bruce Mahan (these are classics and were excellent textbooks for their time, but they cannot be part of a modern chemical education that is supposed to prepare students for a research career). Physics is full of tuning forks, inclined plains and Wheatstone bridges. The notebooks of organic chemistry students still devote reams of paper to structure determination by chemical degradation of the kind that was done before spectroscopic techniques became available. A similar situation exists in the laboratory, with many experiments and apparatus looking quaint and outdated. To be sure there are chapters on molecular biology, protein chemistry, NMR spectroscopy, quantum chemistry, combinatorial chemistry and other modern topics, but they are mostly reserved for graduate level courses, and one wonders why undergraduates are expected to be steeped in all that outdated material.

However, the bigger problem in the Indian education system may not even be this lack of research opportunities for science undergraduates but the more general blinkered education that Indian college students are forced to endure. To begin with, the system has defined an extremely strange and regressive compartmentalization of education that seems to dissuade any kind of flexibility in learning, let alone in interdisciplinary study. It is no secret that ever since India opened up its markets and globalization brought West and East under the same economic umbrella, there has been a steady demand for Indian engineers and technical professionals in the West. But this has also led to a highly skewed bias toward engineering, medical and business education in the country. Importantly, it has manifested itself in the proliferation and segregation of professional universities from those offering science and humanities courses. This means that an engineering schools teaches only engineering, and a medical school teaches only medicine. So once you are out of high school you are forced to pick your major and your career. Get into an engineering school and you are pretty much shut out from being able to study psychology or chemistry or economics. For that you need to get into a school more akin to liberal arts colleges in the US. But even there you have to pick your major right in your freshman year; you can’t study both the sciences and the humanities. If you want to take chemistry you won’t be able to take philosophy. In fact the situation is so bad that in most places students cannot study even biology and mathematics together!

Needless to say, this system places a newly-minted high-school student into a draconian straitjacket where he or she has to pick a career and then stick with it for the next four years with absolutely no flexibility in changing a major or adapting one’s talents to one’s profession. It should also be obvious that this strict compartmentalization affords almost no opportunities for developing interdisciplinary research skills, a staple of today’s complex research problems. The result is predictable; an alarmingly large number of students who when they graduate from college are either unhappy with their major or incompetent at it or both.

Compounding these problems is perhaps an even bigger one; the social perception of professional education at the expense of relegating the sciences and humanities to the dustbin of mediocrity. The great demand for engineers, doctors and businessmen has placed these disciplines on a pedestal. As a result, the standards for admissions to these professional courses are much higher than those for the sciences or humanities. This typically means that spots in these professional courses are reserved for students who graduate from high school with the highest grades. Conversely, left to study the sciences and humanities are the scum of the earth, high-school graduates who are usually at the bottom of the pile. Since almost nobody from the top is going to fill out the science or humanities application, the liberal arts colleges relax their admission criteria to accommodate the most mediocre of the lot. The bottom line: engineering colleges tend to be populated with smart, articulate, ambitious students while the liberal arts colleges fill up with students who are studying sciences or the humanities pretty much because they aren’t good enough to get into any other place. No wonder that many of these state-run colleges are filled with mediocre and unhappy students who would rather be doing something else. This is unfair both to the students but more fatally to the disciplines themselves which suffer from active neglect at best and a constant assault of mediocre minds at worst.

It needs no imagination to perceive the effect of this segregation on the occasional outlier who, in spite of getting top grades in high school, consciously stays away from engineering or medicine because he actually wants to study chemistry or physics. For one thing he will have a very hard time finding intelligent, like-minded peers who can provide intellectual companionship, and we all know how influential the peer environment in college can be. In addition, the segregated system will virtually ensure that most of his peers outside his college will look down upon him; they will think that the reason he is not studying engineering is because he wasn’t good enough and more generally, the fact that he is not studying engineering means that he isn’t really worth paying attention to. In addition to the lack of research opportunities cited above and the mediocre faculty at state-run colleges combined with the poor employment outlook for scientists compared to other professionals, it is hardly surprising that many bright science students quickly leave science and get into better-paying professional fields. Now there’s a reason for the common complaint cited in the article, that Indian students are not studying the sciences anymore.

There is also a related social reason not discussed in the article which I just alluded to; the lack of societal respect for science and the humanities. Partly because of the educational segregation outlined above and partly because of a curious mentality that equates monetary success with intelligence and capability, Indian parents are loathe to encourage their kids to study anything other than professional disciplines. One theory I have about this has to do with the environment that many of these parents grew up in, that of socialist India. If you were an Indian parent who could not make money because of government constraints and if your son or daughter were growing up in a new, more market-friendly India, you certainly wouldn’t want your children to forgo the opportunities that you didn’t have. In this sense, many Indian parents who want their kids to become affluent are living the dream that they themselves couldn’t live. This is reasonable within limits, but it’s also creating a significant social bias towards all kinds of other professions including the sciences, humanities and the arts. In turn, the kids are judging other kids by the same standards that their parents have applied to them. In their worldview, any other kid who is not doing the same thing that they are doing must be unintelligent, misguided in his ambitions or both. This attitude feeds upon itself and perpetuates and has created a manifestly unhealthy peer environment. If India is to attract its best minds to science, it must create a society where science is respected for its intrinsic value at all levels, from parents to kids to teachers.

In India, B doesn’t stand for ball

One of the distinguishing features of all socialist countries and especially the old Soviet Union was the ubiquitous bureaucracy that pervaded every aspect of life. Indian bureaucracy and red tape are famous and recalcitrant, so recalcitrant that it seems that even twenty odd years of free-market reforms have been ineffective in undoing them. There has undoubtedly been much progress; for instance, getting a simple telephone line installed in your office in the 1980s could take up to a year. Other simple services could results in unacceptable delays and a trail of paperwork that would put a rainforest conservationist to shame. Setting up a small business in India was a nightmare and to some extent it still is; by one account you need 165 licenses to open a hotel in the country. But things have changed. Wireless companies have flooded the market and ensured that the Indian telephone experience is no different from anywhere else in the world, and Mumbai today probably sports a more diverse collection of cell-phone models than Los Angeles. Setting up a business is still not easy, but you don’t have to spend your entire life waiting for it.

Yet science seems to be straggled by unacceptable bureaucracy. But before we move on to its more predictable effects, we should first note its most startling aspect: the lack of a tenure system in Indian academia. For the longest time, even in top Indian institutions, there was no tenure review process and mediocre performers essentially hung around for life. Sometime in their 40s or 50s they would be bumped up from “assistant” to “associate” position by virtue of “seniority” alone. But institutions would naturally be obliged to pay their salaries and benefits even as they were producing little noteworthy research and blocking positions for younger scientists. A mandatory retirement somewhat compensated for the problem, but the effect of this accumulation of deadwood cannot be underestimated. The renewal of scientific blood and constant assessment of existing personnel is an essential condition for scientific productivity. Without tenure, not only was there no replenishment of the stock but there was a constant, general sense of malaise that spread to other faculty members and students. This factor is so obviously important that it’s not even worth elaborating on it too much. Whatever the merits and drawbacks of existing tenure systems in the West, it goes without saying that there should be some system of periodic evaluation and tenure. Thankfully some institutes like the NCBS have now instituted tenure reviews, but this is still a drop in the ocean compared to the vast majority of Indian science institutions.

Then there are the more prosaic but undoubtedly debilitating effects of bureaucracy. Senior Indian scientists cited in the Science articles remember the 60s and 70s when they had to wait months for simple chemicals and equipment and were asked to justify the details of every single purchase. State-of-the art equipment is now found at many top Indian institutions, but the justification part has largely stayed the same. Funding for Indian science may have grown, but every rupee is watched with a fervor that would evoke Big Brother. The article quotes an Indian scientist lamenting this situation and saying that he feels stifled by a system that asks him to submit a detailed report on his work every 3 months. It’s one thing to ask for detailed progress reports, it’s another to almost dictate the direction of someone’s research by scrutinizing every detail. Bureaucracy also engenders a lack of transparency, with officials conveniently hiding their responsibilities and mistakes under layers of obfuscatory paperwork. It’s pretty obvious that open science and freedom of inquiry can never thrive under such constraints.

The red tape also dissuades existing scientists from striking out in new directions; as the Indian Institute of Science’s director Prof. P. Balaram puts it in one of the Science articles, “Even the best of intentions can disappear without a trace in the quicksands of officialdom”. This is especially stifling for expatriate Indian scientists who have been exposed to a different kind of research environment for many years and are now seeking to starts their own labs back in India. Unfortunately the experiences of scientists coming back to India after a long time seem all too alike; almost any effort by these scientists to institute progressive practices and cultures ingrained during their experience abroad can be construed as elitism and an insolent effort to rock the boat. It’s pretty clear that unless bureaucracy is seen as a culture-independent, fundamental barrier to scientific progress, research aspirations will continue to disappear into the “quicksands of officialdom”.

The battle hymn of the old guard

Many of the problems riddling Indian science could be distilled down to one factor; what’s been called the Indian “scientocracy”. This may well be the hardest hurdle to surmount since it really reflects a problem endemic in Indian society as a whole. Although it has been rapidly changing in the past few years, Indian society remains hierarchical at all levels, from the family to private organizations. Traditionally society has been organized, at least implicitly, by class, caste and official titles. The caste system may have been largely shaken off, but other layers remain.

India has a very strong paternalistic streak in its many organizations and scientific organizations are no exception. Hero-worship is a rather deeply ingrained part of Indian culture, although the young generation seems to be showing some promising signs of shaking it off. Age usually commands great respect and obedience. “Senior” scientists who have done especially noteworthy work can be virtually worshipped. Some are treated akin to Gods. Students are explicitly or implicitly encouraged not to talk back to professors or ask them probing questions. I have heard too many cases of students being “shown their place” when they tried to be too inquisitive in class. In most cases even younger scientists are not addressed on a first-name basis. In the lab the PI reigns supreme and most labs are run as minor fiefdoms. Even minor decisions and ideas may have to be approved by the PI. Irreverent inquiry is almost always squished, even if it may lead to productive science. This is the case even in private companies.

All this has led to a rather conspicuous lack of open inquiry of the kind that fosters efficient scientific communication and the dispersal of ideas. Science especially is the quintessentially egalitarian system, where the only thing that should matter is how good someone’s ideas are and not how old or distinguished they are. Last year in an Op-Ed in Science, a previous director of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (the Indian counterpart to the NSF and the NIH) bemoaned the lack of irreverence in Indian scientific culture, although he must have been aware that his generation has played an active role in perpetuating it. He gave examples of famous scientists – Feynman, Watson, Crick, Feigenbaum, Venter – whose playful irreverence and lack of automatic respect for the “elders” in their field has led to both revolutionary ideas and a strong culture of innovation. The implications are clear; an Indian Feynman would probably be silenced and perhaps even cast out of the scientific establishment for daring to question his superiors. The Indian scientocracy dissuades bold, probing questioning.

The articles in Science don’t address this aspect of Indian science which I believe is of paramount importance. One does not create a scientifically fertile environment by surrounding himself with yes-men. There are countless cases to prove the contrary; the Manhattan Project and Bell Labs being only two examples of organizations where thinking outside the box led to great advances. True breakthroughs can only arise from individuals, and especially young individuals, questioning the status quo and boldly treading the boundaries of knowledge. Indian science clearly has to catch up.

The future?

The articles in science seem to strike a note of cautious optimism. India is certainly paying much more attention to its scientific landscape than it ever did and it is clearly eager to leave its mark. Whether symbolic or real, its aspirations for a moon shot signify its ambitions. The hurdle as I see it is that the problems outlined above run very deep and their roots extend through many generations. They are not problems which can be resolved in one year or even in ten. Plus, as some scientists in the article say, the sheer magnitude of the issues is such that even with all these efforts Indian science has not reached a critical mass; a startling statistic says that the total number of biologists in India is less than the number in Boston alone. So what can be done?

It is clear that the solution will have to come from multiple fronts. Some problems are easier to address than others. The syllabus will have to be overhauled and this can be accomplished at least locally at some places by convincing the administration of the value of including modern topics. The compartmentalization problem is more entrenched since it depends on demand for professional versus scientific jobs, a situation that’s unlikely to change in the near future. But at least in some cases it could be accomplished by driving home the conceptual and commercial value of cross-dsciplinary topics like neuroscience, biophysics and biostatistics.

The centrality of science in human progress and thinking must be driven home by the media, by educated intellectuals and most importantly by the senior scientists who seem to command public attention; perhaps some of them can put the hero-worship to good use. As upholders of the scientific status quo and guardians of the purse-strings, they can do a lot. This might generally improve the standing of science in the public consciousness. It might lead more top students to study science and it may lead their parents to support their ambitions. A lot of Indian scientists have blamed lucrative IT jobs for presumably drawing away scientific talent. It is clear that a nation full of IT professionals cannot fulfill its scientific destiny and demonstrate real progress, but this situation is unlikely to change any time soon, and as they say, it’s much better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. The new scientific initiatives melding undergraduate education and research and offering thousands of scholarships to bright high-school students are certainly a step in the right direction, but the fact that these initiatives have not yet touched the preponderant state-run universities leaves much to be desired.

Ultimately the transformation will take time, probably a long time. Young Indian scientists including homegrown researchers and expatriates have to work together and implement positive changes in scientific culture, lab safety and communication. They will start anew and there is no doubt that we will have to wait perhaps twenty or fifty years to see truly significant changes. They will nonetheless face resistance from some of the old guard , but one can always remember Max Planck’s statement: “A new scientific theory does not prevail because it convinces its detractors of its validity, but rather because its detractors die and a new generation grows up on it and recognizes its value”.

Renewal can be the only true catalyst for fundamental change.

[Image Credit: By Pérot [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]


About the Author

Ashutosh Jogalekar is interested in understanding how science tries to mirror reality by building models. To this end his day job involves modeling chemical and biological systems and understanding the strengths and limitations of these approaches. As a bonus he also gets to work on systems that are relevant to human health and disease. A broader interest is in plumbing the intersections of science with philosophy, history and culture. In his spare time he enjoys reading, classical music, offbeat films and walks. He lives in Cambridge, MA.

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5 Comments on "Science in India: Moon shot or bust?"

  1. Akshat March 1, 2012 at 11:56 am ·

    Reading through the long piece, I had to stop myself from shouting YES, YES! You’ve charted out the biggest areas in Indian science that need fixing. What can we as expats do from here?

    A minor attempt that I have made and have continued on an annual basis is this: I’d like to do more though.

  2. Indrajeet March 1, 2012 at 8:54 pm ·

    Brilliant post Ashutosh. This will be a nice reference for anyone who wants to work on improving the condition of science in India. Kudos!

  3. Ashutosh March 2, 2012 at 3:00 am ·

    That’s a great point Akshat. You gave talks at your school and that is one thing which I think all of us can do whenever we are on vacation. I have tried to do that every time I have gone back. It’s really important to drive home the importance of interdisciplinary research, open communication etc. and to dispel biases about studying certain “hot” areas instead of ones which you like and are good at.

  4. Venkat March 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm ·

    Very well articulated analysis of Indian science. I bet 80% of Indian scientists can’t even write an essay like this, because they were trained since school to write from text books verbatim which was never considered a form of plagiarism. To catch up with Max Plank’s idea we should start breeding a generation that realizes the value of science and the pursuit of ones interest than following the flock, while we allow the the guardians of Indian science to die. However, the basic problems of India are not scientific research but of societal beliefs, poverty, corruption at all levels, dowry, nepotism etc. I only hope it changes soon.

  5. Unnikumar November 24, 2013 at 5:55 am ·

    Barring a few, a 65 years old India have failed to produce any significant contribution to Science leading to the award of a Nobel Prize. Science is controlled by highly defined cluster of institutes/ people. We right at the beginning at the school level lack preparation, temperament (attitude) and resource towards any discipline and science is no exception. Students are taught to get 98-100%. Mushrooming of Universities had little effect on the quantum of quality except we have produced one of the largest number of “qualified” professionals.

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