Science education in India: Light after the tunnel or tunneling away from the light?

Written by  //  February 2, 2011  //  Science & Technology  //  4 Comments

This is a reprint of a post I wrote on an old blog a few years ago. Many of the points discussed in the post seem as relevant today as they were then, so I am taking the liberty of reposting it. I would choose to put things slightly differently today, but I wanted to preserve the original tone and language of the piece.

Chemical and Engineering News (C & EN) is the science and technology masthead for the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society. A few years ago it published a special issue about science in India. Much of the debate centered on points that have been bandied about often. However I believe they did miss one key point, overlooked perhaps because it is relatively mundane but which gains significance precisely in its mundaneness. But first let’s take a look at what C & EN did say about the state of science, scientific education, and research in India:

1. Sprinting before standing: A few years ago, the eminent scientist and IISc., director Prof. P. Balaram, published a perceptive and telling editorial for the magazine Current Science. I always remember the title of that editorial: It was “Sprinting Before Standing”. What Prof. Balaram was saying was that in the Indian scientific community, there is an increasing tendency to aim for high-profile, ambitious goals without having any firm ground to first stand on. Ambition is one thing but building grandiose castles in the air is another. C & EN describes this situation by enumerating one striking feature of our science universities- the big disconnect between the state of the art instrumentation and the contrasting sordid condition of the most basic infrastructure. For example, national institutes in our country today boast of spectrometers, sequences and microscopes worth crores of rupees. Yet, one look at the labs where the students work would send the US Environmental Protection Agency scurrying to get a petition to immediately shut down every lab they can lay their hands on. Many labs, even in our prestigious national institutes, are safety officers’ nightmares and are woefully devoid of basic equipment. I remember the lab in my own college which was a cesspool of toxic waste and safety hazards. In our second year we used to perform a certain protocol called ‘phosphate removal’ which called for adding generous quantities of hydrochloric acid to a blend of compounds and heating the reaction crucible. The lack of fume hoods routinely left the lab enveloped in a thick fog of noxious vapors. The same goes for some other supposedly high profile labs. In the US, working away from a fume hood is a federal violation. In my graduate school laboratory, every undergraduate student had his or her own hood. In our college lab by contrast, there was one common hood for about sixty students, a bonafide environmental and health disaster. And note that this had nothing to do with funds; how much does it take to construct a couple of hoods? Surely the college can muster up funds for such a basic long-term investment. Anyway, as Balaram says, our problem is that we are reaching for the sun without having a solid ground to stand on. That won’t work. No amount of sophisticated instrumentation is going to lead to scientific breakthroughs if the most basic of infrastructure is not in place. Before we strive to tidy up the town, let us first clean our backyard. Let’s not aim to create rocket scientists and not have enough screwdrivers. Let’s not expect sophisticated instrumentation to make up for human creativity, creativity that can be engendered only through basic education and infrastructure. We must learn to stand, before we aspire to sprint.

2. The sad story of the post-doc: This is an excellent point. Worldwide, the efficiency and rate of research primarily depends on post-docs, already well-trained personnel who can (hopefully) churn out publications and results. In India, post-docs are such a neglected breed that the whole of our scientific productivity depends on PhD. students. This is unrealistic. PhD. students are still learning the ropes and while many of them contribute to high-quality research publications, it’s unfair and debilitating to depend solely on these young minds. The situation in the US is actually not better by heads and shoulders since post-docs are paid paltry sums relative to their training. But it’s still much better than at home, and the Indian post-doc scenario has led to almost every PhD. student from a good Indian institution flocking to the US for a post-doc. A case in point is the Nobel Prize winning organic chemist Herbert Brown, whose prize-winning papers often featured Indian names on them. Even if the postdoc then returns home, it is the US who ends up marshaling her talents and resources during her time as a post-doc. Unless we provide better facilities and incentives for post-doc, we will continue to lose our best graduate students to foreign research labs just when they are getting warmed up and ready to publish.

3. The woes of undergraduate research: In India, undergraduate research is virtually non-existent. Scientists and faculty members have their hands full with their PhD. students, and the last thing they want is an undergraduate meddling in their lab. But this attitude has fostered a complete lack of appreciation of scientific research in science undergraduates, many of whom are not motivated to begin with. It is during undergraduate education that we most need to instill a love for research in our students, but it is precisely at this level that we seem to fail them the most. In the US the picture is strikingly different. Undergraduate research is enthusiastically promoted at most universities, with students regularly doing ‘internships’ and projects in summer. One can only wonder why in spite of this exposure, very few of them go on to do PhDs. In India, undergraduate research is largely an unknown phenomenon, and unless it is vigorously encouraged, not many aspiring youngsters are going to end up in science.

*The missing point: The point which I found significantly missing in C & ENs exposition was a discussion of the lack of respect for science and the humanities- and indeed almost anything that does not involve a professional career- in our society. No matter what changes, unless people’s mindsets change, nothing will finally ever change. I personally find this to be the single most important lacuna in our lack of progress. Not just science but the humanities and arts are relegated to inferior levels. In India the traditional view which always prevailed still largely prevails. Unless your son or daughter is doing engineering/medicine/business, he or she is probably not doing anything worthwhile. I keep getting appalled by the immense peer and parental pressure that students in school and college face in India to get into the rat race and get admitted into a professional course. The lack of respect for science, the humanities, and the arts is depressing to say the least and it can eventually forestall the maturation and intellectual development of any state or civilization. Any glance at the history of modern civilization, Eastern or Western, should convince us of the importance of writers, historians, philosophers, scientists, and poets. We tout the virtues of these men and women in textbooks and yet don’t want those from our own ranks to be among them.

It’s interesting that in India parents expend much effort in teaching their protege the elements of mathematics and science in school. Yet this instruction is only the means to the end, as a conduit to a professional career and never as a career in itself. Every parent teaches his or her child about Newton, Pythagoras, and Darwin, and yet most parents don’t want their child to choose a path that would enable her to become like these people. In fact most ambitions of such kind are actively stifled or ignored at the very least. I have often wondered about the stark contrast between parents’ ambitions for their children and their admiration for Indian scientists. Organize a lecture by Jayant Narlikar or C N R Rao and you are certain to find a packed auditorium full of parents who have enthusiastically brought their child to hear about the wonders of astronomy or chemistry. But ask the parents if they would like their children to professionally study science and many would demur. For several years I was told that money was the primary reason why Indian parents don’t motivate their child to pursue a career in science. But while certainly is one of the most important driving forces, recently I have started suspecting that the reason goes deeper and taps a more emotional reservoir of uncertainty and ambition in the minds of our parents. Consider the time when these parents grew up. India had a socialist economy then. Many of our grandparents and parents could not pursue financially lucrative careers even when they wanted to. They could not start their own business without digging through layers of mind-numbing bureaucracy, and strict import laws made many consumer goods like electronic gadgets a scarce commodity. Our parents know what not being able to achieve their ambitions feels like. Naturally they don’t want their children to have the same experience and want them to experience the fruits of post-1991 economic liberalization and globalization in their full glory. They simply want their children to have what they could not. At least in some cases this ambition has an unfair side to it since it consists of parents vicariously living their life through their children, something which counselors routinely discourage parents from doing. But this also leads me to an intriguing thought; with young Indians being financially much better off than their parents, would they feel more secure and encourage their own children to pursue alternative careers in the sciences, arts and humanities? Only time will tell.

In addition to parents, peer pressure and the entire system’s constraints more or less force students to flow with the current. Every facet of the system contrives to keep students from leisurely pursuing his or her interests. Within the strict boundaries of the syllabus, the excessively deferential attitude expected towards teachers and the conformity of peers, many inevitably become core conformists. The result? A large group of ‘professionals’ who may not be doing what their heart really wants to and what they may be good at. And a nation whose intellectual development is significantly skewed.

A few of them do break out, silently endure the system for what it is and finally cast the system’s cobwebs from their mind, pursuing their own path. But that number is diminutive. These few who take bold steps see themselves more as maverick non-conformists who laugh at the system. But there exists no nourishing culture, no avuncular fraternity of teachers, parents, and peers, to draw and bind a student to alternative careers. Science, art, and the humanities are social enterprises. Without support, they wither away like other lone enterprises.

Thus the question is not one of facilities, funding, or even quotas although all these factors contribute. It’s ultimately one of respect. On an general basis, we do not respect the arts, humanities, and sciences as endeavors which can lead to distinguished careers, at least on a professional basis. Compare the general differences in attitude when someone is told that their friend’s son or daughter got admitted into a ‘famous’ college to study computer engineering, as compared to when they are told that someone enrolled to do a BA in history because of his or her specific interest. Why should some professions be considered distinguished and others trivial, when humanity as a whole needs every type of intellectual artisan? While the US does have its deep flaws, this attitude seems to be largely absent here. Even the stereotypically dumb blondes inevitably majoring in Art History are not despised. Among undergraduates, you find a wide swathe of students majoring in every possible discipline, from history and psychology to international relations and sociology. As fields of study none of these are considered inferior. The US may not be the top producer of indigenous science graduates today, but it definitely leads the world in respecting diversity of careers. I am not being an apologist for the US. After all, many excuses can be made, especially concerning large populations and money. But changing attitudes doesn’t need money, and in any case we find that in India money is emphatically not the problem. Mindsets are. We have to understand the miasma of tunnel vision that we are inevitably caught in, and make deliberate efforts to come out of it.

Unless we cast aside stereotypes and recognize the worth of a variety of fountains of knowledge, I don’t believe that India will produce a significant number of well-rounded citizens with the sense and sensibilities to make choices and contribute to the fabric of civilization. C & EN probably did not belabour this point because its editors did not look at the mundane, because it was mundane and uninteresting. But it is precisely the mundane that is the most widespread and significant, in terms of both hope and despair. The silent undercurrent that runs through Indian education will finally determine India’s performance at the highest levels. Unless there is a conscious revival of values of respect, of Nehru’s famous scientific “temper”, I don’t believe Indian scientific education can expect to progress by leaps and bounds. Half of India’s 1.1 billion are below 25. If things stay the same, it won’t be surprising if C & EN finds no reason twenty years down the line to tout the promises and virtues of a smidgeon among those half.

4 Comments on "Science education in India: Light after the tunnel or tunneling away from the light?"

  1. Yogesh February 5, 2011 at 1:53 am ·

    Worth a read, I must say. Undergraduate research is a valid criticism. In fact, even undergraduate teaching is very neglected. Many talented Indian students are clueless about research after their Masters and take time to be confident of doing a PhD as well as understand what it is about. Unfortunately, this wasted time combined with the pressure to settle in before 30 means that people are in a hurry to finish PhD at the earliest and this is a rather wrong way to start a PhD.

    I think given the dollar/euro exchange rates, it is going to be hard-pressed for India to retain its top post-doc students. It is similar to the best Master’s students going abroad for a Ph.D.. It is mainly a financial decision as well as societal pressure. By that i mean that you are respected all round even if you study in a third-rate institute abroad instead of a first-rate institute in India. This is not too dissimilar from the way many north indian students come and study in third-rate engineering colleges in South. Also, the top Indian institutes prefer and have rules that cater to post-docs and Phds from abroad than their own products. Sad state of affairs. They should not complain about students moving abroad at all.

    When talking of attitudinal change, i might add the following : Image of “success”. Ram Guha spoke about it in the context of farmer suicides. The widely prevalent notion of success is 3 BHR own flat by 35, a fat pay cheque, a car and yearly vacations abroad. Unless you have these, you are a loser. This has lead people to aim for the glitzy glamorous life of a software or management professionals. A simple school/university teaching job is not considered one worth having at all. I hardly listen to anyone passionate about school teaching. This frightens me. If your school teachers are not in it by choice but due to lack of it, more students will go to professional courses. The fundamental requirement for science/arts career is love for the subject and this love has to be infused by school teachers. I think, India needs to pay enormous attention to school education instead of focussing so much on research institutes. Researchers are capable of raising their issues but not school children.

  2. Ashutosh February 18, 2011 at 3:49 pm ·

    Great comment, thanks!

  3. Pritam Roy June 29, 2011 at 5:31 pm ·

    Truly said,I am an undergraduate computer science major currently in my 3rd year of btech.Even though I want to be involved research ,I find myself staring at a wall
    Firstly the CS department of my university is very weak.There is no research happening in my univesity(it is a tier 2 enigineering college which sprung up to fulfill the needs of parents like mine to have their sons as engineers)
    Secondly I find awareness and interest in research surprisingly lacking in my fellow students who dont even think research is an option
    Frankly i find such a lack of interest in science research in students who have all been maths and science majors in school and who compete in some of the most competitive exams in the world which test only their maths and science skills rather strange .

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