Saturday, April 14, 2012

Learning from India's learning curve on science

by Salman Hameed

A few decades ago, there was a sense that Pakistan and India were relatively - and I mean this quite loosely - closer in some scientific fields (for example, nuclear physics - for obvious reasons). However, now it is quite clear that Indian science is playing at a completely different level than Pakistan's. One of the many reasons has to with the continuity and the excellence of some of their higher education institutions and their continuing emphasis on pure sciences. However, India finds itself in a similar situation (perhaps the disparity is not as extreme) compared to China. Here is an excellent commentary in this week's Nature that looks at India's slow growth in science and there are many lessons for Pakistan as well:
At present, India has a trickle-down strategy, in which elite institutions are supported in the hope that good science there will energize the masses, and a bottom-up approach, in which the general public is targeted with schemes to popularize science.
These approaches have converged with the setting up in recent years of tens of new universities, institutes and centres of higher learning, even though many hundreds more are desirable for a country of India’s size. Although there was, curiously, no increased allocation to science in this year's Indian budget, there is hope that, as the prime minister has declared, things would improve if government support were increased to 2% of the gross domestic product (it now stands at 0.9%). But it is a haphazard plan, with no hint of new strategies. The assumption is that the answer to our problems lies simply in more money. 
As someone who has worked in India for 34 years, I am impatient with our slow progress2. At the glitzy level, we have had no Nobel prize winner since C.V. Raman in 1930, no highly Shanghai-ranked university, no miracle drug for a tropical disease and no sequencing of the rice genome. At the industrial level, there have been no breakthroughs to rival the telephone, the transistor or Teflon. At the organizational level, we do not have a postdoctoral system worth its name, and our undergraduate teaching system is in a shambles. We figure occasionally in the best journals, yet we tolerate plagiarism, misconduct and nepotism. And yet, the innate abilities and talents of India are palpable. Why is it that this country has not been able to harness its strengths into deliverables?
Money is not the primary constraining factor in our problems, nor will an abundance of it solve them. More money is undoubtedly better, but if there are deep cultural and social problems, extra money will simply drain away. 
And I think this is where some of the issues mentioned are also applicable to Pakistan and many other Third world countries:
Two aspects of the Indian psyche are particularly troubling for a country seeking its rightful place in the modern world. Our cultural value system, backed by Hindu scriptural authority, has created a strongly feudal mindset among Indians. Centuries of servitude, right up until 1947, have made the average Indian docile, obedient and sycophantic. 'Behave yourself and be rewarded', is the pragmatic mantra. I believe this feudal–colonial mentality has had far-reaching and debilitating consequences for research.
The first is our lack of the ability to question and dissent that is so essential to science. Most of the faculty in our better institutions have done postdoctoral work in a foreign laboratory of consequence. Unlike young scientists in advanced countries, however, newly returned Indian lecturers typically relive their golden moments as postdocs throughout their research careers. The best research papers from India may be competent, but they do not inspire or excite. Very few Indian scientists are known as opinion-makers, trend-setters or leaders. They follow obediently. 
Another consequence of this feudal mindset is our unquestioning acceptance — bordering on subservience — to older people. In this part of the world, age is blindly equated with wisdom, and youth with immaturity. This facilitates the continuance of the status quo. Geriatric individuals with administrative and political clout reinforce their positions so well that we are unable to eject them. So we hail scientists in their eighties, film actors in their seventies and cricketers in their forties.

All really important. Of course, in Pakistan, we get into an additional problem of sectarianism. So somebody like Abdus Salaam can get a Noble Prize, but at home his name is treated badly because he belongs to the Ahmadiyya sect. Like India, Pakistan has to develop a strong sense of religious pluralism if we have much hope for developing a scientific culture.

Back to the Commentary. Here is the proposed way forward for India:

I suggest that our policy-makers consider the following. First, provide modest funding to a very large number of small, single-investigator, blue-sky projects — including those in state universities — to achieve a critical density of ideas and a feeling of mass participation and enthusiasm. 
Second, provide heavy and directed funding into a few specific projects of national importance — such as energy, water and public health — with high levels of accountability and proper exit options. Third, reduce or abolish the present system of awards, prizes and recognitions in higher-level science. This would dissuade younger scientists from chasing awards rather than doing good science, and it would reduce the influence of the cliques who allocate prizes. 
To reach a stable solution, we can employ longer-term measures that include modification or removal of caste-based quotas and reservations in the educational and research sectors; improvement of undergraduate teaching institutions and teaching laboratories with respect to greater uniformity and transparency; and clear identification of paths towards scientific and administrative growth for individuals. 
Money is neither the cause nor the solution to our problems, although it can facilitate progress in an otherwise healthy climate. What is lacking in India is the quality of leadership and the level of honesty that are required for a breakthrough. When will this country see another C.V. Raman?
Read the full article here (you may need a subscription to access the article).


Anonymous said...

So how well do we treat A.Q.Khan's name? (of course we have a list of reasons here, so let us forget if he did anything for the said country). And how much space have we ever give to Abdus Sattar Edhi's in our discussion about Pakistan? He certainly deserve less space in our thoughts than that creep who killed Salman Taseer, when it comes to Pakistan.
We happily live away from the said country and don't have a single penny or a single day to contribute in whatever good or bad it has, except for a long list of candy recipes. Haven't we?

Anonymous said...

Every population group, whether geographic, ethnic, or religious, feels discriminated in Pakistan unfortunately, yet few are overly vocal.
Secondly, how much are we hopeful about higher education in Pakistan when there are so called 'analysts' in Pakistan like Hoodbhoy to pull its legs whenever there is some hope. Plus with this flourishing illiterate and corrupt democracy in Pakistan, I don't see much hope either, do you?