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Lighting the SPARK?

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In January, the heads of India’s top scientific administrative bodies in a report to the Prime Minister proposed the setting up of an independent science and technology (S&T) authority tentatively called “SPARK” (Sustainable Progress through Application of Research and Knowledge). A report in the Hindu stated that the proposed body lays out “a broad map on how India ought to position itself among the top three countries in science and technology by 2030, and ensure that 10% of the top 100 leaders in the scientific field are Indians.” This is apparently achievable, because of the existence of “global goodwill.”

It is difficult to ascertain how the concept of sustainable progress is to be reconciled with the quantification of 10% of the top scientists as Indian. One cannot fathom the yardstick that would be used to calculate this target. Does it mean that 10% of the Nobel Prizes should be won by Indians (one recipient, every two years)? Do we estimate the number of internationalS&T scholars applying to Indian institutions of science, including our universities, for fellowships and guidance inS&T research?

Further, the idea that India has to be placed amongst the first three countries (behind which two, we are not sure) inS&T envisages a framework that is akin to winning Olympic medals, and thus SPARK appears to be a blueprint for such a training programme for science. Scientific achievement, it is to be noted, cannot be judged in terms of one’s presence on the victory stands.

The report also notes that “the stature of Indian science is a shadow of what it should be ... because of misguided interventions. We have lost self-confidence and ambition, and the ability to recognise excellence amongst our own. In a false sense of egalitarianism, we often chose the mediocre at every level.” The report, we are told, “was vetted by all the secretaries of India’s scientific departments.”

Interestingly, some premises of the report are challenged by Gautam R Desiraju in a recent article published in the Hindu. He denies the report’s claims of a “huge support system,” and “global goodwill” towards the Indian scientific community. India does not need global goodwill to succeed in science. Rather, he asserts it needs hard work, honest management and a critically large base of experts. He further states that science in India suffers due to “many sins of omission and commission over the years, by the individuals who have led the system.”

It is doubtful whether those at the top really care for the opinions of such concerned critics. However, I hope that our citizens who are inclined towards science will take note of these observations. About 50 years ago, in an essay titled, “Scandal of the Science Congress,” J B S Haldane observed that in India, the authority of a scientist is not generally judged by scientific capabilities, but by the admini­strative powers that they wield in their respective scientific establishments.

In addition, there is now a paradigm shift on what exactly constitutes scientific achievement, for which the mass media and political class share responsibility. Today, a technological replication or duplication is often showcased as a breakthrough, be it in the case of a nuclear test, Mangalayaan’s entry into its orbit, or the release of 104 mini-satellites into their orbits. While these are all technological success stories, they cannot be classified as scientific breakthroughs.

These events are further analysed with a generous dose of “nationalism” that we nowadays add to all our actions and their projected outcomes. Thus, in the evaluation of our science too, we feel the need to mention “global goodwill.” This may be an important matter in global diplomacy, but is not pertinent for the advancement of science in India. The outcome of all this hype is that the citizens are conditioned to think of satellites and missile launches as those that add to our national prestige, and thus as the ultimate goals of S&T.

We tend to forget, for instance, the pioneering work on cholera, conducted in an obscure corner of the country by Sambhu Nath De, which formed the basic foundation of oral rehydration therapy (ORT). But his work has gone unrecognised in his own country, despite several Nobel Prize nominations. De’s work neither sacrificed excellence nor egalitarianism, and one must note that the two are not mutually exclusive.

It is true that “we have failed in our educational system to harness the enormous latent talent in our country and build a solid foundation for science.” However, this can be harnessed only through an egalitarian approach by our own national initiative.

S Chatterjee

BENGALURU

Updated On : 6th Oct, 2017

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