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Science Research in India: Universities, Research Institutes and Everything In-between

This comment on Pushpa M Bhargava's endorsement of the role of autonomous research institutes (EPW, August 2, 2008) as opposed to Gautam R Desiraju's opinion that the creation of such institutes was a singular blunder (EPW, June 14, 2008) holds that while the real backbone of our education is to be found within the traditional university system, the faculty at research institutions need more support in doing pure research.

DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW OCTOBER 11, 200867Science Research in India: Universities, Research Institutes and Everything In-betweenAnita MehtaAnita Mehta (anita@bose.res.in) is with the S N Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Kolkata.This comment on Pushpa M Bhargava’s endorsement of the role of autonomous research institutes (EPW, August 2, 2008) as opposed to Gautam R Desiraju’s opinion that the creation of such institutes was a singular blunder (EPW, June 14, 2008) holds that while the real backbone of our education is to be found within the traditional university system, the faculty at research institutions need more support in doing pure research. is that we inIndia are widely recognised as having greater intrinsic scientific talent than some of the countries men-tioned above; Indian scientists working abroad are seen to be major contributors to any scientific community one chooses to sample.Somewhere In-betweenThe discussions that are taking place cur-rently are centred on precisely this issue – what are we doing wrong here, why isn’t the talent that is so e’vident once export-ed, allowed to flourish in its home envi-ronment? A major issue, and one on which Bhargava and Desiraju differ strongly, is the role of autonomous research institutes versus universities; the former strongly endorses the role of institutions whose only raison d’etre is research, while the latter feels that the creation of these insti-tutions “was the single biggest blunder that was committed in the Indian scientific arena”. A third viewpoint, somewhere in between, is possible; and this is the point of this article.As a habitué of research institutes (both as a professor at one in India, and a long-time visiting scientist at Commissariat al Energie Atomique (CEA) Saclay in France), I might be expected to be strongly in their favour. The following remarks might therefore surprise those who believe in situational predictability – I believe that there is much to be said for Desiraju’s criticism of research institutions, even to the point that some of them are a “waste of valuable real estate”. I feel, however (in line with some of the examples that Bhargava has taken), that there are at least some “good” ones – good as defined by a meaningful average of productivity, rather than strong individual fluctuations of active talent embedded in a sea of mediocrity. Even in institutions character-ised by the latter scenario, the presence of islands of robust science, conducted in the face of great odds, makes it hard to find simplistic solutions: it is not fair to those who are fulfilling their mandate to change the ground rules of their institutions and transform them into universities, having hired them to do basic research in the first placeIfound both Pushpa M Bhargava’s ‘On the Organisation of Science Research in India’ (August 2, 2008) and Gautam R Desiraju’s ‘Science Education and Research in India’ (June 14, 2008) on the state of Indian science interesting; each had valuable inputs to make to the dis-cussions which are currently taking place on the state of science in India. I am not in complete accord with either article though in partial agreement with both; this piece will present a third perspective on the issue at hand.What most people agree about is that the state of Indian science at present leaves much to be desired. I would like to repeat here what I have said in other contexts (‘Science in the Sick Bay’, The Times of India, April 23, 2008): it is unreasonable to expect Indian science to be more than a microcosm of Indian society. The analogy with India’s recent gold medal at the Olympics is hard to resist: first, it represents an individual achievement, born of individual training and private endeavour. Second, such a medal does not signify anything about our overall profile in the field of athletics. In line with this analogy, it is fair to say that only a small fraction of our scien-tists have solid international profiles (by this I do not necessarily meanworld-class; I mean only people who publish regularly in international journals and are constantly invited by colleagues abroad to collaborate and give talks); this is undoubtedly a small fraction com-pared to most western countries, but what is troubling is that it may become smaller than the contributions of coun-tries such as Korea or Singapore, not to speak of China, all of which have made enormous investments in their scientific potential. What is even more troubling
DISCUSSIONOCTOBER 11, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly68This said, I agree with many of Desiraju’s comments, e g, that research councils and the institutes they parented were often put in place too fast, with not enough care invested in hiring and infrastructure. A broad categorisation of hired faculty at such institutions results in at least three classes: those who are doing the research they were hired to do, very well; those who did it well for a time and then lapsed; and, alas, those who have never done any-thing and continue with their inaction. The difficulty of assessing today’s widely specialised research in any meaningful way is a major problem too: how does one distinguish between someone who grap-ples with a difficult problem and publishes nothing, and someone who likewise pub-lishes nothing but, in addition, also thinks of nothing? Numbers of publications alone cannot be a guideline – today’s science, in certain subfields, allows the mindless application of techniques to generate repe-titive papers with only slight variations, much as slight variants of recipes allow a restaurant to produce different versions of the same dish on different days.Productivity and PoliticsIt should also be noted that those who manage to perform well in most of our re-search institutions are usually fighting enormous battles just to survive; especi-ally if they are not playing politics as well. Research careers are typically not well- rewarded and, in today’s society, not par-ticularly well-respected; added to this is the value not added of the physical and mental surroundings they have to work in. While all of this is true of universities as well, the “autonomous” nature of most re-search institutes sets them apart from the democracy of most universities: the prob-lems that can result from autocracies are entirely predictable and hardly need spell-ing out, but suffice it to say that merit is usually the first casualty of politics. The fact that scientists whose spirits might have been repeatedly broken by political manoeuvres are still able to be productive, is nothing short of a miracle; they need to be supported, and not discouraged. Clos-ing down research institutes, or modify-ing them out of all recognition, is thus not a fair solution – at least not for the active researchers within them.Universities have their heroes too; there are those who teach, and also do goodresearch, as both Desiraju and Bhar-gava acknowledge. It is, however, no acci-dent that such dual productivity is more pronounced in universities which have long liberal traditions; the atmosphere at most such universities is immediately more respectful of the individual faculty member, who then feels more encouraged to contribute of his best than his counter-part at one of the more monolithic re-search institutes. Typically, however, the research output of the average university is not significant, as Bhargava says; few uni-versity faculty get the awards or make the research impact that faculty members at pure research institutions may do (or should I say, are allowed to do). Were we SAGE AD

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