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Beyond Modern vs Alternative Science Debate

In recent times, proponents of alternative sciences have been celebrated as well as chastised. This paper critically analyses the modern versus alternative science debate. Postcolonial critiques of Eurocentric constructions of modern science and recent empirical studies provide the context for this study. It does not, however, provide a defence for alternative sciences, because even though their proponents critique modern science and its Eurocentric constructions, their studies, at one level, are over-determined by claims about modern science's unified, universalistic, and Eurocentric character. There is a surfeit of academic analyses of science as well as government policy documents on scientific research in India, but these provide little insight into how particular techno-scientific researches are conducted in India. This article, through a study of magnetic resonance imaging research in India and the US, based on interviews, observations, and analysis of scientific papers, argues that the relationship between scientific practice, knowledge, and culture is contingent upon particular historical and socio-technical contexts.

Beyond Modern vs Alternative Science Debate 

In recent times, proponents of alternative sciences have been celebrated as well as chastised. This paper critically analyses the modern versus alternative science debate. Postcolonial critiques of Eurocentric constructions of modern science and recent empirical studies provide the context for this study. It does not, however, provide a defence for alternative sciences, because even though their proponents critique modern science and its Eurocentric constructions, their studies, at one level, are over-determined by claims about modern science’s unified, universalistic, and Eurocentric character. There is a surfeit of academic analyses of science as well as government policy documents on scientific research in India, but these provide little insight into how particular techno-scientific researches are conducted in India. This article, through a study of magnetic resonance imaging research in India and the US, based on interviews, observations, and analysis of scientific papers, argues that the relationship between scientific practice, knowledge, and culture is contingent upon particular historical and socio-technical contexts.


Indians [Native Americans] are born with an instinct for riding, rowing, hunting, fishing and swimming. Americans are born with an instinct for fooling around with machines.

– William Saroyan, Locomotive 38, The Ojibway, 1940, emphasis added.



remember reading Locomotive 38 as a part of my English course when I was in the middle school. I could not get over the phrase “Americans have an instinct for fooling around with machines”. Nevertheless, apart from invoking some unexplained feelings, the phrase did not mean much to me. The implications of the phrase started to make sense to me quite a few years later, during my master’s study when I was trained by two important proponents of alternative sciences – J P S Uberoi and Shiv Viswanathan. Uberoi’s overriding concern as a historian and sociologist of science has been to recognise and find “other ‘non-standard’ methods of organisation of knowledge in the sciences and arts, within and without university, and other principles of relation of knowledge to life, whether European or non-European” [Uberoi 1984:9].


In significant ways Saroyan’s phrase and Uberoi’s quest for “non-standard methods of organisation of knowledge” form two mutually constitutive poles of the modern versus alternative sciences debate. Saroyan, in drawing an instinctive relationship between science (technology) and “western” people, exemplifies a prevalent discourse within which non-western people are relegated to a particular ontological position in relation to “modern science” (and technology) that can be characterised as “waiting room” of scientific sociability.1 Such a categorisation poses a three-sided problematic: First, how (and very often when) does this relationship between the “west” and modern science occur; second, what is its impact, as well as that of modern science, on the rest of the world; and third, are there alternatives (methods as well as genealogies) to modern science? Uberoi and the other proponents of alternative sciences intellectually confronted this problematic in good faith. In this paper I will analyse how conceptualisations of modern and alternative sciences were (and continue to be) articulated within, and reflect, particular political and ontological configurations, which have had a very real impact on societies as well as on scientific practice.

Sandra Harding’s (1998) appeal to integrate postcolonial and empirical studies of science has certainly brought the former within mainstream Science and Technology Studies agenda of American and European academia. There is a growing interest in postcolonial science studies, which is evident in the special issues of Social Studies of Science [Anderson 2002] and Science as Culture [McNeil 2005]. There can be little doubt that an integration of postcolonial science studies and empirical studies of science will enrich both, but we have to be careful so as not to gloss over their particular concerns. My aim in this paper is to critically analyse modern versus alternative science debate in order to investigate possibilities for a dialogue between empirical and postcolonial studies of science.

Modern Science and West vs Non-West Techno-Cultural Divide

He [Charles Grant] argued that the Indians were ignorant of the natural sciences and that “invention seems wholly torpid to them”. He boasted that the superiority of Europeans’ understanding of the natural world could be readily demonstrated by the “sight of their machines” [Michael Adas, Machine as a Measure of Man, 1989:168-69]. Europe…since 1914 has been provincialised,…only the natural sciences are able to call forth a quick international echo [Hans-Georg Gadamer, as quoted in Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincialising Europe, 2000:3].

“Modern science”, within Eurocentric discursive constructions, by definition erased “location”, though with one exception

– the immaculate conception of modern science in Europe during the Scientific Revolution. This simultaneous erasure and inscription of modern science’s location did not, however, make modern science provincial. Instead, it constituted modern science as a universal knowledge and relegated scientific research in the nonwest to “waiting rooms” of history and development. It is no coincidence therefore that the temporal order of “first in Europe and then elsewhere” [Chakrabarty 2000], has been commonly deployed to define the status of scientific research outside the west, even while the universality and non-location (social or cultural) of modern science is emphasised.

The impact of west versus non-west techno-cultural divide, which is evident in distinctions such as that between a bricoleur and an engineer/scientist, extends well beyond analyses of development and diffusion of science and technology. Claude Levi-Strauss’ opposition between a bricoleur and an engineer has been challenged by philosophers and social theorists, particularly by science studies scholars [Derrida 1970; Latour 1993; Lynch 1993]. These scholars have shown that the scientist or the engineer not unlike the bricoleur makes do with whatever conceptual and machinic tools he or she has. That is to say, scientific work is itself a bricolage. However, these scholars do not debate the impact of such an opposition in defining the subject position of non-western peoples as well as in circumscribing possibilities of postcolonial critiques.

An important aspect of Levi-Strauss’s distinction of a bricoleur from an engineer/scientist is that the thinking of the former “is imprisoned in the events and experiences” that the latter transcends. According to Levi-Strauss:

[T]he engineer is always trying to make his way out of and gobeyond the constraints imposed by a particular state of civilisationwhile the “bricoleur” by inclination or necessity always remainswithin them [Levi-Strauss 1966:19-20].

There is a profound implication of such a classification when it is translated to a west and non-west techno-cultural differentiation, which is not uncommon: non-western knowledges and even analyses of non-western scholars become particular and located while western knowledges and scholarship remain scientific, objective, and universal.2 Scholars all over the world have had anxiety over objectivity of their knowledge claims and have consistently tried to erase any role of their location in the process of knowledge making. West versus non-west technocultural divide further accentuated such an anxiety, and this is particularly evident in alternative science theorisations.

Critiques of modern science and its Eurocentric association, by non-western people, were further circumscribed because in the non-west the image of modern science was projected through a double refraction, making its true nature doubly invisible. If the success of scientific theories and technologies that emerged in western Europe sustained the first level of illusion with regard to unity and universality of modern science, Eurocentrism ensured that any parallax observed in the nonwest could be easily explained either as a cultural lack or difference of that society. For example, if scientific practices in the non-west showed that nature and culture were intertwined, it could be argued that this was so because non-western societies had not yet acquired the culture of modern science or that particular scientific practice represented an ethno science. In significant ways these limitations have defined the predicament and boundaries of postcolonial responses to modern science as well as modernity.3


In Search for Alternative Sciences

India as a culture area will be nowhere, I think, in the world of knowledge, the sciences and the arts, if it does not first defy the European monopoly of the scientific method, established in modern times. It is no solution to propose to wait until we should ourselves become Europeans [J P S Uberoi, The Other Mind of Europe: Goethe as a Scientist, 1984:8].

Proponents of alternative sciences have been deeply concerned with violence perpetuated through “modern western science”. They have criticised modern science for its qualities of “extreme use of reason directed towards the extreme use of violence” [Sardar 1988:1], and vivisection [Nandy 1995; Viswanathan 1997]. According to them, qualities of violence and vivisection are intrinsic to modern science and not simply are a result of, for example, its misguided application [Bajaj 1987; Viswanathan 1997; Uberoi 1984]. These scholars have consistently argued for alternative sciences that are non-dualist and without the abovementioned characteristics of modern science.4

The effort of the advocates of alternative sciences has been to look for epistemological alternatives to modern science in order to search for non-Eurocentric, non-violent, and nonvivisectionist ontological possibilities. We cannot, however, uncritically put all the studies that advocate for alternative sciences in the same category.5 I will briefly highlight the differences between the theoretical positions of Ashis Nandy, J P S Uberoi, and Shiv Viswanathan to show how they differ from each other even while sharing a common goal for the search of non-Eurocentric and non-vivisectionist ontological possibilities. My aim in doing so is to provide a more nuanced reading of alternative sciences in order to explore possibilities of a dialogue between the analyses of alternative sciences (and more generally postcolonial science studies) and the empirical studies of sciences.

Nandy’s contribution lies not as much in bringing to light epistemological possibilities of alternatives sciences (which draw on Indian culture or knowledge) that are non-dualist,6 as in providing a very innovative application of Thomas Kuhn’s (1970) concept of paradigm to understand and explain the psychology of multiple subjectivities in a “modern scientist”.7 He analyses the biographies of Jagdish Chandra Bose and Srinivasa Ramanujan to show how their creativity exemplified “culture’s distinctive version of universal knowledge” [Nandy 1995:143]. He writes:

Evidently, the openness of mind expressed in universalism and rational scepticism, and the closedness nursed by scientific socialisation and expressed in paradigmatic faith, contradict each other and demand psychological functioning simultaneously at two levels…It is the problems of individual creativity and professional identity posed by these contradictions in one scientist caught in the hinges of historical change that I will discuss here [Nandy 1995:88-89].

In contrast to a commonly held belief with regard to Nandy’s notion of alternative sciences, Nandy, in this book, does not throw away modern science or a pursuit for universal knowledge. Instead he shows to us the possibility of a modern scientist operating in psychological “habitats” that are outside his or her commonly accepted habitat. He argues that such a state of existence was a source of lot of tension to both Bose and Ramunajan, yet it contributed productively in their scientific endeavours, which were also often categorised as alternative sciences precisely because of this reason.

Viswanathan shows how particular social organisations of science (institutional as well as epistemic) embody particular models of politics. Through analyses of scientific practices pertaining to a range of topics such as atomic physics and genetic diversity, he has explored possibilities of alternatives sciences that exemplify a non-violent and non-vivisectionist politics [as in Viswanathan 1997].8 In an essay, ‘On the Annals of the Laboratory State’, he writes:

These movements [ecological/civil rights movements] inaugurate one of the finest challenges to the scientific regime. They pinpoint that rationalist science is a repressive regime, that tribal cultures and peasant agriculturists are often ecologically sound than the modern scientist [Viswanathan 1997:47].

In another essay, ‘The House of Bamboo’, he quotes Y V Rao to highlight his politico-epistemological concerns:

Our science was steam engine science. It was about work and energy. We took this steam engine science and steam-rolled our world, our nature. Our science should have begun in the forest or in our fields…‘Botany is a gentle science. It may be a better model for government than Plato or Machiavelli’ [Viswanathan 1997:211].

J P S Uberoi conducted experiments utilising Geothe’s theory of colours and that of Newton and showed that both of them provided equally valid results. Nevertheless:

Goethe’s contribution to optics and botany, etc…follows an altogether different scientific method, the science of symbol, in the tradition of Paracelsus, as against the established official science of the system, in the tradition of Copernicus [Uberoi 1984:73].

He goes on to show how Goethe’s writings represent “a new structure of knowledge, life and religion”. Uberoi argues that in the science of Goethe the structure of knowledge is not bifurcated into two separate knowledges – that of nature and culture respectively. Instead in this structure of knowledge culture and nature overlap and are intertwined [see the diagram in Uberoi 1984: 76]. That is, the structure of knowledge proposed by Goethe is non-dualist and cyclic as opposed to Newtonian and Copernican sciences that are dualist and linear.

The importance of studies of alternative sciences, in the first instance, has to be evaluated in relation to their contribution in search for ontological and political spaces that are non-Eurocentric, non-violent, and non-vivisectionist. I do not think that we can disband the concerns of alternative sciences, particularly because we cannot deny the horrors of violence and vivisection that continue to be perpetrated everyday in the name of modern science. Moreover, it is also relevant to note that parallel to the empirical studies of science, studies proposing alternative sciences argued (and also forcefully showed) that episteme and culture of science were intertwined.9 However, we have to keep in mind, it is one thing to bring to light and advocate for alternative possibilities to state or multinational-sponsored sciences, and quite another to argue that these possibilities represent alternative sciences with an alternative method and episteme in comparison to “modern science”.

The proponents of alternative sciences, like the advocates of a universal modern science and scientific culture, rarely empirically investigate epistemic/laboratory practices of science. Scientific culture is analysed by them as a reflection or extension of the episteme of science, which in the absence of empirical analyses of scientific practices remains entrapped within the constructed images of modern and alternative sciences. Even when an empirical study is conducted by them, as for example by Uberoi (1984), the specific case of theory of colours of Goethe and Newton are generalised as representatives of two different sciences (or structures of knowledge) that are non-dualist and dualist respectively. I think an important reason why proponents of alternative sciences do not empirically investigate particular scientific practices is because, as I stated earlier, in the first (and also last) instance their goal is to search for non-Eurocentric and non-violent ontological possibilities; their epistemological explorations are merely a means towards this end. Ironically, however, these searches are themselves circumscribed by Eurocentric constructions of modern science.

It may seem that empirical studies of science, which have deconstructed the very foundation of diffusion models of science

– separation of science and society – and shown that modern science consists of multiple methods, practices, and epistemes, would provide us a deliverance from Eurocentrism too. Empirical studies of science, however, rarely analyse the construction of west versus non-west techno-cultural divide, which under girds diffusion models and has an impact not just on analyses of scientific research and policy formulations but also on ideological and discursive construction of non-western cultures as inferior and non-creative. Even when the west versus non-west divide is discussed within empirical studies of science, it is very often shown as an aftereffect of the politics of scientific knowledge that occurred in Europe, and hence, for example, as Bruno Latour argues, a consequence of the construction of nature/culture divide [Latour 1993].

Though Latour critiques before and after temporal order in the roles of technical and social factors in techno-scientific research as they are articulated within technological determinist or social constructivist theories, he ends up imposing it on the construction of a west/non-west techno-cultural divide [Prakash 1999]. The problem, however, is not merely that west versus non-west techno-cultural divide is seen as an aftereffect of what happened in Europe. Science studies scholars, in spite of their focus on material performativity of sciences, very often over-privilege epistemic culture (or epistemology) and presume that such epistemic cultures have a homological relationship with the culture in the “west”, and forget the transnational political economies within which these epistemic cultures operate.10

A transnational (that does not erase the nation state) and crosscultural (that does not reify culture) focus in the analysis of scientific research can show how “location” or geography is critical in scientific knowledge production. A re-tooling of concepts and methods of empirical studies of science and its utilisation for the analysis of transnational trajectories of research can make the uneven and hierarchical topography of scientific research visible. It can also make resistance to violence and vivisection, which have been the concerns of proponents of alternative sciences, not merely a polemical exercise but a real politico-epistemological endeavour.

The problematic of analysing national or wider societal cultures of science (as opposed to laboratory cultures) for the followers of empirical studies of science is, however, not simple. This is partly because close attention to trajectories of techno-scientific research, within the empirical studies of science, has come with the cost of an inability (or at least difficulty) to draw linkages at the level of nation-states or at the international level, which is of paramount concern to postcolonial studies.

There are very few cross-cultural studies of techno-scientific research. Sharon Traweek’s (1988) study, comparing the culture of high-energy physicists in Japan and the US, and Karin Knorr Cetina’s (1999) comparative study of the European laboratory for particle physics in Switzerland and a molecular biology laboratory in Germany are important contributions in this regard. My interest, similar to that of Knorr Cetina’s (1999), is in analysis of “machineries of knowledge production”. However, I am concerned with putting into broad relief the role of location or transnational geography in machineries of knowledge production. I have empirically investigated techno-scientific practices with respect to MRI-related research in India and the US by following particular trajectories, and shown how they are critically affected by networks of power and administration (which include policies of the government, role of multinational companies, laboratory practices, and so on).

In methodological terms, my study has sought to focus not only on the laboratories, as Latour argues (1987), as the “obligatory passage points”. Instead, I have followed Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer’s suggestion that analysis of techno-scientific research has to include, “many-to-many mapping, where several obligatory points of passage are negotiated with several kinds of allies” [Star and Griesemer 1989:390]. However, even a many-to-many mapping of techno-scientific practices may not be able to bring to light the broader political economy within which techno-scientific research occurs. Hence I have attempted to show how trajectories of research and strategies of actors are embedded within and affected by local and transnational political economies.

Further, following Geoffrey Bowker, I would like to argue, particularly with regard to MRI-related research (though it may be valid for most sciences at present), that “[r]ather than look for ways in which science is grafted onto industry, we might better look for ways in which science is a natural extension of industrial processes” [Bowker 1994:12]. My methodological strategy has been to follow scientists, government employees, and employees of multinational companies, and to analyse academic/scientific as well as journalistic writings on MRI research in the US and India in order to analyse particular trails of MRI research and to highlight their socio-economic embeddedness.

Tale of Two Cultures of Techno-science: MRI Research in US and India

The pressure for the introduction of new technologies [in the US]

is inexorable. Every day there’s a claim of a new breakthrough.

Our society wants that. We are different from other societies in

the world [Seymour Perry as quoted in Andrew Pollock 1991,

emphasis added].

The major paradigms in sciences, as well as major problematics

in the west were developed in the west and still continue to be

(or in the alternative are at least legitimised there) and only minor

variations of the major viewspoints are handled locally [Susantha

Goonatilake 1984:110].

In 1987, when the first imported MRI scanner was being installed at the Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences (INMAS) in Delhi, India, the US had nearly 900 MRI scanners deployed for clinical use [Rublee 1989]. By this time, Raymond Damadian and Paul Lauterbur, two American scientists, were already in the midst of a bitter priority dispute over the invention of MRI and eventually in 2003 Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield, a British scientist, received the Nobel Prize for their contribution to the development of MRI.

The MRI scanner installed at INMAS was manufactured by Siemens, a multinational company based in Germany. N Lakshmipati, the then director of INMAS, informed me that they not only had the scanner installed by Siemens’ engineers but also made Siemens take care of the masonry required to house the scanner. In contrast, by the mid-1980s, General Electric Medical Systems (GE) based in the US was a global frontrunner in the manufacture and supply of MRI scanners.

These simple empirical “facts” seem to be telling reminders of the position of the US and India (and more generally a western and a non-western nation) in the global scape of MRI research and development. They seem to show that knowledge was produced and technology was developed in western nations (US, UK, and Germany) and then it was deployed in a non-western nation, India. Nevertheless, these empirical “facts” hide as much as they reveal about MRI research and development in India and the US. For example, they do not tell us what was going on in the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR, from which MRI developed) research laboratories in India prior to 1987. Did scientists in India know about the possibility of development of MRI technology in the 1970s, when efforts to build a clinical MRI first started in the US and some European nations? What are the MRI scanners deployed in India at present (more than 200 in 2002) being used for? Moreover, does MRI research in India represent just “minor variations of the major viewpoints” developed in the “west”, as Goonatilake (1984: 110) argues is the case for scientific research in India (south Asia) in general?

Similarly, the empirical facts mentioned above leave several questions unanswered with regard to MRI research and development in the US. For example, did most of MRI research and development take place in the US? If it did not, how were the US laboratories and academic institutions able to absorb scientists and expertise from different countries? And was GE a pioneer in MRI research and development in the 1970s, when several significant research projects were carried out?

The international landscape of the sphere of the technoscientific is very often analysed through concepts of centre and periphery [Basalla 1967; Gizycki 1973; Nakayama 1991]. Such studies define the status of the periphery (read non-western societies) as that of a recipient that is dependent on the west/centre in order to do good science.11 It is also argued (as for example by Goonatilake 1980) that the difference between the centre and periphery lies in the fact that major paradigms are developed in the west/centre, while the peripheries produce minor variations of these major paradigms. To clarify at the outset, as I will illustrate in the following, there is no way to make an a priori judgment on whether a particular techno-scientific research will result in a major or minor paradigm. Moreover, if we start analysing particular trajectories of techno-scientific research (and accept science as multiple rather than a unified system of knowledge and practice) it becomes apparent that centre and periphery are much more amorphous and complicated categories than is presumed by the above-mentioned studies or even their critiques.

MRI-related research in India did not start in 1987 when the first MRI was installed at INMAS. MRI emerged out of NMR in the 1970s and NMR research started in India in the 1940s, when it first began in the US and some other nations. G Suryan developed several innovative techniques for the measurement of NMR signals in the late 1940s [Suryan 1949, 1950].12

Suryan’s research in NMR spectroscopy drew not only from the studies of I I Rabi, Edward Purcell, and Felix Bloch, and other scientists based in the US and Europe but also from the vibrant spectroscopy research that had emerged in India under the guidance of C V Raman.

Suryan did not have much resource for research available to him at the Indian Institute of Science (IIS), Bangalore, where he taught at that time. He set up his experimental apparatus from cheap scraps that were left over in Bangalore by the American forces after the second world war to build a highly sensitive circuit for quenched oscillation, which made the measurement of weak NMR signals that was very difficult during the early phase of NMR research easier.13 Suryan also produced the first study of flow using NMR, which has been widely cited [Suryan 1952; Becker et al 1996].

Suryan was not the only one to develop his own apparatus to conduct innovative NMR research in India. In the early 1950s, A K Saha and a group of scientists at Institute of Nuclear Physics in Calcutta published several papers on NMR studies of chemical shift, J-coupling and spin-echo techniques [e g, Das and Saha 1954]. They built nuclear magnetic resonance apparatus for their research and published one of the first comprehensive accounts of NMR spectroscopy that has been widely cited [Saha et al 1956; Saha and Das 1957]. A K Saha was also one of the founding members of the International Society of Magnetic Resonance [Fiat 1996]. In 1965, A K Saha became the founding president of the Association of Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopists (AMRS), the first NMR society of India. The goal of this society was to provide a forum to discuss issues pertaining to NMR. (AMRS ceased to function in 1990 and in 1993 Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Society was formed with C L Khetrapal as its first president, to foster NMR and MRI research in India).

In the 1950s another active NMR research group emerged in India under the leadership of Srinvas S Dharmatti at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bombay. Dharmatti, before he started NMR research at TIFR, had worked with the Varian Associate’s research laboratory at Stanford. James T Arnold recounts, the “[c]redit for suggesting that an NMR “spectrum” arising from distinguishable protons in a single molecule could be observed belongs to Dharmatti” [Arnold 1996:193]. Dharmatti, Arnold and Packard’s study (1951) on chemical shifts marked NMR’s foray into organic chemistry, which became a prime area of NMR research in the latter half of the 1950s and the 1960s.

Several other innovative trails of research have been, and continue to be, pursued by NMR scientists in India [see Prasad 2005b for a detailed study]. However, in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, with the emergence of standardised, industrially manufactured NMR, and then in the 1970s, when NMR was being used to build a cancer detection technology, there were two big shifts in socio-technical culture of NMR and MRI research. The first shift made NMR a big science and the second one made it even bigger. These shifts in socio-technical culture had a critical impact on NMR and MRI research in different parts of the world. In this paper I will focus on the second shift, i e, as a result of NMR’s foray into medicine.

NMR’s Impact on Medicine

Exploration of possibilities for a medical diagnostic technology using NMR started when Damadian, working at State University of New York in the late 1960s, after showing that cancerous tissues had significantly longer relaxation times as compared to normal ones, suggested: “In principle, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) techniques combine many of the desirable features of an external probe for the detection of internal cancer” [Damadian 1971:1151, emphasis added].14 He, following Szent-Gyorgyi’s assertion, thought that “[i]f cancer cells indeed had different water structures than normal cells, then NMR signals from protons of water ought to be discernibly different in cancerous tissue than in normal tissue” [Kleinfield 1985: 27].

Damadian’s theoretical explanation of his results has been widely contested. Yet his study generated a lot of interest among scientists. In 1971, Lauterbur, who took over as the president and chairman of NMR Specialties Corporation, a US-based NMR manufacturing company, observed an experiment performed by Leon A Saryan, which replicated the results that Damadian had published in his Science (1971) paper, on a NMR spectrometer that was owned by NMR Specialties. He was “struck by the consistent differences obtained among various normal and malignant tissues” [Lauterbur 1996]. He realised the problem that needed to be tackled was how to locate spatial positions of NMR signals from within a complex object. This work of Lauterbur resulted in a paper in Nature, which is commonly accepted as the first public illustration of a technique for magnetic resonance imaging [Lauterbur 1973].

In the first half of the 1970s even scientists were not convinced about Lauterbur’s suggestion for magnetic resonance imaging. Nature at first rejected his paper. The editor’s note sent to him stated, “[w]ith regret I am returning your manuscript which we feel is not of sufficiently wide significance for inclusion in Nature” [Hollis 1987:145]. Lauterbur re-submitted the paper to Nature with a cover letter explaining the importance of the method that he had described in the paper. The reviewer again expressed reservations but proposed that he or she was willing to accept Lauterbur’s claim because he or she was aware of latter’s reputation as a NMR scientist.

Lauterbur’s paper was finally accepted for publication. Nevertheless, the history of MRI development from this point to its acceptance as a certified clinical tool by the Federal Drug Agency in 1984 was not a straightforward translation of an idea into a machine. In several ways the development of MRI as a clinical tool during the 1970s was a distant dream. During this period, as Lauterbur informed me during an interview, “MRI’s death certificate was signed several times.”

There were several socio-technical issues that needed to be tackled. One such issue was the growing concern over the role of medical technologies in increasing health care costs. MRI, which followed in the footsteps of Computed Tomography (CT) scanner that cost nearly a million dollars, was proposed to cost even more. Other important issues were development of techniques for fast collection of data (i e, relaxations times, proton density, or diffusion parameters), which are used to construct the images and developed of a high strength homogeneous magnet. I will focus on one such issue in relation to MRI, namely, magnetic field strength, to highlight how it was theoretically and practically negotiated, even while its development remained contingent upon particular circumstances. I will use this example to also show how the issue of magnetic field strength has had a critical impact on transnational topography of MRI research and development.

In the 1970s several groups started working towards the development of MRI. In the US, Damadian and Lauterbur, in spite of a bitter priority dispute between them over the “invention” of MRI, became its most ardent advocates in academia as well as in the media. The possibility of a medical imaging technology using NMR was, however, pursued much more vigorously in the United Kingdom (UK). In the early 1970s, Peter Mansfield of University of Nottingham independently developed a technique that could be used for NMR imaging. By 1974-75, several groups in the UK started work on NMR imaging. There were three such groups of scientists at the University of Nottingham itself – under Raymond Andrew, Peter Mansfield, and Bill Moore. Apart from these groups at the University of Nottingham, John Mallard’s group at the University of Aberdeen made important contributions in the development of MRI.15

The efforts of these groups in the UK did not go unnoticed by their American counterparts. In a NMR meeting at Winston-Salem in 1981, Bill Oldendorf surmised, “the poor showing of the US groups relative to those in the UK was due to excessive numbers of US physicists working in defence to the detriment of medical research” [as quoted in Bydder 1996:248].16

GE, which at present is the market leader in MRI development and supply, did not even consider that MRI was possible. The turning point for it came after the company saw the images produced by the machines of some MRI manufacturing companies at the annual meeting of Radiological Society of North America in December 1981. In the light of these exhibits, GE management decided to enter the field of NMR imaging [Bottomley 1996]. A significant reason behind its decision was the concern that diagnostic MRI could affect GE’s CT scanner market. GE had already become a global leader in the manufacture of CT scanners after it bought Electrical and Musical Industry’s (EMI, based in the UK) CT research and development division.

But by the time GE decided to develop a MRI machine it had already ordered a 1.5 Tesla magnet because of its decision to focus on Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS) rather than MRI. The plan, as Paul Bottomley recounts, “was to obtain a few spectra at high field when the magnet arrived, then turn it down to

0.15 T” [Bottomley 1996:238]. However, in the process Bottomley and his group at GE ended up developing the “bird cage” coil, which allowed imaging at 1.5 Tesla (which was nearly seven times stronger than what was theoretically acceptable at that time).

This achievement of GE started a race for high magnetic field MRI. But the high vs low magnetic field debate was not settled. Recently there has again been some shift in the high field vs low field debate. Ian Young during a Wellcome witness seminar in 1997 responding to this debate stated: “It is a complete turn of the circle. Machines which are selling best are all now between

0.2 and 0.3 Tesla…and the Americans still don’t understand why” [Christie and Tansey 1998:60].

Of course we have to keep in mind another element of GE’s strategy, as Ron Schilling (who was the vice president, international marketing of GE in the 1970s and thereafter became president of Diasonics and then president of Toshiba’s US division of MRI research and development) informed me, even when GE was proposing that MR spectroscopy was the way to go, it was not only that GE did not believe in the possibility of MRI, but this was also a smokescreen to make researchers move in a direction that GE wanted to pursue. Similarly, the issue of high vs low magnetic field not only exemplified concern with image quality, but also the cost-cutting magnetic field in half, cuts down the cost of MRI by almost half too. Hence if research and development of MRI stayed in the domain of high magnetic field, it also meant that many actors could not partake in the process.

We have to be careful here because it may seem that economic resources and marketing strategies guide techno-science, that is, they become the underlying causal agents in techno-scientific research. If we recall from my description, GE was all set to pursue development of low magnetic field MRI in early 1982. It was the technical feasibility of high field imaging combined with its marketing strategy that allowed GE to shift MRI research to a new socio-technical culture. Moreover, we also have to keep in mind that if advanced software research would have existed in the 1980s, perhaps a high field MRI would not have succeeded, because low field MRI could have been able to produce good images and its cost would have been low too – this could have led to a very different transnational structure of MRI research.

This shift in socio-technical culture critically impacted transnational topography of MRI research. In the following I will discuss MRI research in the UK and India to illustrate my claim.

MRI Research in UK and India

By 1983-84 (just two years after Oldendorf’s comment) several scientists working for MRI development in the UK laboratories left for the US to work in academia or the industry. John Mallard’s group at Aberdeen, who had developed the “spin warp” method for MR imaging, that minimised the effects of artefacts because of physiological and physical motion of patients as well as because of magnetic field inhomogeneity, had already imaged more than 900 patients by early 1981 on their prototype machine that was installed at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. But Mallard and his group found it very difficult to generate enough money to build their second generation MRI [Mallard 2003].

They initially received a grant of 2,83,000 pounds from Asahi, a Japanese company and eventually generated 1.5 million pounds and set up M and D Technology in 1982. But then, as Mallard himself writes, “major multinationals were well on their way with their prototypes.” Slowly his group broke up and several scientists moved to the US. Mallard ruefully recounts: “If Britain had given the same quick support to this company as Japan did to Asahi, the story would have been completely different” [ibid:362]. Not being able to compete technologically also had an impact on their clinical research. Mallard writes: “The inequity in distribution had at least one ironic consequence: by 1984 our team’s clinical papers were being rejected by editors and referees because they were no longer “state of the art” [ibid:363].

UK would have also lost all its MRI manufacturing expertise to GE of the US, to whom EMI had decided to sell their MRI research and development division. But in the last moment Lord Winestock of the General Electric Company (GEC) of Britain met the secretary of state of the UK and asked that the project be transferred to GEC instead in consideration of national interest, and eventually EMI’s MRI project was sold to GEC [Christie and Tansey 1998]. GEC also acquired Picker, a CT manufacturing company based in the US, and started Picker International, which has maintained a small share in MRI market.

The change in MRI socio-technical culture had a much more critical impact in the context of India. Even though NMR research continued in Indian laboratories, MRI research started only in the second half of 1980s, when the first MRI was installed at INMAS. There was, however, no lag in diffusion of knowledge with respect to MRI research in India. In fact, scientists in India were among the first to know about the possibility of MRI, because Lauterbur presented his paper at the International Society of Magnetic Resonance conference at TIFR Bombay, in January 1974, less than a year after his paper was published in Nature.

There are at present three research institutes that have actively sought to foster multidisciplinary MRI research, INMAS in Delhi is one of them. The other two institutes are All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi and Sanjay Gandhi Postgraduate Institute (SGPGI) in Lucknow. MRI research is also being conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore and the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre (RGCIRC) in Delhi.

Among these institutes AIIMS is by far the best equipped in terms of available resources. The department has a 4.7 Tesla Animal Research MRI; a 9.4 Tesla vertical bore NMR spectrometer, and a 1.5 Tesla clinical MRI. They have recently replaced their clinical MRI machine with a new 1.5 Tesla machine supplied by Siemens. The Animal Research MRI has been identified as a “national facility”. The clinical MRI at AIIMS is used for diagnosis as well as research.

Nonetheless, AIIMS scientists have utilised those MRI technological developments that are already available and have not developed any new imaging techniques, coils, etc, which is characteristic of MRI research all over the world. This is particularly striking because one of the scientists at AIIMS had developed some technological equipment such as coils for her doctoral study of hyperthermia using MRI at Cambridge University, England. She was also engaged in the making of a coil for her research when she joined INMAS after her PhD. This is further intriguing considering that development of coils or software for imaging techniques requires very small investments and scientists at AIIMS do have the best possible facilities available to conduct MRI research in India.

The case of INMAS is similar. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, INMAS under N Lakshmipati had positioned itself as a MRI research as well as diagnostic centre. INMAS scientists have conducted many clinical studies on thyroid problems that are very common in India. Nonetheless, they have not proposed or developed any new MRI imaging technique. NIMHANS, Bangalore, has been largely concerned with conducting clinical research in the area of mental health.

I must, however, clarify what I mean when I classify these studies as pioneering and yet as research that do not lead to any new techniques. Let me illustrate with an example. The MR spectroscopy study of breast cancer conducted at AIIMS is one of the first such investigations of breast cancer anywhere in the world [Jaganathan et al 1998]. Similarly, the study of chemical lateralisation of brain is a pioneering link of research, which shows that apart from morphological and functional lateralisation of the brain (into different halves, left and right), the human brain also shows lateral differentiation in terms of certain chemical compounds [Jayasundar and Raghunathan 1997].

We cannot classify these studies, as Goonatilake does, “as only minor variations of the major viewpoints” that are developed in the west [Goonatilake 1984]. Nonetheless, trails of particular research have to be pursued in order to develop new theoretical or practical innovations. Otherwise what happens is that once, for example, the effectiveness of MRS for breast cancer is shown, either the scientists can elaborate it further through spectroscopic studies of other chemical compounds or at different stages of the disease, or else move on to another research area. This indeed has been the pattern of research in India, which therefore is characterised by disconnected trails. As a result, the limits and possibilities of research in India are defined by the supply of machines and other equipment developed by multinational companies.

Development of imaging techniques or coils for MRI requires little amount of funds, but it does need translation of expertise and interests across disciplines and institutions at several levels. MRI research at SGPGI, Lucknow illustrates my claim. Scientists at SGPGI have been able to develop some MRI techniques that are at present being used in their radiological laboratory. This group has been carrying on multidisciplinary collaborations between Rakesh Gupta at SGPGI, who is a radiologist by training, and his students who are from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, the mathematician R K S Rathore and his students at Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, and to a lesser extent with Raja Roy and his colleagues at the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow. SGPGI provides an example of MRI research for technological development, which has succeeded even though it has much lesser resources in comparison to, for example, AIIMS, Delhi.

Another example of successful contribution to MRI development without the availability of a large amount of resources is RGCIRC at Delhi. The MRI radiology group at RGCIRC under A Jena collaborated with ANURAG, a centre for computing research under the ministry of defence based in Hyderabad, to develop ANAMICA-Mini that allows MRI image evaluation on personal computers rather than large workstations that are commonly used for this purpose.

MRI researches at SGPGI and RGCIRC are unique and they have occurred largely because of personal efforts of particular scientists. There are other examples of successful MRI and NMR research in India too [Prasad 2005b]. However, the pattern of research that I have described with respect to AIIMS is common to most laboratories in India. In general MRI and NMR research in India, even though they have been conducted in highly specialised and frontier areas and have led to some novel trails, have largely remained disconnected. We cannot blame the scientists for this situation. If the scientists wish to do research that is internationally or nationally recognised, they have to work in frontier and specialised areas and any attempt to engage in technological development can be very difficult in India.

Hindrances to Research in India

Perhaps the greatest hindrances in techno-scientific research in India are the policies of the agencies of Indian nation state and the asymmetrical structure of international research as a result of practices of followed by multinational companies. Several scientists informed me that most often it is much easier to obtain funds to buy equipment from the market (i e, by multinational companies) than to develop it in the laboratory, if the cost is not too high. The agencies of government of India that regulate techno-scientific research such as the department of science and technology, department of electronics, department of biotechnology, and so on, have had a particular approach, which, as one government official informed me, has been in place since the colonial times – there are elaborate measures for financial scrutiny of government-funded projects but little assessment is done about their broader contributions. It is also difficult to find any government of India report on research and development of particular technologies or researches. Science policies are being formulated with little idea of what is needed for particular research.

Another factor that has critically affected techno-scientific research in India is the asymmetrical organisation of research by multinational companies. Until recently most multinational companies only had their marketing units in India, their research centres were either in the US, some west European nations or Japan. Hence even if any technique is developed it is very difficult to incorporate it in the industrially manufactured NMR or MRI machines. For example, SGPGI scientists, who have developed certain MRI techniques, have been using them locally in their laboratory. Initially, the multinational company would not even provide them with the passwords to access their MRI machine in order to utilise their techniques. After some arm-twisting they were able to utilise the techniques developed by them in their laboratory, but these techniques continue to be only locally used. A persistent problem with regard to techno-scientific research is how to translate the techniques developed in the Indian laboratories for industrial development that can feed back to propel pursuance of particular research trails [Prasad 2005a].


The concerns of the proponents of alternative sciences towards violence and vivisection perpetuated by “modern science” are very important. But a consideration of modern science as a unified and monolithic category and a search for epistemological alternatives to modern science, has also led to neglect in the investigation of particular trajectories of science. The consequences of such an approach are evident not just in the academic (or political) domain but also in relation to policy issues.

Scientists conducting modern science research embody multiple subjectivities and draw from different knowledge systems all the time. For example, scientists at AIIMS and INMAS are conducting functional MRI studies to investigate the impact of the ‘Gayatri mantra’ on the brain. If we analyse this research carefully, we find is that it marks a translation of different practices that, at least in this case, cannot be considered as representatives of two different knowledge systems. A focus on science as a unified system of knowledge or culture, without an analysis of particular trajectories of sciences, therefore, provides us with little information about techno-scientific practices.

An acknowledgement of multiple epistemes and methods in science(s) does not mean that we abandon any possibility of making broader claims about epistemological and political issues pertaining to techno-scientific research. I would like to say the result would be just the opposite – a mapping of particular trajectories of techno-science will allow us to throw light on the topography of epistemic practices and their embeddedness within networks and power and administration, which in turn will allow us to fight for equity, justice, and non-violence within and as a result of techno-scientific practices that have been of paramount concern to proponents of alternative sciences. I am not, however, proposing a neoliberal political-economy for techno-scientific research in India. Rather, I want to argue that techno-scientific research in India will remain dependent if Indians continue to consider it only as a knowledge making exercise and do not take into consideration its concatenation with socio-economic-political issues such as science-academia-industry-state relationships, and their transnational geographies.




[The author would like to thank Itty Abraham, Geoffrey Bowker, Michael

Goldman, Jan Nederveen-Pieterse, Andy Pickering, Srirupa Prasad, and

Paula Treichler for their comments and suggestions. Thanks also to gurus

and friends in India – Dipankar Gupta, Irfan Habib, Deepak Mehta, Dhruv

Raina, J P S Uberoi and Shiv Viswanathan – whose guidance and support

initiated me into sociology and sociology of science. This paper draws on

some other studies, particularly Prasad (2005a, b).] 1 Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000) argues that as a result of Eurocentric historicismthe non-west is relegated to waiting room of history, a stage that isperpetually characterised as “not yet”.

2 Veena Das throws light on this issue in her analysis of Louis Dumont’s(a French anthropologist) criticism of A K Saran (an Indian anthropologist),that the latter’s theoretical position stemmed from his being a Hindu/Indian. Das argues that while Saran is shown as “doubly entrenched,”as a social scientist and an Indian/Hindu, similar double entrenchmentis not seen by Dumont for himself [Das 1984].

3 Debates on modernity as an unfinished project in India and alternativemodernities are perhaps best exemplifications of such a predicament[see for example, Gupta 2000; Uberoi 2002, see also Prakash 1999;Abraham 2000].

4 There have also been efforts to argue for Islamic or Hindu sciences inorder to emphasise non-western genealogies of science. Irfan Habib(2004), in relation to Islamic sciences, argues that the context in whichscience prospered in the Arab world was cosmopolitan and hence toclassify it parochially will not be correct.

5 Sandra Harding (1998) classifies a whole range of studies with verydifferent theoretical, methodological, and political focus as postcolonialscience studies (see Raina 1999 for a criticism of Harding’s overarchingdeployment of the phrase postcolonial science studies).

6 Nandy states in the preface of his book: “I must issue the warning thatthis is not a book on knowledge systems; it is a book on the personalcontexts of scientific creativity outside the normal habitat of modernscience” [Nandy 1995: viii].

7 The problematic of reconciling what was (and is) considered as modern,rational, and scientific personality and endeavour with what falls outsideit has been a recurrent concern for social scientists (see for e g, RichardWestfall’s study (1994) of Isaac Newton’s research).

8 Viswanathan’s intellectual endeavour has been to search for alternatives not just of modern sciences but also state or multinational controlledsciences. In that sense he seems to be aware of the multiplicity of sciences(modern or alternative). However, he does not explicitly express hisposition in this regard.

9 Harding (1998) very elegantly shows how empirical studies of science,postcolonial science studies, and feminist studies of science share a lotof concerns but also have separate and distinct lineages.

10 For example, Karin Knorr Cetina in a fine analysis of epistemic culturesof a particle physics and a molecular biology laboratory goes on to arguethat epistemic cultures “appear to be a structural feature of knowledgesocieties” (1999: 8). There is little doubt that in her framework knowledgesocieties are western or European ones. She writes, “[t]here is a widespreadconsensus today that contemporary western societies are in one senseor another ruled by knowledge or expertise” (ibid:5). Hence not onlythe non-west is deleted from what is happening in Europe, but this ishappening precisely because broader political economy is not lookedat: There is an epistemological privileging, even though Knorr Cetina’sinterest lies in analysing “machineries of knowledge production”.

11 Recent postcolonial scholarship has questioned the proposed one wayrelationship between the centre (west) and the periphery (non-west) byshowing how science in the “periphery”, at some levels, had developedautonomously and how the periphery contributed in the making of the“centre” [Macleod 1987; Krishna 1992; Raina 1999]. Scholars have alsoanalysed differing cultural reception and cultural redefinition of sciencein the periphery [Habib and Raina 1989].

12 Felix Bloch and Edward Purcell are credited with the first developmentof NMR measurement techniques for which they received the Nobel Prizein 1952.

13 Itty Abraham (2000) has shown that the experimental set up for cosmicray experiments was built using these left over scraps from second world war.

14 Relaxation time is the time taken by hydrogen atoms (or protons) to comeback to their normal state after their magnetisation by an external fieldis removed. There are two kinds of relaxation times, T1 and T2. Different tissues and substances have particular and characteristic relaxation times.

15 Apart from these three groups, research for MRI development was alsobeing carried out at Oxford University under George Radda and byanother group that was based at Hammersmith hospital in London andassociated with Electrical and Musical Industry (EMI).

16 University of California-San Francisco started MRI research in 1975 andhas been an important contributor to MRI development.


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