Monday, December 27, 2010

The science of research: Why India cannot afford a 'chalta hai' attitude

The science of research: Why India cannot afford a 'chalta hai' attitude
By Dhananjaya Dendukuri
For a country which is so proud that it gave the world the Bhagavad Gita, it is ironic how often its core message is ignored. Take for instance, the world of science and technology. Just like the quadrennial Olympics or Asian Games produce a momentary, albeit passionate, interest in sports, our interest in science is fleetingly elevated during the times when Nobel Prizes are given out. As the often heard message from the Gita tells you, it is the labour of science itself and not rewards like the Nobel Prize that one must strive for.
The most recent laureate of Indian origin, Venky Ramakrishnan, stressed this point during a recent interaction with students in Delhi. There are several reasons why I think this is important. From a purely statistical point of view, the odds of a scientist winning a Nobel Prize are comparable to the odds of winning a lottery. No rational scientist would set out to win a Nobel Prize at the beginning of her career. More importantly, it's the pleasure of doing science rather than winning prizes that drives successful scientists like Ramakrishnan. The rewards of pursuing basic science are often unexpected and realised over the long term. Not even Ramanujan could have predicted that the esoteric mathematical problems he was pursuing would have implications in the very practical problem of security encryption today. The elucidation of the structure of the atom was key to advances ranging from nuclear energy to semiconductor research and the ubiquitous computer. The list is endless. None of these advances would have been possible if a short-sighted view of basic research had been taken.
From the nation's point of view, history has shown that scientifically advanced nations have not only been able to protect themselves better during times of war but also feed, clothe and care for the health of their citizens. An often heard debate is that regarding the allocation of resources to the pursuit of science vis-à-vis immediate priorities and needs. There is no easy answer to this question but a model that has worked well in America is to build an eco-system that represents different interests. Researchers who pursue basic science, technologists who seek to translate viable ideas into applications, entrepreneurs who are able to create a market for new products and ideas and finally a population that has the risk appetite to try things new and untested. This is easier said than done but the recognition that it takes many different kinds of people to build the ecosystem is essential. The ivory tower academic and the cynic who seeks only immediate solutions are both undesirable extremes.
So what can India do to encourage younger people to pursue science? The easy and lazy answer is to say that things will just improve as the economy grows and the nation has more resources to spend on science. However, the trouble with this approach is that science and technology are influencing our lives to an ever greater extent. Our chalta-hai attitude could lead us to fall far behind nations that are pro-actively pursuing basic research. Given the demographic dividend that we are assured is our path to prosperity, we need to use this base of young people to also further scientific research in this country. Parents need to inculcate a greater curiosity in children and encourage them to question things around them. Young adults moving out of college and into careers have to acquire the maturity to look beyond the best-paying job they can lay their hands on and try to find what it is that really interests them. Role models play a huge role in this process and people like Ramakrishnan or Amartya Sen can exercise a huge influence on students by speaking about these issues.
One practical step that the government could take is to hugely increase the number of science graduates from our premier technological institutes like the IITs. Given that they already possess the basic infrastructure to do so and given that they attract a large number of students who have done well in science at the school level, it would make definite sense to increase the number of pure science graduates from these institutions. The boundary between science and technology is only blurring as the years go by and having these institutes generate more science graduates would help both the IITs and the pursuit of science in India. Last but not least, research carries with it the pure pleasure of discovering nature's laws — something which is without comparison.
The writer is CEO and co-founder, Achira Labs,
Source: Indian Express, 25 December 2010

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