We celebrate ‘scientific achievement’ and wrap engineering & technology in the Tricolour. But truth is Indian science is in a sorry state.
Most of India will welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of launching an Indian in space on an Indian-built vehicle with a heady feeling of joy. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been doing a stellar job and we are proud of it. ISRO is the crown jewel of our scientific establishment. But does its success reflect the state of Indian science? I am afraid not. Indian science is going through a period of great crisis.
There are three reasons behind this. The first, and the most important, is a unique Indian obsession with technology and engineering and confusing it with science. The second, is the inability of successive Indian governments to liberate our science from sarkari control. The third, which results from the first two, is a deep suspicion of science leading to widely popular Ludditism. Probably the only emotion to be found in equal measure in the “liberal” Left and “nationalist” Right.
This leads to many national embarrassments, from believing all new “NASA findings” affirming our ancient science, published and peer reviewed on WhatsApp, to smart and educated people buying the poppycock of the “nano-chip” in the new 2000-rupee notes, Ramar Pillai (remember him?) making petrol from weeds and NASA “pictures” proving Ram Setu isn’t just a reality, but an ancient engineering marvel unparalleled even today. It also leads to our confusing non-scalable jugaad for innovation. This is why even the prime minister trips with his cooking gas straight from a sewage drain into a chaiwala’s stove.
In this environment, excitement over an Indian in space 60 years after the first human got there, is understandable. After all, it will be in an Indian vehicle. Indian scientists will be producing a spacecraft by themselves, never mind if six decades behind the world, while we still do not design a simple jet engine. It will also be done at a fraction of the cost the big powers incurred. So, prepare also for another breathless celebration of our frugal engineering, as with ‘Mangalyaan’. The prime minister never tires of reminding us it got to Mars at a per-kilometre cost lower than a Delhi auto-rickshaw’s.
I hate to be the spoilsport on Independence Day. But it’s only because political leaders love to celebrate scientific achievement that it is important to remind them of the sorry state of Indian science. But before that, we need to understand the distinction between engineering/technology and real science.
We tend to easily dismiss those fearful of science as Luddites. Luddites were British workmen who, generally between 1811 and 1816, burnt and destroyed textile machinery, believing that these took away their jobs. What we are dealing with in India is something more serious. It is the challenge of convincing mostly sincere people, on every side of our divided politics, who oppose science, even as they adore machinery.
Or are bored with science, but love technology. Bharat Ratna Prof. CNR Rao explained the difference to me in a brilliant ‘Walk The Talk’ conversation in Bangalore. Today’s science, he said, is tomorrow’s technology. He elaborated to say that a successful nuclear test, a rocket, even the GSLV going up, is not science. It is, in a way, technology, which we love. The prime minister’s announcement of the ‘Gaganyaan’ on Independence Day inspires me to revisit this theme.
Here is the larger contradiction: Every successful rocket launch by ISRO, or a new missile variant tested by DRDO, is celebrated as a great scientific achievement. If Parliament is in session, a thumping of desks is guaranteed.
The truth is, science behind these rockets is at least three decades old, and if these were determinants of scientific achievement, Pakistan and North Korea are ahead of us at least on the military side, and even Iran is somewhere there. In space, our achievements are many, but mostly in engineering, design and some remarkably cheap fabrication. But cutting-edge science? Not quite.
You want to understand Indian confusion over technology/engineering versus science, look at the stardom of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in comparison with Prof. Rao, both Bharat Ratnas. Much before he became a widely loved president, Kalam was a national hero for the design of Prithvi and Agni missiles despite global technology denial. It was an achievement but as far as scientific inquiry went, he never even had a real PhD (his doctorate was honoris causa). Rao, on the other hand, has mentored hundreds of PhDs and has, at any point of time, scores of doctoral scholars working with him.
So deep and so widespread is this belief that even Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave India the slogan ‘Jai Vigyan’ when the Pokhran-II tests were successfully conducted in 1998. And, equally, so dangerous is our understanding of science that many young Sangh Parivar stormtroopers announced a programme then to pick up “holy” dust from Pokhran and take it about the country so all Bharatiya Nagriks could feel justifiably proud, and probably also get glowingly irradiated. Alarmed, Vajpayee stopped it.
A junior, former superstar minister of the then NDA government even startled guests at a dinner (this columnist included) in Mumbai when he said our scientists had built a bomb better than any with the Americans, most of whose nuclear research was in any case done by “Indians at NASA”. “This bomb is not for Pakistan, it is too good to be wasted on them,” he said. “It is for the Americans, they should know if they act funny, we will put one in Manhattan.” It was only in deference to his status and caution because of his high “spiritual” level that I avoided the temptation of asking how he intended to get it there. By DHL? Since Air India might be unreliable.
I elaborate this contradiction because the same political class wraps engineering and technology in the Tricolour. It is not confined to the nuclear and space programmes, from Bhakra and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link to the rail link to Kashmir, everything is hailed as a great national achievement. But when Venkatraman Ramakrishnan wins a Nobel in chemistry (for studying the structure and function of the ribosome), it’s a one-day story. If he had patented, even reverse-engineered (as our pharma companies do) a familiar polymer, or a material like Kevlar (popular for protective coverings, from flak jackets to rocket exhausts), he’d be hailed as a greater pioneer, wrapped in the Tiranga. On the one hand, most people – including an accidental science graduate like me – find it tough to comprehend science. On the other hand, what works, particularly if it goes up or explodes, or both, is much simpler. But real science is intricate and boring and even if it is really brilliant, unlikely to yield anything tangible—a machine, a wonder drug or an app of some sort—right away. But if a nation does not respect science and the free spirit of peer-reviewed inquiry, it cannot even be a technological power. That’s precisely what Prof Rao meant when he said that today’s science is tomorrow’s technology.
There is a peculiar knot in the Indian mind where technology is associated with national pride and science isn’t. Our political class is not alone in believing this. Even the janta at large is willing to hail as a “scientific” achievement only that which “creates” something. The rise of Infosys, TCS, Wipro and many others is wonderful, but it is hailed as a great example of Indian scientific and technological prowess. The fact is, to call them information technology companies is a bit of a misnomer. Most of their revenues come from outsourcing and not from writing cutting-edge software. Their record in original research and development is comparable to India’s much hailed generic pharma companies.
Both have almost no branded or patented products and very little peer-reviewed research. Yet, the achievements of both are seen in patriotic terms. Leaders of India’s generics are given the status of national icons and we never bother them with questions like whether they have actually discovered a molecule of their own, ever. Barring a couple of exceptions like Piramal or Biocon.
Just as our “bomb” is supposed to sober the Americans, our rockets are the envy of the world, our IT industry is apparently beating the West by stealing their own, mostly medium-tech jobs, and our generics are giving hell to the evil MNCs Pfizer, Merck, Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis and so on. That is why it is simple to give these a patriotic colour. These are achievements we can understand, see, feel and count, and flaunt to the world.
This simplistic politicisation of the ideas of technology and science also results in policy distortions. That is why so much of our state funds flow to IITs, engineering colleges and, at a higher level, to nuclear and space programmes while smaller labs, where cutting-edge research should take place, languish. Another consequence of this distortion is that while nuclear and space people become national icons, research scientists have no real lobby.
That’s why our hearts should go out to the small, but brave and talented body of Indian agricultural scientists, all in government-run labs, who have been working on India’s own GM seeds, but only when allowed to. They had an impossible decade under the UPA, fighting two well-educated environment ministers, one a lawyer and the other, what else, an engineer with degrees from the finest Indian and American institutions. What chance would you give them now against the saffron warriors, who believe GM is evil, poisonous and makes you sterile? Our reward: Gene editing is the next scientific frontier in agriculture, 75 per cent of all new patent applications are Chinese and we don’t even make 1 per cent. The science-phobes of the Right will quite happily join hands with the Congress and Left activists to chant ‘Garv se kaho hum Luddite hain‘.
Unless you can convince them that the leaf of spinach that Draupadi offered Lord Krishna in the Mahabharata, a compliment he returned by feeding thousands of sadhus who landed hungry at her door while she lived in exile, was GM. They need no further convincing that anything that mankind is now trying to research had been discovered in Vedic times. And thereby must be virtuous not evil.