Wednesday, December 7, 2022
HomeOpinionShekhar Gupta, science vs technology isn't like Communism vs RSS

Shekhar Gupta, science vs technology isn’t like Communism vs RSS

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Creating artificial conflicts between science and technology is certainly not conducive to the advancement of either.

When I was half-way through my PhD project in National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), Pune, almost 30 years ago, I received an offer to work with a French professor for three months. But NCL told me that there was no provision for research fellows like me to go on leave. Due to the timely intervention of Dr R.A. Mashelkar (who was then acting director of NCL), I received the requisite permission.

It is because of experiences like these that I decided to join the private sector and not a government lab or university when I returned from the US after my post-doctoral work.

A lot has changed since then in India’s science sector. Dr Mashelkar removed complacency in the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research system to a great extent, the funding situation improved significantly, scientific laboratories in national institutes and universities are now well equipped, fellowship for research students has risen considerably from the meagre Rs 1,200 per month when I had started my PhD to Rs 25,000 now. Several bright scientists are returning to India, a positive trend.

In his 15 August article in ThePrint titled, Modi’s space dream: India still doesn’t know the difference between tech & science, Shekhar Gupta raised several important concerns about the state of science in India, even though he took potshots at anyone who undertook even the slightest evidence-based advocacy of ancient science.

I would like to share my observations on the subject here.

Also read: Modi’s space dream: India still doesn’t know the difference between tech & science

When I worked at the Ahmedabad-based Torrent Pharmaceuticals, a British consultant asked me if I am a biotechnologist. I said no because I believed that science had a pre-eminent role over technology. This conflict is nothing unusual. Even in premier institutes like National Institutes of Health (USA), there is a perpetual fight between basic scientists and clinical scientists (non-medical degree holders and medical degree holders).

In India, there are a few cultural issues that hinder a scientific temperament in the masses. Notwithstanding Shekhar Gupta ridiculing everything that’s ancient, the spirit of questioning was essential to our teaching system. Adi Shankaracharya had famously said, “A hundred srutis (Vedic texts) may declare that fire is cold or that it is dark; still they possess no authority in the matter.” But we have lost this temperament and are increasingly becoming conformist, diminishing our ability to think out of the box or challenge prevalent assumptions.

Our modern education system does not encourage questioning. Our brightest students are conceptually clear and conversant with the latest developments, but their problem-solving ability is weak. As an examiner in one of the premier biotech departments, I would ask students: “In three test tubes, there are three aqueous liquids, containing either DNA, protein, or lipid. Design a simple experiment to identify them.” Not even half of them answer this right, even though they can grasp complex scientific theories.

I would ask PhD degree holders interview questions like: “If funding is not a constraint, what will you do to take your PhD project forward?” The answers were disappointing most of the time and reflected their inability to think big.

There is also a tremendous fear of failure in young minds. The fear of not getting admission to the desired stream in top institutes makes them search for safer options.

Also read: India needs Muslim neuroscientists and Dalit Fields medalists among its STEM researchers

Science is becoming inter-disciplinary, but has remained in a silo in India. After passing Class X, students choose biology at the cost of mathematics or vice versa. My own neglect of organic chemistry became the biggest impediment later in my career. Teamwork and inter-disciplinary collaborations, prevalent in scientifically advanced countries, is an exception in India.

I agree with Shekhar Gupta that science does not receive the attention that technology does, but I differ with him on three issues.

First, there is no clear demarcation between basic science and applied science/technology. Basic science is essential but not sufficient. No high-end technology can be developed without a clear understanding of the basic concepts. Any basic research that does not result in “advancement of knowledge” is either iterative or duplication. Comparing C.N.R. Rao and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is not only unnecessary, but it undermines their contribution to the field of advancement of knowledge and of successful conversion of scientific knowledge into a product. The delay of that product development by decades is a secondary issue. For a technology that is not available in the market, it’s never too late.

Shekhar Gupta’s obsession with belittling technocrats resulted in a situation where he himself crossed the realm of basic science and entered technology. He narrates the example of a new drug discovery, which essentially is “high risk-high reward” technology development on the basis of not so perfect basic science. This sector has witnessed massive churning in the last decade in India. Some companies who promised to bring new molecules in the market in less than $10 million have either sold or wound up their high-risk research programs but others are silently investing in this field. Torrent Pharmaceuticals’ first-in-class molecule recently entered Phase-III clinical trials. How many people even know that Zydus Pharma has actually launched a new molecule in the Indian market?

Second, I disagree over his sweeping comments against the generic pharma sector. Without going into its economic or societal contribution, it is an oversimplification to presume that it does not involve scientific inputs or development of novel technology. Several components of even the generic products are protected by IP and circumventing it is definitely not as simple as jumping a traffic signal or “jugaad”.

Also read: Kusala Rajendran – What we know about Indian earthquakes, we know through her

High-risk innovation in India requires interventions at every level. School students need to get an opportunity to wet their hands and challenge their grey cells early. More than 5,000 Atal Tinkering Labs, funded and mentored by Atal Innovation Mission (under the NITI Aayog), is a first concrete step. Another step to dismantle silos, encourage interdisciplinary science and provide world-class scientific infrastructure is the setting up of Indian Institutes of Scientific Education and Research (IISERs). They have attracted the best students and faculty to pure sciences and published world-class research papers.

Conversion of scientific concepts into a product is mostly done in the private sector. In India, there is not enough industry-academia collaboration. There is not enough risk capital for early-stage innovations. At least in the biotech sector, BIRAC (Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council) has successfully filled this gap, a model worth replicating in other streams too. Atal Innovation Mission has also funded close to 50 incubators to inculcate start-up culture in India.

A Noida-based small biotech company Curadev, established in 2010, has entered into the high-risk game of anti-cancer drug discovery. When their research reached a crucial stage, they needed Rs 5 crore to bring their molecule to the next level to make it attractive to multinational pharma. They couldn’t raise it for long because no one believed in the real value of their work. Somehow, they managed to get the money and the molecule was licensed out to Roche. Curadev was paid $25 million – on which they had to pay 30 per cent capital gain tax. In 2016, the capital gains on IP generated in India were reduced to 10 per cent under the “start-up action plan”.

In short, a lot of positive developments have taken place since I left NCL Pune and Shekhar Gupta interviewed C.N.R. Rao. Science versus technology is not an ideological fight like Communists vs RSS. They are complimentary. In India, technological advancements lead to awareness about basic sciences, create public opinion in favour of funding scientific institutions. It is not a perfect world and we have miles to go before being complacent. But creating artificial conflicts between science and technology is certainly not conducive to the advancement of either.

Vijay Chauthaiwale is in-charge of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s foreign affairs department. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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  1. I think the article is factually highly enlightening. But, chasing one guy, Shekhar over an opinion piece of his own is so wrong on the part of a big shot like you. If there were good schemes coming up, they should’ve been publicised atleast at places where people understand their merit, e.g. eminent institutions of education. It is wrong to target Shekhar is all I wanted to stand for. If there are good things that you want to share about the Indian way, or ancient science, or the present government actions, don’t use Shekhar’s case to make your case in retrospect. Do it proactively.

  2. I read it with great interest and thanks to Shekar Gupta for giving totally different view points. Only at the end of article I realised it is from some one connected with BJP. Stipend and grants from₹250 to ₹25000 over a period happen keeping inflation etc and to give credit to government of the day is bit strange. Nevertheless it is important that we don’t blindly follow ancient or modern science without evidence. The author vaguely mention about a R&D in NCR who could not get funds etc and how it has changed nowadays. India’s science has evolved over many years and cannot claim that it is happening only last four years.

    • I also was conned into believing (initially) that a scientist is articulating what we need to help science progress. Only later when I starting seeing references to Atal Tinkering Mission that I realised that I probably am reading a propaganda piece. I then read about ATLs. How does 10 Lakhs one time grant and another 10 lakhs for 5 years, resulting a great progress in science? I was hoping to see the amount of investment that is going into world-class research. How does tinkering lead to progress in science and creating of knowledge? Another question that came to my mind – when the top leader in the country refers to plastic surgery being done by God, how does one help build a questioning mind? Creating myths or reinforcing myths – how does that help our young ask questions and thereby helping progress science? The author seems more concerned about commercial innovation than science. Shekhar Gupta was talking about science and argued that we should not confuse between science and technology. Our beloved PM has a degree in entire political science. Who invented that field? Former HRD Minister did not know what her education was – one time one level and another time another level. I have recent first hand experience of recruiting from our central universities. The conditions under which the students are studying for their PhD, I feel sad. I am PhD myself from one of the leading Indian institutes. PhD theses are not any more than Master’s level projects in most cases – extremely narrowly defined question and limited empirical work. Most PhD students have a limited understanding of their field. They are either fighting biases (lower cast upper caste, rural-urban) and other time trying to earn their living. Higher education spend is being cut. Education is being made expensive by privatisation. How does one progress in science, if people cannot even afford basic education. Once again, the experience is that only the poor children go to government schools and government schools have limited means to even keep the schools clean – forget anything else. If we have a system where are parents are spending increasing amount on private education, we will expect them to see education as a commercial investment and not about how their children are going help country progress in science or technology. That is what has allowed the crooks in the country to manipulate the entire education system and make money – Let us ask ourselves – who runs private education in India and that too through not-for-profit trusts? How much of black money is being laundered or generated through donations and/or simply receiving fee in cash. Dr Vijay has to stop worrying about ideology of RSS and its comparison with Communists, if he really wants to help science progress. An ideology driven debate or the worldview has not taken anyone anywhere. Ideology blinds people – it does not let you ask questions – that has been known for a very long time.

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