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.
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.
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”.
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.