Why Fundamental Scientific Research has Not Caught On in India

This can happen only in India! Even as the nation continues to celebrate the success of Chandrayaan, the country's first space mission to moon, this is not something one of the senior most scientists in India, Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao, is particularly thrilled about.

Chandrayaan made many remarkable scientific discoveries and validations in a short span of 10 months. All the scientists who were part of the mission organized by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) are heroes, especially after US scientists used data from it to revalidate their finding that water indeed, exists, on Earth's nearest space neighbor. 

But Rao, the head of the Prime Minister's Scientific Advisory Council, observes there is no reason for India to celebrate the moon mission success. In fact, he says, India is just doing a follow-up on the moon mission of the US undertaken more than three decades ago. 

The senior scientist wants the nation to focus on fundamental scientific research. He does not find much value in public funds being invested in technology development or application research.  If he was just another scientist venting his frustration at the declining interest levels in students pursuing a career in scientific research, his comments would be ignored by the nation focused on visible technological success stories. 

But Rao is not just another scientist. For the last six years, he has been heading the prime minister's council, making him the country's highest ranked adviser on science policy. The council's science and technology policy is implemented by another committee headed by former nuclear scientist R. Chidambaram that also advises the cabinet. 

Of course, this is not the first time Rao has vented his anger against technology development. For nearly a decade, he has been lamenting the growth of India's software industry, which he blames for taking away the country's brightest talent. He feels the software sector has deprived India's research institutions of the talent needed to focus on fundamental research.

One of his pet peeve is the vast network of engineering colleges in the country. He says every year nearly 600,000 engineering students join the job market. On the other hand, the US with an economy nearly 13 times larger than India's $1.2 trillion, produced only 80,000 engineers. As his argument goes, India does not need that many engineers who are largely of indifferent quality. He reiterates the software industry's complaint that as many as 75 percent of the engineers are unemployable and lack basic engineering skills. 

The enrolment of students in science courses and then in research has been declining for many years now. But can the government coerce students to take up studying science in a free society where they can choose an option that gives them best opportunities? 

A study released in June by market research agency Nielsen has some interesting data after studying the working preferences of 4,352 engineering students in 151 colleges across the country. Forty-three percent of engineering students who will pass out in 2010 will prefer to join the information technology (IT) industry. The remaining will prefer to work in sectors like telecom, auto, energy, infrastructure and real estate.

The study says the charm of the IT sector has not faded and students prefer the IT industry since it emulates the culture prevalent among the multinational corporations. It also gives opportunities to work with professionals who deal with cutting-edge technology, apart from regular training and personal growth. 

Barring a few top quality research centers, most of the country's 6,000 universities and science colleges do not inspire a culture of academic excellence and the motivation is simply not there for students to pursue a research career in science. Perhaps, Rao should find out why students don't want to take up a career in scientific research. 

(Narayanan Suresh is group editor of Technology Review India. He can be reached at sureshn@cybermedia.co.in)


More by :  Narayanan Suresh

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