In a fascinating interview to The Hindu (22-4-18), the newly appointed Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, K Vijaya Raghavan, a developmental biologist, who is known to be forthcoming in discussions on ‘Science Policy’, has made three very candid observations that merit the attention of all those who are concerned about nurturing scientific excellence in the country.
First things first: In order to expand the footprint of scientific excellence, Dr Raghavan wanted that the scientific institutions in the country must learn to “work together a lot more.” Of course, this has been agitating the minds of our scientific community for long: sophisticated equipment lying idle at one centre, while scientists from other laboratories lamenting at the lack of such/requisite equipment to carry forward their explorations. Secondly, the very style of carrying out research today is quite different from what it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: individual inventor has been replaced by organized scientific research, which has even acquired international character. This approach has of course, amplified production of new scientific knowledge greatly. And with the advent of computers and novel modes of communication, growth and dissemination of new scientific knowledge has further been speeded up. With the result, people are being served by the industry with newer products and comforts at a faster rate than in the past.
However, science-based industries such as pharma and biotechnology, unlike matured sectors like semiconductor industry, are still look to universities/national laboratories for new scientific inputs. In such an evolving scenario, elite institutions of India could no longer afford to function in isolation but must pursue science in active collaboration with each other. It hardly needs to be stressed here that by pooling the know-how and resources across the institutional boundaries we can create better knowledge-base, can solve problems faced by the nation more creatively, improve productivity and pocket higher profits.
That said, it must also be admitted that it is not easy for such collaboration to materialize overnight across laboratories, for the leaders will be reluctant to cede their control over institutions/projects and relationships thereof, that too, having worked for ages in silos. Secondly, you know how difficult it is for adults to learn new ways of doing work merely by listening or reading circulars. So, the real question would be: how to transform the culture of our individual-driven labs into that of collaborative culture? How to make our subject specialists who built careers over their niche expertise to collaborate with their competitors? And yet, there is no way out: their expertise must be integrated across fields to offer better solutions to the society.
So, the policy makers/top leaders must invest one-on-one time with the experts/leaders supposed to implement the strategy to make collaboration happen as also support them with requisite training and coaching. Multiple meetings with the heads of labs is a must to make them imbibe the spirit of collaboration and model their behaviour towards it. People like Dr Raghavan must engage themselves in ‘story-telling’ about the success achieved, however small it might be, in centres elsewhere and how it could be made possible in every lab. Such stories/successes must be accessible to everyone, for it could act as a catalyst in making them think over the collaborative behaviour and in course of time own it. Till such time all that the scientific adviser talked about would remain as a mere wish.
The next comment that he has made from the perspective of student community is more important: “A student joining the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi as an immunologist should be able to go to the neighbouring plant genome centre, and say, ‘I am very excited by plants. Can I switch from being an immunologist to being a plant biologist?’” As he rightly observes, today, it is near impossible for such a shift.
Perhaps, it is time for us to dismantle such rigid silos and make education available across the disciplines sans pre-set boundaries. And the earlier the better, for the wave of ‘disruption’ being heralded by the destructive innovation wrought by new technologies is feared to set free many from their present jobs in large-scale manufacturing industries, service industries and other private sectors. And they would be needing high quality university-level education that prepares them for reemployment in the realm of 21st century technology.
In the gig economy, even the fresh students entering the job-market are required to be equipped with knowledge of various disciplines, all fused into one. In such an evolving scenario, even the faculty need to reorient themselves: their teaching and research activities, particularly of those who are engaged in high-end technologies, must be made available to even students and research scholars from other institutions.
His third observation is about making “science accessible to citizens in the language they are comfortable with”, for, he felt “Science education … in English is exclusionary.” There are no two opinions about the validity of this statement. But it has tremendous capital costs, for as Raghavan himself observed, its accomplishment “will need investments in quality people who can write and translate texts in multiple languages.” Now the big question is: whether to allocate capital for the pursuit of scientific research in frontier areas that results in new knowledge or to invest capital in translating existing scientific knowledge into our regional languages. The importance of this question can better be appreciated if it is juxtaposed with our current level of investment in R&D, which according to the latest Economic Survey stood at 0.7% of GDP which is pretty low in comparison to an international scale.
Incidentally, such a translation project was once launched in the past but appears to have been abandoned half the way for obvious reasons. It is n order here, to say that universities and institutions of higher learning are already facing acute shortage of qualified staff even to carry out routine research and teaching. That being the reality, one can well visualise about the availability of competent translators to undertake the project of making science available in regional languages. A dispassionate look at this whole issue makes one wonder: Isn’t science education, be it in any language, ‘exclusionary’! After all mere access to science by itself does not make one a Chandrasekhar or Raman. And Ramans and Chandrasekharans will somehow acquire access to science, for they have a strong ‘why’ of their own. But what they certainly need is sustained support from the nation in terms of capital and laboratory facilities to keep their engagement with science going on fruitfully.
Populist measures sound pretty appealing, but their blind pursuit may leave us way behind the rest of the nations. And examples of such populist pursuits of the past making us miss the bus are many: Under the pretext of self-reliance, we invested earlier considerable sums in ‘reinventing the wheel’ — establishment of CERI in Bits, Pilani to reinvent TV tubes in the 60s, etc — while countries like Japan and other Southeast Asian nations marched ahead by borrowing the existing technology from the west and once having acquired a foothold, kept themselves in the race by building newer technologies over it.
So, we have to make a choice, a choice that is rational but not populist and importantly capable of keeping the nation at par in its scientific endeavours with the rest of the globe, if not ahead of them. And this calls for leaders like Dr Homi Bhabha, who passionately worked for creating effective schools to undertake fundamental research across the disciplines. In this endeavour, we can even invite diaspora settled in the US universities to visit as adjunct faculties and guide young scientists in acquiring investigative skills.
Any endeavour that breaks away from the past is all set to encounter obstacles. Nevertheless, let’s hope for the success of Dr Vijaya Raghavan’s mission.