The primitive man had lived in kinship with nature. Such was his/her close fellowship with nature that man had even projected many of his attributes onto the animals/plants. For instance, poet Kalidasa depicted deer as the brother and Vanajyotsna, the creeper, as the sister of Sakuntala in his famous drama, Abhijnanasakuntalam. In the same play we hear sage Kanva proclaiming to the sylvan deities and the trees of the hermitage, “Sakuntala … would not drink till she had wet/Your roots, a sister’s duty/Nor pluck your flowers; she loves you yet/Far more than selfish beauty.” That was the harmony in which the ancient man lived with nature, believing that in bird and beast, and tree and man, it is the same life: …that impends / all thinking things, all objects of all thought / and rolls through all things.
But with the advent of civilization, economic stratification and the emergence of class-conscious society, man, particularly of the western world, distanced him-/her-self from nature and started using plants and animals to serve his/her needs and pleasures. In course of time, this pride of humanity spread all over the globe.
However, once Darwin came up with his theory of evolution—the pride of humanity took a reverse swing as all organisms have turned out to be of equal value, for ‘survival is the only criterion of evolutionary success.’ And this, as Julian Huxley observed, became apparent not because of the exaggeration of the human qualities of animals but more due to minimization of the human qualities of men. This reduced gap between humans and animals, could not ofcourse, last longer, for science has made firm inroads – particularly, the extension of scientific analysis to the events all around had prompted man to re-examine the understanding he has had hitherto, including that of the biological processes.
This increased knowledge enabled man to look at himself as a unique animal, the uniqueness as reflected in his exclusive capabilities such as the capacity for conceptual thought—abstraction and synthesis—and its unique by-products: conversation, organized games, education, duty, sin, humiliation, vice, penitence, and all these have cumulatively made him again distinctly different from animals. To be precise, it is this ability to reflect—the only animal that not only knows but also knows that it knows— that has made man to believe that he is distinctly different from other living creatures.
These unique capabilities opened up new vistas in biosciences. His mastering the art of culturing cells in the lab has made the immutable building blocks of individual cells into malleable resources—of great technologies by themselves. Man’s ability to bring out hybrid cells has not only gained tremendous economic significance but also challenged his very fundamental notion of ‘individuality and immortality’. That aside, his relentless search for understanding how that primitive bacteria could harness sunlight, almost 3.2 bn years back, to split water molecules into protons, electrons and oxygen—the very mechanism of photosynthesis that led to the atmospheric oxygen and ultimately life as we see it today— has at last come to fruition. Junko Yano et al have presented the precise structure of a catalyst composed of four manganese atoms and one calcium atom that drives water splitting reaction in green leaves in their paper in Science of 2006 — Where Water Is Oxidized to Dioxygen: Structure of the Photosynthetic Mn4Ca Cluster—and this had generated a new hope of developing clean energy technologies that are carbon neutral in the very near future.
All this leads us to the inevitable conclusion: there are a number of questions that still need to be answered—answered scientifically. It is here that sagacity points out to a phenomenon in which, everything is in motion, as perhaps, man’s search has not yet attained the fullness of it.
And, no wonder, if it remains ever so! But amidst this flux, the need for ‘leadership’ in our science establishments—a leadership that “can better cultivate than manufacture scientific temper by providing the soil and the over all climate and environment in which science can grow”—emerges out as the singular most pre-requisite to keep ourselves focused on search for ‘truth’.
Now, against this reality, let us question ourselves if our Universities/institutions of higher education are catering to this urgently felt-need. An honest answer is perhaps: “No”.
If that is what the truth is: Don’t you think we are losing the race in the global competition? It is no wonder why none of our institutions of higher learning found a place in the oft released list of world’s best universities?
What could be the reason for such an apathy ruling roost across the country? One immediate answer that strikes to mind is: the kind of national fervor that we witnessed among our leaders who ruled the nation and its institutions immediately after independence is somehow missing today. If you don’t believe, check how many new institutions of the kind of IITs, BARCs, IISs, IIMs are built after Nehru? And also examine the kind of output coming out from the traditional universities such as universities of presidency cities, old universities such as BHU, AMU, Allahabad, Lucknow, Delhi, etc., that were indeed known earlier for turning out scientists of national zeal and commitment!
This malady is not just confined to governmental organizations alone. Look at even private individual’s/industrialists’ contribution to the cause of education in the country today. What are the new institutions of excellence that have come into existence after TIFR, BITS (Pilani), BHU, Sri Rams, Pachyappas, Loyolas? That aside, what is more disturbing is: many Indian corporates are today giving huge donations to universities located in the west for establishing chairs/new Departments in their names. What an irony!
The present slide in the educational standards in the country could have been checkmated to a larger extent, had the neo-rich corporates paid attention to this urgent need. Alas! That is not to be so, for what ever private participation came forth in the recent past is again for milking out the consumers—seekers of education.
Over and above it, we also witness a kind of creping irrationalism—such as, relying on God’s men and all sorts of Babas; regional parochialism; cast-defined behaviorism; ‘ism’-driven violence, etc.—not only into political institutions but also scientific institutions and institutions of higher education. As a result, the kind of scientific temper that the founding fathers of the nation arduously tried to nurture in these institutions is slowly fading out today.
The net result is we are falling way behind even small nations in the pursuit of fundamental research. Some may, however, argue that we are progressing well in the emerging field of IT sector, but let us not forget that what we are catering to is only applications part, we are only acting as car mechanics but not as car-manufactures. And there is a hell lot of difference between these two. As Sam Pitroda once observed, we haven’t developed IT products for sale in the market.
Hardly 11 institutions from India find a place in the Nature Index 2020 database— the indicator of research performance of institutions form various countries under natural sciences in a year—that lists 500 institutions with our CSIR at No. 164. We are far behind the output of China. True, Indian Pharmaceutical industry has been identified by the global leaders as capable of mass-producing COVID-19 vaccines. But here again, we are only mass producers of vaccines developed by other countries, except of course, the one developed by Bharat Biotech. Coming to innovative research in developing a vaccine for Covid-19, it must be admitted that even Bharat Biotech is lagging behind Pfizer, Moderna, etc. For, they have developed the vaccine on the novel platforms of mRNA technologies vis-a-vis Bharat Biotech using the older-platform of inactivated virus.
Does it mean, we are lacking enthusiasm for research and innovation? If so, the probable reason for such a dispirited approach of our scientific establishments could be: lack of a vibrant research ecosystem. The fact of our graduates, who, on moving to the Western Universities becoming fantastic innovators, reconfirms the missing link of right ecosystem in our research institutions. So, the obvious need is: right leadership for rejuvenating our institutions. This posits a big question: who has to bell the cat?