Friday, July 13, 2012

Where's good ol' Science??

The last fortnight had full of red letter days for the global scientific community and national scientific achievements. While the bedlam of noises following the discovery of the “God particle” or the Higgs Boson, by the European organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) contained more energy than that used up in the Large Hadron Collider, which was used to smash protons that culminated in the discovery, there was an equally thunderous announcement to the world by the People’s Republic Of China of their first ever manual docking manoeuvre being achieved in space with the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft carrying the first Chinese female astronaut docking with the Tiangong 1 space orbiting module. This mission is part of China’s proposed space station, targeted to be complete by 2020 which will make China the third nation to possess such capability after USA and Russia. However, there was another piece of news about the dragon that largely missed the limelight wherein the Jiaolong, a state owned research submersible will make the record of reaching a depth of 7,000 metres in Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean on Earth. It will be the deepest a state owned and a research submersible has ever gone. Interestingly though, its not the deepest man has gone in the ocean.

Now, while I leave it to the reader to find out whom and when man has been to the deepest part of the ocean (which is much deeper than what the Chinese sub achieved), there was another depth to which somebody went just a week before the above. It was the cynosure of media circus for 3-4 days In India. It was Mahi (not Dhoni), a 5 year old girl who fell in a 70 feet deep borewell in Khaow village of Manesar district, Haryana. It took 85 hours before her corpse could be brought out. While it was another disgraceful example of gross civil negligence by all of us (we, the people), the media made us forget it soon and continued on its hollow sensationalistic schmaltz. While god may give peace to Mahi’s soul, let me ask a question. How many of you can guess the two names hidden in the term Higgs boson? Well, one is Peter Higgs, the British particle physicist who promulgated the theory behind the particle’s existence back in 1964. The other name is Bose, (BOSon) after Satyendra Nath Bose. Still Stumped? The legend late Satyendra Nath Bose is a famous particle physicist from India who along with Albert Einstein gave the famous Bose-Einstein Statistics which describe the discrete energy states of a collection of indistinguishable particles. The name ‘boson’ was given by none other than physicist Paul Dirac in honour of S N Bose. However, in free India, the story of Indian science and Indian scientists surpasses any Shakespearean tragedy.

The multitude of problems facing Indian science is deep rooted and can be explained by understanding the entire perspective first. Indian science is not product based or IT based technological innovation. However, even technology development from scratch is only fathomable if there is an infrastructure and promotion from the government for research in basic sciences which can then be put to develop newer technologies. It is basic sciences and technology development from the scratch. Firstly, the biggest problem plaguing Indian science is the lack of funding for hard core research from both the governments as well as the private sector. India, in total put only a little above $10 billion for R&D last year which is miniscule as compared to USA’s $405 billion (ranked 1 in the world) and China’s $140 billion (please see my previous article on blog “The Indian LSD deficiency Syndrome”). Out of this, around $1.5 billion went for defence R&D and about the same on product R&D used by the public and private sector companies for launching new and upgraded products while basic sciences had to make ends meet with the remaining crumbs.

The Indian Science Congress, that recently completed 99 years, has become the platform for enchanting lofty goals for science R&D by respective PMs in India but the 5year jinx continues. In 2003, the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declared to increase science and technology R&D in the country to 2% of GDP by the end of the 10th 5 year plan (2002-2007). Then in January 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh further postponed the achieving date of the same target till the end of the 11th plan (2007-2012) which is about to end and the train remains at the same station, 10 years late already. While the dragon has leapt over to 1.5% of GDP equivalent for R&D, Uncle Sam remains at the pinnacle with 2.8% (please see previous article “The Indian LSD Deficiency Syndrome”)

Then comes the variable which is one of the prime indicators of the potential of a nation’s scientific clout, the number of PhDs being produced annually and the number of cited research papers authored by scientists and researchers. The number of PhDs produced stands hopelessly low as compared to China and way behind that of USA and Germany. The number of PhDs produced by India reduced a staggering 18.5% in 2008-09 to around 10700 from 17800 in the year 2004-05. At the same time, China produced the highest number in the world at over 50000. Also, among the number of PhDs produced, science and science related PhDs were just around 8000 in 2008-09 which is far less than the near 20,000 churned out by China. Herein lies a deep gutter sucking everything in courtesy the draconian devil called Indian bureaucracy. The fact that the Indian bureaucratic system still runs on archaic British era laws and is guided by Soviet style socialism has squandered six decades when we could have covered a lot of ground.

Firstly, even smaller targets like getting new equipment for labs etc. entails a long process comprising clearing proposals with committees and tender notifications to giving contracts and getting deliveries which take from months to years until the egos of each and every head in between are not satisfied. Often, larger expenditures like setting up a new lab or complex within an institute take eons as it requires the written approval from the concerned department of a central or state government ministry. Secondly, each and every enthusiastic researcher in the state run labs and research institutes barring a handful of premier institutes has to face the ignominy of being a junior in the initial years since future funding and approval and appraisal of thesis directly is in the hands of the senior professors who until and unless themselves get pay hikes or promotions, never allow a ‘junior’ to progress. Thirdly, the overall autonomy of many of these research facilities is only on paper as for any moderate to high expenditure projects, the institute’s management is at the mercy of the whims and fancies of the concerned department which comes under a certain ministry (read ‘politicians and bureaucrats rule the roost’).

However, the Achilles heel of basic science in India is the compartmentalization of higher education wherein, an engineering graduate can never dream of majoring in Organic Chemistry also at the undergraduate or postgraduate level simply because in most cases, the separate discipline is just not available in an institute or it is not possible as per the course structure of the concerned institute. There are colleges which provide either arts or science or commerce degrees and very few universities have quality multidisciplinary course structure available. And once we go to professional course like engineering, management and medicine, they only make you to cram up books and books in one particular field. Interdisciplinary study and research (an entire article on this will follow soon on my blog) simply is non-existent in India. Imagine a mathematics graduate simultaneously graduating in biology as well!!

Well, in essence, we can be sure of not producing the next generation of the likes of Ramanujan (mathematician), Sir CV Raman (Nobel laureate in Physics), Satyendranath Bose, Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose (inventor of crescograph), Dr. Hargobind Khurana (studied in India and then did research in USA) and Dr. Subramanian Chandrasekhar (Nobel laureate in Physics) until and unless we clear the malaise that is our own creation. It is critical for using the knowledge created within our borders to reap fruits for taking out millions of poor Indians from the Abyss they have been languishing in for generations. By the way, thinking about abyss reminds me of The Abyss, a sci-fi flick directed by James Cameron (director of Titanic and Avatar) who also happens to be the joint world record holder of reaching the maximum depth in the Ocean when he achieved this feat in March this year to reach the bottom of Mariana Trench in his sub Deepsea Challenger. The first time man went was in 1960 when US Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss Oceanographer Jacques Piccard went there in a bathyscaphe called the Trieste.

Corrigendum: In my previous post "The Indian LSD Deficiency Syndrome", the total R&D spend by China last year has been incorrectly mentioned to be around US$110 billion when it actually $140 billion.  
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