In the Nobel season, the focus is again on basic sciences. Academics speak about the need to draw more students to research.
The country has had a handful of Nobel laureates in the different sciences but the parents of an average school-goer would prefer their child to study engineering and medicine for a career. With this year’s Chemistry Nobel going to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a U.S. citizen of Indian origin, experts weigh in on the question of whether science education is neglected in India.
Sujatha Ramdorai, member, National Knowledge Commission, and professor, School of Mathematics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, says: “We need more people to do pure Maths and Science. It’s alarming that so few of our top students opt for that these days. If you look at the Nobel Prize winners, they all started with a solid foundational background in the basic sciences, before going on to explore how this could be applied to our needs.”
Stating that the IT revolution in the country came about only because of the basic strengths in maths and science in our schools in the 1950s and the 1960s, she says that the craze for engineering is meaningless and that more students should opt for mathematics and science.
While Ms. Ramadorai says that “everyone (including the media and the parents) is to blame for the situation, M. Vijayan, president, Indian National Science Academy and honorary professor, IISc, says “the structure of Indian science is unequal to the requirements of modern scientific research.”
He says the science education system is very focused on who is director of what, who gets what appointment. “It needs to be less hierarchical, less bureaucratic and more participatory,” he adds.
In an interview to The Hindu after winning the Nobel Prize, Dr. Ramakrishnan said that he had a solid foundation to pursue higher studies because of the excellent professors in university. The recipient of a National Science Talent scholarship, Dr. Ramakrishnan says that it is a mistake to judge science by Nobel prizes.
“In the last decade or more, funding for science has improved a lot in India, and there are now many excellent labs in my field in various parts of India. Instead of thinking about these prizes, what the government should do is concentrate on building a broad culture of respect for basic science and knowledge,” he adds.
M. Anandakrishnan, Member, Yash Pal Committee and Chairman of the Board of governors, IIT-Kanpur, provides a few prescriptions to improve science education in India.
“First of all, we need a complete overhaul of the examination system. Second, we must destroy the rigidity between various subjects. We have been fragmenting our knowledge system, even at the school level, with separate subjects. We teach physics and biology as though they have no relation to each other. There is no flow or porosity that allows ideas to migrate from one area to another. We need true interdisciplinarity. Third, we have to relate real life situations with what is taught in the classrooms,” he says.
He says that colleges teach a few electives “here and there.” While there is some “multidisciplinarity,” he says “real interdisciplinarity is the knowledge that comes at the cutting edge of integrating different disciplines.”
Keywords: Nobel laureate, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, science education, Sujatha Ramdorai, member, National Knowledge Commission, School of Mathematics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Nobel Prize, Indian National Science Academy, IISc, National Science Talent scholarship, M. Anandakrishnan, Member, Yash Pal Committee, Chairman of the Board of governors, IIT-Kanpur, interdisciplinarity