Interview with Kaushik Basu, Chief Economic Adviser, Ministry of Finance, on his work as Jury Chair of the Infosys Prize for Social Sciences

The Chief Economic Adviser to the Ministry of Finance, Kaushik Basu, took over the Jury Chair for the Infosys Prize for Social Sciences in April. He spoke to V. Sridhar recently about the need to invest and nurture excellence in fundamental research in all branches of knowledge. The media in India, he says, pays far less attention to the sciences than those in the advanced countries. Excerpts.

You took over the Jury Chair of the Infosys Prize for Social Sciences in April. What are your plans for the Prize in the social sciences?

I have worked during one round of the selection process, when Amartya Sen was the Jury Chair. The charter of the Prize is in keeping with what I would like it to achieve. The Prize has established itself, but frankly, it has to be given much greater attention in India.

In India, there is such an obsession with the day’s news, with politics and the policy-making process. The kind of attention I get makes me convinced that these things get disproportionate attention (laughs). We ought to give much greater attention to the fundamental sciences. I actually mean fundamental thinking. I mean writers, poets, fundamental mathematics, fundamental economics — all these people and their work deserve much more attention in India.

I must say that The Hindu does probably more than any other newspaper in India in terms of focusing on these things. The paper’s attention to the life of the mind is distinctly more than most others. Of late, there are others like the Hindustan Times, which are doing more, but we really need to go much further.

In contrast, America gives huge attention to these things. The obituaries in The New York Times on people in the arts and sciences are more substantial than articles on people in politics or policy making.

When eminent Indian statistician Raghu Raj Bahadur [considered to be one of the architects of modern mathematical statistics] died in 1997, the longest obituary was in the NYT, not in any Indian newspaper.

Do you see the gap in coverage as a reflection of the gap in the advancement of the fundamental sciences in India and in the advanced countries?

The gap in subjects like economics may have widened now, but about 15-20 years ago, when we had Amartya Sen, Jagdish N. Bhagwati and Prasanta K. Pattanaik, the gap in cutting edge research was much narrower. People in the sciences also tell me the same thing.

Do you see the Infosys Prize as one way of doing this?

I am glad that Infosys is giving a reasonable amount of money. But, as in things like this, if the prize is properly projected, the money will become relatively minor. The Nobel Prize is big money, but people will be willing to give money to get the prize.

How do you plan to set about getting more attention for the awards?

Once the awards are announced, the media must follow-up to find out what the winners have achieved. One of the great things after the Nobel announcements every year is the fun in reading in lay language the contributions of the winners.

I believe that the pursuit of knowledge and aesthetic beauty — in poetry, literature, mathematics and in many other fields — is an end in itself. Just harping on the utilitarian aspects of these branches is no good. People must be motivated by the pure pursuit of aesthetics, like a music composer or artist is, or like Pythagoras did when he discovered the triangle theorem. The sheer beauty of triangles caught his imagination. It is indeed arguable that Pythagoras’ Theorem has contributed more than the biggest of the business houses. It gave us the instrument, which made it possible for rockets to fly. But Pythagoras himself was never distracted by these possibilities.

What should the media do?

Just as there is the concept of Corporate Social responsibility for business, there ought to be the concept of Media Scientific Responsibility. The media should make a deliberate contribution to science, even if it is unprofitable.

But can even a Prize of this stature help in the absence of government funding for research?

No. We need multiple actions. Government funding is very critical, but we also need to create space for the scientists. University nurture is extremely important. But take the case of the Delhi School of Economics. Even in its heyday, its success was not because of government nurture. Greater autonomy played a huge part in its success. Amartya Sen was made full professor of economics at the age of 30. Prasanta K. Pattanaik became professor at 29. Part of the tribute would have to go to people like Dr. V.K.R.V. Rao and K.N. Raj, who were, what I would call, academic entrepreneurs. They may not have been the greatest researchers but they built the Delhi School of Economics.