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Updated: May 23, 2012 14:27 IST

Why India is not a great scientific power

V. N. Mukundarajan
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Let us bring up a generation that will not hesitate to ask inconvenient questions. This generation will be the torch-bearer of a scientific revolution

The economic growth of the last one decade has prompted Indians to nurse ambitions of achieving the status of a great and exceptional power. The size of the GDP is important, but it alone cannot guarantee that India will be recognised as a world power. It is the robustness of scientific research and innovation that sets apart great powers from the mediocre ones.

We have good scientists, but why has India not produced outstanding scientists who make path-breaking discoveries that will make the world sit up and take notice? Should we continue to be satisfied with tweaking borrowed technologies? Is reverse engineering an innovative phenomenon?

All debates about scientific research inevitably end up zeroing in on the deficiencies of our educational system as the root cause of the abysmal record in scientific research. This is only part of the story.

A nation's culture — belief systems, values, attitudes — plays a significant role in determining the quality of scientific research. The Oriental attitudes differ from the Occidental values in many respects. Asian societies are basically collectivist, that is, the collective good of society ranks higher than individual happiness and achievements. People do not ask what they can do for their country; they are always asking what the country will do for them. They look up to the state for guidance, leadership and direction. There is no burning individual ambition to excel and achieve something new.

In the West, individuals try to achieve their potential through their own efforts, aided and facilitated by enabling laws and institutions. Self-reliance is the key objective of life. An independent life requires a free and questioning mindset that takes nothing for granted and constantly challenges conventional wisdom. Children are encouraged to push the frontiers of knowledge by self-examination and open-minded enquiry. It is only a sceptical and dissenting mind that often thinks out of the box to explore new vistas of knowledge.

Collectivism promotes conformism and deference to authority whether it is parents, elders, teachers or the government. It is heresy to question established values and customs.

We pass on our passivity and uncritical attitudes to our children. No wonder, the educational system encourages rote learning and unquestioning acceptance of what is taught in the classrooms and stated in the textbooks. How can we expect our children to suddenly develop an enquiring and inquisitive attitude when they have been brought up in a milieu that discourages ‘disruptive' thoughts?

India and China were once advanced nations before foreign rule drained their resources and sapped their willpower and scientific traditions. Cultures tend to become conservative and defensive when subjected to long spells of colonial exploitation.

Indians are great believers in destiny. But our tradition does not frown upon free will and individual excellence. We must realise that our ability for free action remains unhampered despite what destiny may hold in store for us.

Fear of failure

Another flaw in our culture that prevents individual excellence is the fear of failure. The stigma associated with failure makes our children risk-averse while choosing their courses and careers.

Scientific research is a long-drawn war on received wisdom that requires many battles before it can be won. Science was not built in a day. Some of the battles can end in defeat. In the West, they celebrate failure as a stepping stone to success.

Educational reforms must be preceded by mental deconditioning of parents, teachers, educationists and policymakers — throwing away the cobwebs of uncritical submissiveness to conventional knowledge. Let us bring up a generation that will not hesitate to ask inconvenient questions. This generation will be the torch-bearer of a scientific revolution that will unleash cutting-edge research to make the Nobel Prize committee sit up and take notice.

We have nothing to lose except our passivity and fatalism. Let us not wait for things to happen. Let us make things happen.

(The writer's email ID is vnmukund@gmail.com)

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This article explained my thoughts aptly. I'm a free thinker and risk taking person. I inculcated questioning mind from my father even though I am not a good questioner by nature. Obviously, I thought different and did MSc Applied electronics when my friends did BTech. I did my 12th class from a CBSE school and was an average guy. I never competed with others but with myself. Now, I'm doing MS(by Research)in nanoelectronics. First I didn't know what to do after MSc. I never wanted to join an IT company even though I am a good programer. Then dawned the thought to do research & decided to join for MS. After that, I was not sure of what is my future and started to do research. Learning many things through ups and downs, I did independent research of my own & by now, published my work in 2 leading intl. journals. I'm satisfied to fullest now. Even after I do my PhD, I don't know what I'll do in future.Relevant research needs to be done for betterment of our society. Hope, I'll do it.

from:  P. Uma Sathyakam
Posted on: Jan 14, 2012 at 22:38 IST

It is worth noting a comment in this article about India and China being advanced nations in ages gone by. When the West met them, both these countries were not even countries, nor, at that point in history was there much advanced about them in comparison to the west. It is like Italy of today touting how glorious ROME USED TO BE. A different time and different people. The concept which has made India the largest democracy in the world and by THAT concept and principal is leading the Indian people to participate in a share of what the country is capable of is only there because of the West. India has much to offer, but keeping heads stuck firmly in a hole in the ground and griping about how great it was wont make it good, let alone great,again. Some hard work, some fair play and democracy will do it - India has all the potential in the world.

from:  Harriett Hamhocker
Posted on: Dec 29, 2011 at 18:57 IST

the above structure of our indian educational system as mentioned by
our writer is the truth which is hindering the growth of the tribe
called students. but i would like to say that besides this, the
another group of tribe called teachers(professors,lecturers,school
teachers) exceptong few are themselves lacking enough motivation in
their task of imparting education.I m a student of engineering(NIT
raipur),and we have professors who are very less interested to impart
knowledge(themselves being not enough knowledgeable).they think their
periods to be just a routine job which must be done however possible
to fetch a salary as of their father's money.our teachers lack
knowledge as well as interest to teach or inspire students.Without a
modification of this class of unspirited teachers we can not dream of
our motherland INDIA producing scientists capable of winning noble
prize.

from:  vikas
Posted on: Dec 19, 2011 at 23:52 IST

We in India have been talking about educational reforms for ages. I have had the opportunity to converse about this with many University vice-chancellors when they came as speakers in public forums. When I asked them why they did not take steps to do this, they had shamelessly pleaded their inability to convince others. One v.c. said that the agenda for the Senate and Syndicate meetings have not changed for several decades, but did not explain why. Couple of them said that the public are not vociferous enough for them to change this. They travel all over the world at our expense, but do not put their experience into practice. The maximum they say is that the Govt does not agree to their proposals. Then why do they hold that post?

Where is the question of India being poor not to afford or encourage scientific research? Ours is a very rich country, but we people choose to remain poor. G.D.Naidu was poor, but did lot of research in many fields, engineering, botony, medicine, etc. How

from:  B.Gopalaswami
Posted on: Dec 19, 2011 at 08:53 IST

Excellent article!It is all about money for the buck! The reason why Indians fear failure is because we are still a very very poor country and more than 60% of people struggle to make a living & one mistake in our life can have great financial implications and we can lose our income and livelihood. Also, the scientific research done by our institutes is been used by Global corporations to take advantage and develop new products and make new break-throughs. Since poverty and economic necesseties are rampant, parents also advice children to take up courses which pay well & to drop pure scientific research if they do not pay well. Also, all centers of higher learning like IITs,IISc are glorified training centers meant to supply cheap & low cost , quality brain power for the west.

from:  Jayaram
Posted on: Dec 17, 2011 at 00:13 IST

99.99% of the educated population is famous for Jugaad (The Hindu sometime back published an article on Indian Army procurement from US) then where comes the innovation?. Analysis through predictability is in the genes not the rational thinking.

from:  prasbad
Posted on: Dec 16, 2011 at 01:49 IST

The biggest hurdle in path of innovation is a materialistic society which emphasises success in terms of high salary packages. If u do good scientific work as a research-associate but earn only 6-7 thousand as stipend (less than a peon's salary) no one will respect you. Comparatively if you are marketing soap & oil but make 1 lakh salary anyone will be ready to marry his daughter to you. Sadly modern India is such a materialistic society which repects stock exchange gamblers more than research scientists.

from:  Shaleen Mathur
Posted on: Dec 15, 2011 at 14:17 IST

I find the article based on perceptions rather than facts, that Asian societies are collectivists, western societies are not and then says that Indians think first of themselves and then about country. How come that is collectivist, this is the highest form of individualism. And how come USSR a collectivist society produce great scientists. The author seems to share the same bias for asian societies as held by the West and pointed out by Edward Said.

from:  somitra
Posted on: Dec 15, 2011 at 12:04 IST

The author fails to take one very big factor into account - in most of these research giants (particularly in US) the majority of scientific "labour", i.e., the graduate students and postdocs, are of Indian and Chinese origin! If our scientific attitudes are so bad, surely we are incapable of doing even the smallest scientific tasks? As far as lack of questioning beliefs and traditions go, no culture is immune from that. As one who has lived in Canada for several years now, I was shocked to find out that there are schools here that still do not teach evolution because it is contrary to the Church's doctrines! And people in this enlightened part of the West are just as irrational and steeped in traditional ideas as an average Indian. I think India's lack of scientific progress is due to lack of adequate investment in education and R&D. Even if India spent 2% of it's GDP on research, it would only be a fraction of 2% of USA's GDP - and there is no realistic way to solve that issue!

from:  Ira Probodh
Posted on: Dec 15, 2011 at 03:03 IST

I was for 10 years a scientist in a leading research organisation in India and had occasion to interact with many scientists in India and abroad. Indian scientists in India consider research work on a paid job as a profession as any other. Generally it is not interest in exploration of the scientific world and unravelling the mysteries of nature that lead them to this profession. A scientist's is a prestigeous profession and well-paying too these days in India. Plod along as in any other profession and you will get along well. That is the sad truth!

from:  K.Vijayakumar
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 21:08 IST

I agree, very well said. In a recent study conducted by Wipro, it was found that not only the educational institutions in rural areas of india, but even the top schools also promote rote learning. This hampers the overall growth of children reducing them to simply robots who never question what happens in society whatsoever and accept them as part of their life. They never develop the attitude to question the wrong happenings in the society and are happy as long as they are unaffected. In short the current educational system fails to produce a good citizen who is aware of his/her social responsibilities

from:  Sumitavo biswas
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 20:26 IST

Thought-provoking article. Very challenging and empowering. "We have nothing to lose except our passivity and fatalism" - Well said. Thanks for the brilliant effort.

from:  Dr. Cajetan Coelho
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 17:43 IST

In Tamilnadu the govt school teachers send their children to private schools only but they are not hesitant to ask for more and more raises in the salary. The duplicity of our actions starts at primary schools and pervades in all our actions. If someone questions the system the other society members play safe and avoid getting into controversies. Sometimes we have to wonder are we all hypocrites.

from:  chandrasekar
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 14:30 IST

The author's anxiety for prodcing world rank scientists causes concern.Our educational systems are capable of producing brilliant scientists and engineers but the question of making a living needs to be taken care of first.Let those who come out of college be absorbed in a job ensuring a permanet monthly income.Then select from them for advanced studies and nurture them to achieve world records.Merit alone and nothing else should be the criterion for grooming prospective path-breakers.Let this be the burden of the celebrities in respective fields of knowledge.

from:  G.Rajaram.
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 08:54 IST

What I believe, this is lack of our thought process and fundamental vision moreover our culture, social environment forms from day one a picture of success in front of child. Furthermore guardian approach is more important in child career. In today’s world numeric does only matter revenue is big concern hence we see continues deteriorating in our thought process. Our desire and engineered image psychology of materialistic world not permitting us to think widely and deeply. Intellectualism can only deterrence to avert every threat poses by others. Theme of true education, importance of education, effectiveness of educational values, purpose of education in life, education changes life, these points needs a effective presentation/awareness in student hence student/education can serve the purposes otherwise society will be fail to generate a single good/ethical scientist/ engineer/ doctor of any field. This is very serious topic and it needs serious attention and introspection.

from:  RAI HAN
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 00:26 IST

Question: How come Indian graduates turn out to be excellent
scientists in the west? Even if you say, they got a further degree
from west (many don't) their ability has been shaped by Indian
education. And it seems excellent.
I myself have my basic and upto degree education from India and an MS
from west. The biggest difference when it comes to research is that,
western universities have excellent research programs in which most
graduate and post graduate students are involved(not just doctoral
ones) and also extensive industry participation and money poured in.
Indians are some of the most open minded people in the world with good
ability to observe, evaluate and discard old notions when necessary.
Yes we could be more assertive. We do question, except we are usually
timid to ask them out loud(this is the only cultural negative we
inherit). And I will never trade our collectivist society for the
individualistic western one.

from:  sp
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 16:29 IST

Schools and colleges should: A. Encourage creativity, and hands-on smartness, rather than expecting students to meekly mug tuition notes. B. Not be pressurized by students with political connections or wealthy families who try to beat the competition by unethical means. C. Offer more electives to students, so students have a much better chance of finding something they are interested in and/or at good at. D. Stop gruesome practice of teachers beating students in the name of "discipline". This creates a very bad environment, one of terror, wherein the students absolutely hate teachers.

from:  Piyush
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 00:03 IST

Any scientific research must grapple with problems that affect the future of society.The tyranny of convention exercised by parents, teachers, bureaucrats has to be fought against. Students need to be encouraged to think creatively and critically. The job oriented education must give way to vocational training and students with high research orientation must be encouraged by giving scholarships. The corporate sector also must come forward to invest in research and discharge its corporate social responsibility.

from:  J.Ravindranath
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 18:52 IST

A good article that captures what is missing in our current Primary Education and beyond, and also one that relates this to the missing link between creativity and research.

As most readers have mentioned above, and having been closely monitoring this space and in my own limited way, having been involved in Education, both at the Primary level and Engineering level, there is a need for change in the mindsets, starting from parents and aided by policy makers, educators and then Academia, Research and the Industry.

For creativity, for the sake of it, is of no use. We need a well oiled, streamlined channel, where the outcome of this can be absorbed.

from:  Ullas
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 16:41 IST

I fully agree with the last point the author has made. Many times
students who have a sharp intellect and want to go into research and
engineering as a career are forced to abort their choices because their
parents don't think that research and engineering careers are lucrative
enough. Jobs like IAS etc are considered "first class" jobs which ensure
comfort for the rest of the life. They don't understand that scientists
work so hard because of the pleasure they get out of their results and
are not looking to spend the rest of their lives living in a king-like
comfort. This traditional mindset (born out of the feudal mindset of the
majority of our population - mostly the older segment which are parents
now) has to be broken.
Leave original research, as of now there is a shortage of engineers in
the country; so much for our IITs & NITs! How many students in our
prestigious IITs are actually inspired by engineering ? For most of
them, it is just a launching pad to a higher figure salary.

from:  S Kumar
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 13:20 IST

First of all, I am a graduate student from IISC. I agree with the article fully. We always as students grumble about our education and education system and evaluation. It is hugely right of course because our system of education is neither challenging nor provoking inquisitiveness. Though this forms a part of a major reason, the other part falls into addressing the question "WHY PEOPLE DO, WHAT THEY WANT TO DO"? If we try to address this question here in India, all we get is an irrational answer. A person who does BSC in Physics would not have taken the subject for his/her real passion. Because we don't inculcate in children the habit called decision making and responsibility for taking such a decision. We do not want to take risks in life. Simply, kids run into these things accidentally as and when some random third person says and accidentally they get marks and they do not know what to do with marks. A person's decisions should be his/hers' and no one should interfere in that

from:  Bharathi
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 10:35 IST

We cannot entirely blame our educational system because our students have made a mark in foreign countries like NASA in US. I feel that the environment in our country is not conducive for scientific research in the sense that it is not being properly encouraged by the government. What I mean is that the government has very low priority for scientific research compared to other developed countries. In a country where over 40% people are below the poverty line, how can any one expect that the government should give top priority to scientific research. Of course, parents want their children to select courses which can help them get fast employment. I feel all said and done the development of scientific research depends entirely on the government's thinking and its financial resources.

from:  S L Gera
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 08:46 IST

In the west there is a well developed academia and industry
collaboration which results in fruitful research. Schools emphasize
hands-on approach. Then there is the culture of enterprise, which is
embedded in their DNA because in the past they were always upto harsh
challenges like bad weather, shortage of food, man power, etc . There
is an incentive in the society to make it big by doing business and
finance is easy to get. As the author mentioned there is also a liking
for individual glory. Many of these are lacking in the Indian society.
The system needs to be re-aligned in such a way that our culture can
be leveraged to our benefit in the quest of science of technology. And
we can always borrow the best practices.

from:  Srinivas RS
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 06:02 IST

Managers both in the public and the private sectors are to blame, both universities and for-profit companies. If they need cutting-edge technology for anything at all, managers prefer to get it from abroad. There are three reasons for this:
(a) They can make foreign trips in the name of getting technology from abroad
(b) They can make some unaccounted money in the name of signing contracts
(c) If managers were to use home-grown technology, as opposed to getting it from abroad, the managers would have be respectful of their own scientists, the ones who developed the home-grown technology. Being respectful of their own coworkers is something managers dislike---it hurts their egos. If they import technology from abroad, managers are saved the need to be respectful of their own coworkers.

The word "managers" is used in a somewhat generic sense above. Executives, government bureaucrats---almost anybody who has decision making-power---is included in the word "manager".

from:  Ananth Sethuraman
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 03:55 IST

Thanks for bringing up a fundamental issue plaguing the country underneath all
the hype of shining India.
The author mentions culture as a bedrock of scientific exploration. If I may remind
all, that Nalanda University was burnt to ground by Turkish soldiers in 11th
century. We did not have dearth of scientific temperament in Hinduism particularly,
but have lost the connection with that spirit as we never defended it as our own.
The spirit of questioning and the absence of dogma with regards to creation and
creators had enabled Indian Mathematicians and scientists to develop many ideas
that the world is aware today. These thinkers did not have to endure oppression of
religious institutions unlike in west. Today, however ironically, any mention of
such a spirit is considered communal.
We cannot copy and impose an alien culture to inculcate scientific temperament.
Instead, let us allow the freedom of questioning to mushroom again as evidenced
in Shankaracharya's shastraarths.

from:  Anamendra Bharati
Posted on: Dec 11, 2011 at 23:48 IST

Not only for science and technology but same is true for sports, art, literature. In fact it is true for everything that requires individual excellence.

from:  Nitin Nizhawan
Posted on: Dec 11, 2011 at 22:36 IST

Science is a form of art like Music, Dance (or anything) coupled with imagination, creativity, novelty and simplicity. Every art has all these aspects to it. An artist who "excels" in his/her art form would have embraced these qualities and people start enjoying the performance without noticing this fact.. we are already been mesmerized so much that we do not have time to notice that. But to "excel".. one requires passion and appreciation, searching for the beauty within the art and finally tuning it to the frequency of the soul. If we observe closely.. we feel that there is something beyond our grasp when we encounter a masterpiece (either it could be painting on a canvas, an elaborate expression of a raga or a beautiful scientific thought), we sometimes call it "out of the box thinking" or "imagination" and what lies in heart of that "imagination" is the bondage of the art and artist (when it is no more a "job" but a mere self realization).

from:  Pradeep
Posted on: Dec 11, 2011 at 22:16 IST

I agree completely with the analysis by the author. But his solution : "Educational reforms must be preceded by mental deconditioning of the parents,...etc." is like putting the cart before the horse. How can this deconditioning be carried out except by educational reforms, starting from kintergartens and primary schools ?
We train the students not to interrupt the teacher or ask questions in the class. Teachers find this very convenient as the "cultured" students never question the teacher, and in turn they get rewarded with high marks for simply memorising and reproducing in the exams what the teacher has told in the class or written on the board without ever thinking for himself/herself if that does really make sense.

from:  Karthikeyan Chittayil
Posted on: Dec 11, 2011 at 20:17 IST

Yes, it is true that I am afraid of taking risks and so is with many people. Whatever may be the reason, like economic constraints, lack of vision, fear of failure but this has made us incapable of pushing ourselves beyond limits. When it comes for taking risks we try to be circumspect looking for pros and cons before taking up action. And this is one of the reasons for India lagging behind other countries. Still indigenous products related to aviation, electronics etc is a major concern for us.....what we 1.21 billion people are doing....

from:  Kuldeep Kumar
Posted on: Dec 11, 2011 at 17:36 IST

This article and some of the comments are based on an untenable and
'unscientific' premise that nations are composite cultural entities.
No nation is the world ('India' or 'China') is composed of one single
and fixed culture with set of values and attitudes that is applicable
to all its citizens. The diversity within these political boundaries
are immense, and all attempts to paint entire people with the brush of
a single 'national culture' are symptoms of a retrograde form of
nationalism or just bad/lazy sociology. It is surprising that such an
article appeared in a progressive newspaper like The Hindu.

from:  Vishnu
Posted on: Dec 11, 2011 at 16:53 IST

We failed to inculcate scientific temper through education.Parents are always proud of having children who score high marks in school exams.They send them for special coaching to get admission in IITs.They never bother to ask children the question 'what they want to become?' The exam system did not expect students to analyse and understand the subjects.Memorising is accepted as best skill. Developing soft skills to get job offer from campus recruitment is being taught by colleges.After all every body wants secured life. Pursuing research is viewed as great risk in ones life.

from:  sekaran s
Posted on: Dec 11, 2011 at 15:56 IST

It is a timely reminder of the abject state of our science. It is incontrovertibly true that the situation is abysmally bad because of a culture of discouraging questioning minds. When my son was about 7 years old he came home crying from Convent school. When we inquired, he said that his teacher made him to stand up on the bench for the duration of the class for asking a question in Science class. It seems the teacher was describing the Sun, telling how hot , how distant at 92, million miles ,everything coming near it will burn etc and added that the sun's temperature was 5000 Centigrade. My son asked her if it was so hot and would burn everything that approaches , how was the temperature measured. The entire class laughed. The teacher herself did not know the answer so she rebuked him. Respect for elders has degenerated to an unquestioning acceptance of the advice by elders even on matters on which they lack knowledge. Everything is "VEDA VAKKU" here.Received wisdom is sacred.

from:  R.Sundaram
Posted on: Dec 11, 2011 at 15:13 IST

As the present education system policy concerned what you are telling is exactly correct. But how to make sure that our Indian's will become like Japan and Germany.is there any way if its possible suggest tha one also.

from:  k.srikanth
Posted on: Dec 11, 2011 at 14:29 IST

The highly individualistic environment of the West is also responsible for high rates of divorces, abuse, out-of-wedlock births, and numerous social problems. Our collective attitude has saved us from the malaise of selfishness and commercialism that continues to dog the West. Is emphasizing individualism a solution for bringing scientific research unto forefront? I don't agree. The solution lies in developing a environment in classroom which will help in developing a scientific attitude. That was precisely a thing which Gurukul did in ancient days! Unfortunately, our leaders ended up aping the Western system of education which emphasizes on rote-learning. Its time we throw away this wasteful system - and come up with a system of our own.

from:  Ritesh
Posted on: Dec 11, 2011 at 14:01 IST

Science drives technology and technology drives science and this absent in India. Education curricula is one part, there is a factual overload beyond the mental age and the only way to cope up with this is rote. The Kota tutorial institutes exist because of this. There are historical reasons, burden of our past caste system one section would theorize but would not practice and the other did not have enough knowledge to invent and improve. This is reflected in the attitude where software is preferred to engineering and paid better. Historically Chinese inventions have endured, paper, Gunpowder, compass, ceramics, are examples, whereas Indian inventions nowhere. Today China hosts about 40000 foreign scientists and technologists and annually honours those who have made significant contribution. Every step forward in science is small or big step in the unknown and this risk has to be recognized or we will be forever condemned to technical backwardness.

from:  Dr D M Mohunta
Posted on: Dec 11, 2011 at 12:36 IST

I am an engineering student. Yes,I am afraid of failing but not more than the harsh psycho-ism shown by few lecturers, apart from this partiality prevails. I believe that student should be motivated in college such that he after leaving the institution is still active to learn and explore,but in reality because of few insane teachers we become tiresome enduring their criticism and tend to rest. Few impose such laws that no one can abide to i.e,I(lecturer) don't want to see you in the college premises after working hours.why is it so cant we hang out with friends plan for a movie on a weekend. Yes they are lecturers who convey Knowledge but what is the point of killing interest at first and then trying to build.

from:  sai
Posted on: Dec 11, 2011 at 07:58 IST
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