India must look beyond neutrinos

Allocating public resources more fairly to specialised bodies and educational institutions may be a better bet

June 22, 2015 12:40 am | Updated June 23, 2015 12:04 pm IST

IMBALANCE: “Spending on Big Science has been at the cost of a vibrant culture of research at our universities. Given its not so insubstantial investment in research, India punches well below its weight in research output”. Picture shows a laboratory at the Avinashilingam University for Women in Coimbatore. Photo: K. Ananthan

IMBALANCE: “Spending on Big Science has been at the cost of a vibrant culture of research at our universities. Given its not so insubstantial investment in research, India punches well below its weight in research output”. Picture shows a laboratory at the Avinashilingam University for Women in Coimbatore. Photo: K. Ananthan

One of India’s most loved Presidents, missile technologist A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and his distinguished adviser Srijan Pal Singh have made a strong plea in favour of the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) (‘ >Going all out for neutrino research ,’ June 17, The Hindu ). They have focussed on dispelling local people’s fears about the possible effects (including cancer) of neutrino research. The controversy around these fears has obscured a larger conversation we need to have about the place and shape of science in India, and in this piece I shall suggest some questions we need to think about.

A key argument cited by Dr. Kalam and Mr. Singh is that the observatory will help India to gain leadership in science. This raises two questions: Why must India gain leadership in science? If it must, is a project like the neutrino observatory the best way forward?

Impact of ‘spin-offs’

To raise the first question is to risk being accused of Luddite blasphemy. How can you even question the importance of science we’ll be asked; if pressed, statistics and rankings of the poor state of Indian science will be quoted. We’ll be told that scientific research will lead to economic growth; comparisons with the West and China will be drawn. The odd spin-off story about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Indian Space Research Organisation will be quoted to demonstrate how Big Science changes lives and impacts the economy.

Dr. Kalam and Mr. Singh promise applications in non-proliferation and counter terrorism, mineral and oil exploration, as well as in earthquake detection. But there has been a long history of the impact of spin-offs being exaggerated; an article in the journal of the Federation of American Scientists (a body whose board of sponsors included over 60 Nobel laureates) calculated that NASA produced only $5 billion of spin-offs for $55 billion invested over eight years. If such is the low return from projects which involve high levels of engineering design, can spin-offs form a plausible rationale for what is largely a pure science project? The patchy record of Indian Big Science in delivering on core promises (let alone spin-offs) make it difficult to accept that INO will deliver any significant real-world utility despite claims. It was not for nothing that the highly regarded Science magazine termed the project “India’s costly neutrino gamble”.

Even if it delivers useful technology, the argument that research spurs economic growth is highly suspect. As David Edgerton has shown, contrary to popular perception, there is actually a negative correlation between national spending on R&D and national GDP growth rates with few exceptions. This correlation does not, of course, suggest that research is a drag on the economy; merely that rich countries (which tend to grow slowly) spend more on science and technology.

Thus, national investment in science and technology is more a result of growing richer as an economy than a cause of it. Investment in research is an inefficient means of economic growth in middle income countries such as India where cheaper options for economic development are plentiful. Every country gets most of its technology from R&D done by others. The East Asian Tigers, for example, benefitted from reverse engineering Western technologies before building their own research capabilities. Technologies have always been mobile in their economic impact; this is more so today when Apple’s research in California creates more jobs in China than in the United States.

Most jobs in our own booming IT sector arose from technological developments in the U.S. rather than Indian invention.

Is the INO the best way forward for Indian science?

One may cite better uses (sanitation, roads, schools and hospitals) for the $224 million that is to be spent on the most expensive research facility in Indian history; but that argument is unfashionable (and some may say unfair). However, even if one concedes the importance of India pursuing global leadership in scientific research, one may question if investing in the INO is the best way to do so.

Allocation of resources Like many other countries, India has long had a skewed approach to allocating its research budget to disciplines, institutions and individual researchers; given limited resources, this has a larger negative impact in India than in the rich countries. Of the Central government’s total research spend in 2009-10, almost a third went to the Defence Research and Development Organisation, 15 per cent to the Department of Space, 14 per cent to the Department of Atomic Energy (which is now in-charge of the INO project) and 11 per cent to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. The Department of Science, which covers most other scientific disciplines, accounted for barely 8 per cent of the Central government’s total R&D spending. Barely 4 per cent of India’s total R&D spending took place in the higher education sector which accounts for a large share of science and technology personnel in the country. Much of this meagre spending took place in elite institutes such as the IITs and IISc., leaving little for our universities where vast numbers of S&T professors and research scholars work.

Spending on Big Science has thus been at the cost of a vibrant culture of research at our universities. Given its not so insubstantial investment in research, India punches well below its weight in research output. This raises serious questions as to whether our hierarchical model of allocating resource to research has paid off.

It may be argued that to gain leadership in science, money is best spent in supporting a wide range of research at many institutions, rather than investing an amount equivalent to nearly 16 per cent of the 2015-16 Science Ministry budget in a very expensive facility like INO designed to benefit a relatively small number of scientists working in a highly specialised and esoteric field.

We need to invest in nurturing research at the still-struggling new IITs (and IISERs) as well as increase support to the old IITs (and IISc). More generally, we need to allocate public resources for research more fairly (though perhaps not entirely equitably) to the specialised bodies and educational institutions, including the universities. Besides raising the overall quality and quantity of our research output, this will allow students to experience being taught by leaders in their discipline who would not only inspire the young to pursue a career in research, but also encourage the small but growing trend of the best and the brightest staying back in India for their doctorate rather than migrating overseas.

While few can fully understand and appreciate their potential, neutrinos can tell us much about matter and the universe. There is indeed a case to be made for an observatory, which goes beyond narrow utility or national pride to the curiosity, the joy of discovery and the sense of wonder about nature that lie at the very heart of what it means to be human.

As India’s Second Five Year Plan put it, material welfare is not an end in itself but merely a means to a better intellectual life; a society which devotes most of its resources to the bare essentials of life is limited in its pursuit of higher ends. But given that for many in India, these bare essentials are simply inadequate and we are far from having a thriving research culture, we need to think about whether this particular “higher end” is worth the cost.

(Kapil Subramanian is a historian of science based in London.)

The article has been corrected for a factual error.

Correction

>>A sentence in “India must look beyond neutrinos” (Perspective, June 22, 2015) read: “ … an article in the journal of the Federation of American Scientists (a body whose board of sponsors included over 60 Nobel laureates) calculated that NASA produced only $5 million of spin-offs for $65 billion invested over eight years.” It should have been $5 billion of spin-offs for $55 billion invested.

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