China shows the way in science education

February 19, 2007 12:00 am | Updated September 27, 2016 11:40 pm IST

Gautam R. Desiraju

There will be a real pay-off only if we invest in training young people in the universities well. This is where China is correctly placing its money, and where we are totally off track.

CHINA HAS invested a massive amount in strengthening teaching and research in universities during the last decade. The Chinese scenario in the education sector was bleak till 1980. The Cultural Revolution had debilitated an entire generation. There were no teachers, and research productivity was close to nil.

Today, however, the Chinese performance is truly impressive and it stands only behind the United States in overall scientific productivity, measured in the number of research papers. The Indian contribution, on the other hand, has only risen slightly above what it was in 1980. By no means can we be said to be competitive.

An analysis, using the ISI Thomson Web of Science , of papers published in the three top chemistry journals (chemistry being selected as a representative subject) between 2000 and 2006 (both years inclusive) is revealing. The figures for the U.S., China, and India (in that order) are: Angewandte Chemie (impact factor 9.60; numbers of papers: 2138, 396, 88), Journal of the American Chemical Society , JACS, (7.40; 11113, 602, 140), Chemical Communications (4.40; 1858, 794, 286).

The Chinese figures parallel the very heavy investments made in education and science and technology (S&T) spheres in that country, and are described in their impressive MLP (medium-to-long term plan for the development of science and technology) launched in January 2006. It is clear that investments of a similarly high order will be required in India for a significant breakthrough difference.

A more detailed look at these statistics shows that the Indian position is fundamentally flawed. Considering only papers in JACS, it is seen that the Chinese Academy of Sciences, CAS, (186) has nearly four times the number of papers as all the CSIR laboratories put together (51). The great breadth of the Chinese output is also noteworthy.

Not only do the prestigious CAS and Peking University (65) have high outputs but also the next tier of universities such as Fudan (36), Nanjing (25), Nankai (25), Jilin (24), and Xiamen (23).

All the IITs taken together have only 26 papers in this journal. The IISc has 35 and the University of Hyderabad 15. That's about it. All the IITs put together equal just one second-tier Chinese university! The "prestigious" IISc, which was given Rs.100 crore by the Government so that it could become another Harvard, does not fare much better. So much for all the hoopla about these institutions being centres of excellence!

Nothing in India measures up to the Chinese yardstick. What is China doing in terms of funding? It is notoriously difficult to get accurate numbers but public domain knowledge has it that they are roughly investing the equivalent of Rs.1,000 crore a year in chemistry departments in about 100 universities. The CAS gets the lion's share of around Rs.200 crore a year but even the rest get respectable amounts. I will extrapolate now to all subjects, and say that they are probably spending in the order of Rs.10,000 crore a year in all departments in these 100 universities and institutes.

Chemistry is a good average in terms of expenditure because a few subjects need a lot more money (physics, biology) while many other subjects need much less.

A major area of investment in Chinese universities is the upgrading of undergraduate teaching labs. We spend almost nothing on this front even as we stuff up a few "prestige" institutes with costly equipment. But there will be a real pay-off only if we invest in training young people in the universities well. This is where China is correctly placing its money, and this is where we are totally off track.

A word about student numbers and quality is necessary. The second-tier Chinese universities have around 100 PhD students each in the chemistry departments. The CAS chemistry institutes have nearly 1,000 PhD students. A single institution, the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry (a unit of CAS), has 400 PhD students, mostly trained for future industrial positions within China. Such a thing is unheard of in India, where the student output is rushing headlong to the U.S. where it settles for positions with little or no responsibility, and often lack of tenure and security.

However, the number of PhD students per institution is roughly the same in China and India with each IIT, IISc, Hyderabad University or CSIR lab having around 100 chemistry PhD students. So in terms of efficiency, each of our students is far less efficient than his or her Chinese counterpart. It means our students are not well trained at the M.Sc. level and this, in turn, goes back to the B.Sc. (where much of the trouble begins).

Our most important screen for PhD admission, namely the CSIR/UGC NET exam, is just not discriminating enough and it is letting a lot of sub-standard students pass after attending coaching classes. This is not so in China where they are spending real money at the undergraduate level.

Without sounding unduly harsh, let me say that we lack the will, determination, and capacity for hard work to develop 100 excellent universities like the Chinese. Perhaps developing 20 good universities with funding at the Chinese levels is not beyond us given the present scenario and current realities in India. This would call for an outlay of Rs.2,000 crore a year. In about 10 years (and Rs.20,000 crore later), the benefits would become apparent.

The recently launched Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Kolkata and Pune are our tentative answers to this crisis. Starting just a few IISERs is sub-critical. The IITs were started with much fanfare 50 years ago. What have they really achieved, apart from donating a qualified workforce to the U.S.? The IITs have had no penetration into this vast country, and ever since the rise of the cram schools, even the quality of the IIT output is questionable. The IISERs will be no different.

The present situation in India has arisen because of many sins of commission and omission by our academics and scientists over the past 25 years. We have idled away our time, in part burdened by a Soviet mindset; in part because of crackpot ideas of indigenisation of equipment; in part because of our infatuation with populist measures; in part by handing over our science administration to the debris that was left in the country after the massive brain drain in the 1960s and 1970s; in part by giving undue emphasis to largely meaningless awards, fellowships, and prizes; and in part by saying and doing nothing even as the deterioration around us became all too obvious.

Attractive paradigm

In the meantime, an alternative and very attractive paradigm has taken root and is described neatly by Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Iyer in the Times of India (January 7, 2007). Mr. Iyer argues cogently that scientists such as C.N.R. Rao could be dead wrong when they say that Indian science and technology are in crisis. Indian science may be dead, according to Mr. Iyer, but Indian technology has never been doing better: Tata Motors, Infosys, Bharat Forge, Reliance Industries, Shanta Biotech, Tata Steels' acquisition of Corus, Biocon, Bajaj Auto, Hero Honda, contract R&D specially in the pharmaceutical and bioinformatics sectors.

Many of Mr. Iyer's arguments ring true and it is entirely possible that the Indian creative genius and our inherent capitalistic tendencies have found a solution wherein good technology can develop independent of any progress in science or lack thereof. Perhaps one is wrong when one says that the only way to good technology is through a sound science base. This was true in post-Second World War U.S. but it might not be true in the India of today.

Who is right, Professor Rao or Mr. Iyer? I do not know, but what I do know for sure is that remedial measures in our science and education sectors need to be taken incisively, swiftly, and almost ruthlessly. Our fatal attraction for incremental changes and consensual thinking has been our undoing. The country will not wait for its academics to get their act together. Instead of being path breakers and innovators, scientists are struggling to come to terms with the new India that has little patience with the idle, the poor, and the corrupt.

(The writer is a professor of chemistry at the University of Hyderabad. He is a Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World.)

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