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Hidden figures of Indian science

It’s strange how India ignores some of its best intellectuals

Many of the greatest scientists that independent India has produced are little known, like hidden figures in their own homeland. Amal Kumar Raychaudhuri in cosmology, G.N. Ramachandran in protein crystal structures, and C.K. Majumdar and Dipan Ghosh who extended the quantum Heisenberg spin model. These are household names in the international scientific field, but are little promoted by the Indian scientific establishment, even neglected in graduate teaching.

Why the oversight?

This oversight reflects a serious problem for the sciences in India. India has numerous well-funded institutions designed to produce high-quality scientific research, but the resulting research is mostly mediocre. What is worse is that many Indian scientists agree that the relatively small amount of world-class research they produce emerges despite the national scientific establishment, and not because of it.

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The physicist Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, until recently director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, is critical about the flaws that he sees: “Our research institutes, despite having far greater resources, were full of clever people who were risk-averse and eased into safe, albeit good, research, but not the ground-breaking work of the earlier, colonial times. Local rewards not subject to global competition were low-hanging fruit — [these were] temptations too hard to ignore.” An Indian citizen who achieved his reputation in the U.S., Professor Bhattacharya was recruited to run TIFR because, as C.N.R. Rao, who until recently was head of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, said at the time, “There is really a crisis of leadership in the country… There is a need to get in some fresh blood.” However, the resistance to a U.S.-returned scientist who was from outside the corridors of power ensured that the system remained largely unchanged.

The system is run by scientists-turned-bureaucrats, who have absorbed the culture of government. Independent India’s project of building a national science establishment led to internal standards of judgment: the scientists in power certify each other’s work. Dependent on political patronage for continued funding, these leaders groom loyalists and yes-men rather than cutting-edge researchers (and women are scarce). In a culture where people tend to get perceived as “smart” or not, labels can stick for life: hard work yields no rewards unless one is already defined as smart. This has led to an insider culture, reproducing privileges rather than promoting excellence. It is the little-recognised lone rangers who usually produce the best work in such a system, and not the research groups that get the major share of resources.

In the Hollywood film Hidden Figures, we learn the true story of some mathematicians who made crucial contributions to NASA’s space satellite programme, but were ignored because they were female and black. That was in 1960s America, far more patriarchal and racially biased than today. On the other hand, the Indian scientists in question were usually upper-caste Hindu men who experienced no discrimination on account of their identity. But they were not insiders close to political power.

India’s scientific institutions have been a blind spot in the state’s modernisation project. They symbolise reason and are immune to criticism. Owing to a conscious decision at the time of independence, research institutions, which house a tiny elite, get most of the funding but universities get very little, says Shobhit Mahajan, a Delhi University physicist. Research and teaching are segregated, the result being that both suffer.

Roadblocks to innovation

For Indian scientists, success has meant becoming a bureaucrat, rather than advancing research. Somendra Bhattacharjee, a senior physicist at Bhubaneswar’s Institute of Physics, lists some of the consequences of this system. First, all the significant work produced in India is theoretical work. “At least in the theoretical sciences, money is not that much of a requirement,” he says. “If you have some contacts and can do things at the international level, nobody is going to go after you. That’s how many isolated works are getting done.”

Second, experimental science “is very poor in India”. To succeed, experiments require at least two conditions: guarantees of long-term funding and scientists’ collaboration with each other. Funding varies with the political climate: there will be money to buy equipment but no certainty that resources will flow for all the years needed to ensure significant results. And collaboration is a social process, not an intellectual one. It involves, among other things, physical labour together with others. But, Mr. Bhattacharjee says, “Working with hands is not encouraged among scientists. The words used in Indian labs are: one needs hands to do experiments, not brains.” Lab assistants are the hands, while scientists avoid what they regard as mere manual labour.

Third, far from creating a positive influence on society, Indian scientific institutions reflect the existing social make-up and even reinforce it. Bureaucrats no longer active in cutting-edge research regard themselves as capable of judging working scientists, dispensing with principles of peer review. And instead of creating a scientific esprit de corps and contributing to social debates, Indian scientists tend to shun public commentary, unless it is to serve as government spokespersons.

Thus claims recycling popular myths can be made by the Prime Minister or by participants at the Indian Science Congress — while leaders of the scientific establishment keep mum. Not long ago, a news release announced a high-level scientific panel headed by the Science and Technology Minister to study the therapeutic benefits of cow urine and cow dung, which ancient Indian science has long venerated. The members of the panel include a former director-general of the Council on Scientific and Industrial Research, R.A. Mashelkar, and an IIT-New Delhi director, V. Ramgopal Rao.

The existence of well-funded institutions that foster group-think, marginalise talent and generate little real innovation might not be news. But with globalisation, it is easier to notice the growing contrast between the fame diaspora scientists achieve in the West, and the challenges their counterparts face in their own countries. India’s problem is hardly unique. Durable institutions and cultures of innovation are not widespread in the Global South. But India is the most successful of all the nations in the Global South, with a more affluent diaspora than virtually any other country. Bringing to light the “hidden figures” in Indian science — without the help of a major motion picture this time — should lead to a wider discussion about the strange career of Indian science. Acknowledging internationally celebrated scientific accomplishments, and asking why they were ignored for so long, can start a useful discussion.

Arvind Rajagopal is professor of Media Studies at New York University

Updated: — 4:08 pm
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