Looking at Indian science from the inside

Thursday, 3 August 2006 - 9:10pm IST

The enlightened policy pursued since independence and followed by all governments has created a large pool of talented scientists.

Mayank Vahia

Like most things Indian today, Indian science is also on the threshold of an exciting future.

India has been fortunate to have had enlightened political and scientific leaders since independence. This has led to long years of healthy investment in indigenous scientific research and development.

This policy, pursued since independence and followed by all governments irrespective of their ideology, has created a large pool of very talented scientists in a variety of fields.
The emphasis on indigenisation of research and building infrastructure has permitted India to build monumental research facilities on par with those found anywhere in the world. 

High technology facilities like the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope, the INDUS 2 synchrotron facility are some of the most recent examples of this. These capabilities are most conspicuous in the fields of space sciences and nuclear power.

Future plans, such as the projects of pure scientific pursuit like ASTROSAT and more applied fields like fast breeder reactors optimised for Indian conditions are examples of how this investment in scientific research and development has infused a new sense of confidence amongst Indians.

These are just some of the most notable examples. A large body of high quality research is being done in the hundreds of research institutions in India.

India’s aggressive absorption of biotechnological frontiers and that it has become a world player in this field is a tribute to the correct nature of this policy.

Yet there are problems. Research does not happen in isolation. It depends on the calibre of the scientists and students and on the industrial infrastructure of the country.

However, at present, the ability of the industries to meet the demands of research instrumentation is limited, but this is also changing fast.

What is of immediate concern is the status of education and research in Indian universities. They are riddled with mediocrity and excessive bureaucratic stranglehold. Unwarranted political interference and endemic corruption in the system are other serious problems.

Major challenges and bottlenecks lie ahead to make a career in research attractive and exciting to the future generation.

Today, a student with the ability and desire to pursue a career in research has to assume that if they pursue PhD in a good institution, they will have no job security till the age of 28.

Moreover, with salaries of school teachers in richer schools exceeding those of very senior research scientists, the salary structure designed in the pre-liberalisation days need to be seriously

There is also a lack of appreciation of research as a career amongst the young. High quality infrastructure for research now exists in India. But this is not been conveyed to the students and their parents.

The decision makers involved in our science and technological growth are aware of these problems, and over the last few years, several new ideas and schemes have been implemented to take corrective measures.

Several research Institutions have stepped in to take up partial responsibility of post graduate teaching.

Specific research institutions dedicated to the study of problems of science education have been set up.

However, a lot more needs to be done to put India’s research capabilities on par with the technologically advanced nations. Such steps are all the more compelling today because industries and non creative jobs can offer far more financial rewards.

All these efforts put together hold the promise of a vibrant scientific culture in India in the coming years and decades, which is essential for India to emerge into the league of great nations. 

What we need is a concerted and social appreciation of scientists and careers in research. We need political will to pro-actively support research institutions. We need to provide students with better career options and security.

If these issues are addressed properly, there is no reason why, after the break of a few hundred years India cannot become a world leader in science.

The writer is a professor of Astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

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