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Why India lacks scientific vigour?

Why India lacks scientific vigour? Why is it that India is lagging far behind the West and now the East, especially behind Japan, China and South Korea? In a country of more than 1.2 billion people, science graduates are more than half of the educated youth coming out the universities but the pattern has seen no change.

Indian students are still influenced by the erstwhile views of respect while scientific vigour requires questioning and independent thinking, says Gautam R. Desiraju,  a professor of chemistry in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who is also president of the International Union of Crystallography.

He cites two reasons for the inertia in the field of science research in India — the first, a feudal mindset and the second, an unquestioning acceptance.

In an article in Nature, he writes: “Our cultural value system, backed by Hindu scriptural authority, has created a strongly feudal mindset among Indians. Centuries of servitude, right up until 1947, have made the average Indian docile, obedient and sycophantic. ‘Behave yourself and be rewarded’, is the pragmatic mantra. I believe this feudal–colonial mentality has had far-reaching and debilitating consequences for research.

The first is our lack of the ability to question and dissent that is so essential to science. Most of the faculty in our better institutions have done post-doctoral work in a foreign laboratory of consequence. Unlike young scientists in advanced countries, however, newly returned Indian lecturers typically relive their golden moments as postdocs throughout their research careers. The best research papers from India may be competent, but they do not inspire or excite. Very few Indian scientists are known as opinion-makers, trend-setters or leaders. They follow obediently.

Another consequence of this feudal mindset is our unquestioning acceptance — bordering on subservience — to older people. In this part of the world, age is blindly equated with wisdom, and youth with immaturity. This facilitates the continuance of the status quo. Geriatric individuals with administrative and political clout reinforce their positions so well that we are unable to eject them. So we hail scientists in their eighties, film actors in their seventies and cricketers in their forties.”

Further, he questions corruption of different kind in scientific organisation across the country. “We will have come of age only when Indian universities are allowed to appoint their own vice-chancellors, and institutes and national laboratories their own directors, rather than suffer the choices made by conclaves of old men in New Delhi.”

On the procedure of academic appointments, he was emphatic to say that it was flawed. “For a start, selection committees consist mostly of outsiders, and representation from within is often restricted to institutional and departmentmental heads. In the smaller state universities, all sorts of irregularities occur in the name of caste-based reservations. In the more influential central institutions, appointments are often made incestuously, with students of a few senior researchers filling a disproportionately large number of vacancies, or with plain academic ‘inbreeding’. A good dose of regional parochialism completes the picture.”

Corruption also denotes that ” in a national laboratory it can mean acquiescing to the notion that one’s administrative head is also one’s scientific superior. By that logic, and given our civilian-based system of administration, the secretaries in the science ministries in Dehli should be our most creative scientists,” he questions wryly.

No wonder, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said early this year that India lags far behind China in terms of scientific achievements and he knows himself why this is more true now than before.

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