Karela Fry

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Science: what the prime minister should know

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The prime minister does not write his own speech, but I’m sure that policy statements are not left to speech writers. That is why the prime minister’s speech on science is important. The Hindu is not the only news source to report a speech so packed with misconceptions that it requires comment:

In an address at a CSIR function got up to celebrate the 70th Foundation Day here, Dr. Singh said: “We cannot rest on our laurels. As a nation, we have not succeeded in mobilising enough private investment in science to raise our investment in scientific research to two per cent of GDP. We need to recognise that excellence has not percolated across all research and academic institutions. We have not been able to make an impact on a world-scale commensurate with our large scientific manpower pool.”

Let us take the points one by one.

Misconception 1: our large scientific manpower

The government persists in totaling up the people who pass a bachelor’s degree in science and call that our scientific manpower. This is completely wrong. After a bachelor’s degree in science people go on to do completely different things. My wife has taught a class of 60-80 each year for about 20 years now. Around fifty of these 1500 people are doing research or other creative jobs where they use their training in science. In most colleges around the country the fraction is much lower than this 3%. It might not be a mistake to assume that less than 0.1% of science graduates add to the country’s scientific manpower. Then, of course, one has to contend with the fact that almost all of these people prefer to work abroad. If you think I am mistaken, just check how difficult it is for the IISERs to find employable teachers. If you count as scientific manpower the number of people employed in doing creative science in various research institutes and labs around the country, the number will not exceed 1 lakh. That is less than 0.01% of the population.

If you count the number of people who work at technical support jobs in labs, hospitals, etc, the number would increase significantly. However, since the prime minister’s speech is about innovation, I restricted to count to creative science jobs only. I have probably missed some innovative science entrepreneurs, and creative scientists working in the industry, but their numbers will not change my count by more than a percent of the small total that I have estimated; in other words the number of creative scientists will not exceed 0.0101% of the population.

Misconception 2: commensurate impact on a world-scale

A good idea does not cost anything, but proving it does. Without a proof, a great idea remains a pipe dream and does not become science. The number of good science ideas produced in a society depends not only on the number of people actively doing creative science, but also on the number of people giving them good technical support. So the cost of good ideas is not only in the lab and the computer, but also spread over the whole apparatus of school and university teaching.

China’s largest universities are those which train teachers; they are called “normal universities”. India finds it difficult to hire teachers in prestigious institutes like the IISERs and the IITs (even if you count only the science departments in the latter). One publicly available measure of scientific impact is the number of citations each paper has. A possible measure of a country’s impact on science is to total the citations to each paper written in that country. By this measure, India’s impact is small but continuously rising. The impact of Chinese science has been much greater.

One possible line of investigation is to correlate impact with GDP and with actual spend on science. Commensurate impact will very likely turn out to be commensurate in terms of money spent. India’s spend on education and research is the worst in the BRIC countries.

Misconception 3: industrial investment in scientific research

It is a complete misconception that India has an innovative industry (apart from a few worthy exceptions). One measure of this is provided by an unsuccessful start up by the Tatas. The group seeded the Computational Research Laboratory Ltd with a computing power which took it into the world’s 50 biggest supercomputing installations in 2010. The idea was to sell computing time to other industries which needed such a facility for their own research. This venture has had zero growth.

With virtually no industrial basic research being done in the country, science is an unattractive career choice for most school children: the only jobs are government laboratories and universities. In Germany, Japan, even Finland, a Ph.D. increases income prospects. Not in India.

In this situation newspapers trumpet fool’s gold as “scientific achievements”: the test of a new missile, the building of a submarine, supercomputers which are never used, low-cost computers which never reach the field. Very good research is being done by dedicated scientists around the country: new materials, fantastic theoretical and computational work, innovative biology, insights into weather, etc. These are neglected by news channels, who prefer to copy science stories from New York Times.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

September 27, 2012 at 5:08 am

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