Saturday, November 15, 2014

Shoestring budgets are here to stay for Indian research institutions

With the recent landing of Philae on the comet Rosetta, it is worth our while to go back to September 24 of this year, when the Indian Mars orbiter mission (MOM) successfully went where no other space mission has gone at the first attempt. The fact that the budget for the entire mission is less than the budget for the Sci-fi blockbuster Gravity is been touted as a proof of our ingenuity and thriftiness. It is indeed quite remarkable that Real Madrid FC transacted more money to sign Gareth Bale last year than ISRO allocated to the entire logistics and manpower of the Mars orbiter mission. And at the end of the day, this is how it is going to remain for the foreseeable future.

The reasons for the meagre allotment of the national GDP to institutional research can be clubbed into two separate categories: Practical and Emotional. The Indian economy at the moment gets it lion's share from the service and the IT sector, while manufacturing and agriculture have both tapered off their share in the recent years. Therefore, the two sectors that would typically demand innovation and greater scientific input are both minor contributors to the economic engine. Besides, a fair share of public and private investment is being diverted towards meeting the nation's infrastructure deficit, be it public toilets (Swacch Bharat Abhiyan) or the recent proposal to increase the average speed of India's crumbling railways. With only so much money to go around, India's research expenditure has suffered, and is currently at no more than 0.9% of the GDP

The emotional reasons are far more obvious to anybody interested in peering below the surface. Our society's priorities when it comes to education have swung diagonally in the last 20 years. More and more school kids are studying science in the 11th and 12th grade, but with the sole objective of attaining eligibility for engineering or medical entrance examinations. And this is due to no fault of their own. How many Indian parents encourage their kids to pursue a career in science? A very small fraction, and that too in the bigger cities. The vast underbelly of school kids are either not motivated enough to look upon science as a career option, or are hardly handed the tools to excel in one during their schooling.  The pittance to science education is even more clear when it comes to the elite undergraduate institutions like the IITs. Myself and numerous other IITians have chosen their campus or their department solely on the basis of its employability. Without a through introduction to career opportunities at the school level, you can hardly expect young 17 and 18 year olds to make a life-altering college choice without being swayed by the intelligent words of the cousin or the neighbor who-knows-somebody-who-graduated-from-an-IIT. Once there, the necessary exposure to scientific research is a formality for most students and faculty, coming during the final year through mandatory projects that amount to little in most cases. Even those who go on to pursue graduate studies are often looked upon with skepticism, or in some cases, with five troubling words-"Campus placement nahi hua kya?". We as a nation have been undervaluing our contribution to global scientific and technological advancements for a while now, and hence fail to anticipate the limitless opportunities that lie ahead in a more technologically challenging 21st century. 

There is some hope! For those who haven't being in the loop, the central government has established five Indian Institutes of Science Education & Research (IISERs) since 2006, with the sole objective of improving the quality of science education and increase the quality of research at an undergraduate level. Operating under the aegis of cutting edge research facilities, one could hope that with some increase in awareness, they will attract more applicants from the top pool of students passing the 12th grade. More recently, the attempts from the PM to highlight the achievements of ISRO has had a welcome effect, and honestly, we could do so much more to create interest and admiration for the Indian scientific community, which toils on under limited budgets and scarce public recognition, which adversely affects their morale. More importantly, we need to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the common man, who seem to inhabit two different islands in India. Historically, one feeds the other, as has been the case in countries like the US (the Apollo missions), Japan (consumer devices) an Europe (automobiles), and leads to a bette quality of life of the citizens. Here's one suggestion- Make short films that highlight the achievements of Indian scientists that are still active (there are quite a few), and broadcast them of national television and in schools. At the very least, this will educate the parents and inculcate a sense of national pride towards our scientific community. Here's another- Remove barriers to commercialization of a scientist's research, and give her/him full ownership pf the idea. This will foster competition and creativity, which are often ignored in the Indian diaspora. With this small foundation, one could then build towards a more holistic integration of science and society.

PS: Here's a fun video about sustainability, involving candy and the government. 

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