Poor teaching bane of Indian science
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the largest annual congregation of scientists — the Indian Science Congress — that Indian science has been in decline over the last few years. Nature India spoke to a cross section of scientists and policy makers to find out what's wrong, how to reverse the trend and whether the science congress is achieving any purpose at all towards this end.
doi:10.1038/nindia.2012.1 Published online 13 January 2012
Poor science teaching, a bureaucratic research environment and a confused government mandate on the purpose of doing science seem to have relegated Indian science to a not-so-happy zone, according to science policy makers and senior scientists.
So much so that the country's Prime Minister pointed to the decline in Indian science over the last few years at one of the most important government-sponsored meet of peers — the 99th Indian Science Congress held in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. He also went ahead to compare scientific publishing in India vis-a-vis China to elucidate that his country needs some good catching up to do with the neighbour.
Policy makers are viewing this as an opportune call to 'shake up Indian science from its slumber'. The single most important contributor to the decline in Indian science, they say, is the poor quality of science teaching in schools and higher education centres.
More bricks less brains
"The contribution of India's scientific elite to national science and education building is close to zero," rues Rajesh Kochhar, Professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Mohali and former director of the National Institute of Science Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS), New Delhi. "We all want to publish in high-impact journals, attend international conferences and spend some time in Western institutions. Nobody wishes to write text books for Indian schools and colleges," he says.
Kochhar says the absence of world-class scientists in India is not as worrying as the absence of science teachers for children. "Once science is taught properly, support and pursuit of science will emerge automatically." Solutions involving the next generation should be thought out on the time scale of 15 years, and not till the end of the current fiscal year or the next general election, he points out.
Subhash Chandra Lakhotia, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Zoology of Banaras Hindu University says the quality of teaching and mentoring at all levels must come under immediate scrutiny.
"Most universities and colleges are grossly under-staffed and infrastructure-wise poor. Teaching is no longer a preferred job," he says. The yardsticks for promotions in universities and colleges, as recently approved by the University Grants Commission, rely heavily on research achievements and not teaching. "Consequently, everyone gets engaged in meaningless or even fictitious research", he adds.
However, Aditya Mittal, an Associate Professor in the School of Biological Sciences at IIT Delhi, questions the very basis of the 'decline'. "When was our position in world sciences high? Are we comparing ourselves with the times of Raman, Bose, Saha, Bhabha, Ramachandran — all in the pre-1970s era?"
Mittal says the top scientists of the country talk about the need for creation of supportive administrative procedures. "But the same scientists, when in bureaucratic positions, are unable to implement their ideas because of the stiffness of bureaucracy."
"Which was the last scientific idea that originated in India? How many such ideas have gone on to attract Indian scientists to work on it?" he asks.
On the very purpose of the Indian Science Congress, Kochhar says the meet, entirely funded by the government, brings together a huge number of practitioners every twelve months to present the results of not-so-great research. "If the Science Congress were held once in two or three years, it would save the Indian Prime Minister the embarrassment of repeating himself year after year," he says.
Indian science, he points out, was fairly competitive till the end of World War II, but then it sharply fell behind. In the early years when modern science was young, its infrastructural requirements were modest, they were available in India at the level of college labs. "As science became more and more a child of high technology, which India did not develop, India almost disappeared from the map of world science," he adds.
On the Prime Minister's repeated call for doubling of expenditure on R & D by 2017, he says the solution to a problem does not lie in enhancing expenditure, but in changing the mindset. "British science, for example, is better value for money, even if marginally, than the French or the German. So, there must be other factors at work," he contends.
First things first
Lakhotia says unfortunately, policy makers do not address the basic issues that afflict the education system. A few IISERs cannot replace the large number of existing teaching institutions, especially if these new/elite institutions continue to "export" their products abroad for research and training.
The misplaced emphasis on research without quality basic education in any discipline would result in more harm than good for the teaching institutions and for India's ambitions to make its mark on international S&T activities.
"There's an increasing emphasis on bricks rather than brains in building new universities and institutions," says agriculture scientist Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan pointing to the most important reason behind the decline. "The Homi Bhaba doctrine of building institutions around outstanding individuals has been given a go by. Exceptions however exist like TIFR, Indian Institute of Science, ISRO and DRDO," he says.
Swaminathan says the emphasis on scientific aptitude and capability of young scholars should be brought back. Also, the selection of heads of scientific institutions should be based on innovativeness, scientific creativity, social commitment and team forming quality.
According to Mamannamana Vijayan, a biophysicist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and a former president of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), the structure of Indian science itself is limiting its growth.
"The existing structure is inadequate to meet the requirements of modern internationally competitive scientific research. We need a vibrant, resilient and sensitive system which is less bureaucratic, less hierarchical, more autonomous and more participatory," he says.
Far end of the tunnel
Scientists and policy makers are unanimous that it will take quite a while to change the way India conducts science and becomes competitive. New initiatives taken by India — such as the creation of IISERs, new institutes of technology and a number of universities — have perhaps not gone waste, says Lingadahalli Sashidhara, biology professor at IISER Pune.
Sashidhara, who led the team that wrote the INSA vision report on Indian science in 2010, says India has quadrupled the number of research faculty in just 10 years. A transformation in the scenario will take time, he contends.
"Our faculty are giving intense competition (to global scientists) for grants and awards. The quality of projects coming to funding agencies is going up. Research papers from India in high-impact journals have become frequent, even if small in numbers. This is the beginning. Any transformation would take a couple of human generations (40-50 years)," he contends.