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Science investment: A little more can mean a lot more

January 15, 2014

Amongst the post-colonial countries after the Second World War, India stands out as one of those that have been continuously and significantly investing in science and technology, even through all its crises. This, despite the arguments given by nativists, utopians and dystopians that investing in science and technology is not only useless but also counter-productive. India seems to have recognized that science is a necessary component of all civilizations and a vital partner in sustainable and equitable development. While critical analysis of all science and technologies are always welcome and necessary, we should be careful not to lunge back into dogmatic positions, driven by ideologies and not by evidence.

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 There are huge differences of opinion about why countries such as India must invest substantially in science. With the country going through a financial crisis, the debate has intensified today.  (This article is edited from a recent lecture at the University of Hyderabad by Professor K VijayRaghavan).

 More recently, after being conferred the Bharat Ratna, Professor CNR Rao argued for more investment in Indian science. Professor Rao’s take was that it while appreciating that  the highest civilian award of the country was given to a scientist, but he wondered aloud about putting more the money where our mouth is… what about chipping in at least two percent of the GDP on science pursuit in a country of 1.2 billion people. The current level is just lower than 1% of GDP and our aim is to invest about 2% of GDP. Of late, we hear the interesting take that half of this 2% should come from industry, similar to the substantial investment by industry in developed economies.

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 At Hyderabad, I posed the same question: Why should India invest in science? Why should we invest in ‘esoteric’ subjects— pure mathematics, studying the stars and so forth, when so many ‘on-the-ground’ issues like poverty, health, food, etc., confronts us?

 Besides, do we not have enough science already? Most of the ‘deep problems’ that we face can be solved by good governance at levels ranging from the civic, the city, the state and country. These important problems are ‘downstream’ issues, far from basic or even new- applied-science. Available knowledge and technologies can solve, most of our problems without new investment in S&T. And, if good science is required can we not borrow it from the best places in the world?

 These arguments stem from a deep misunderstanding of what science is and of the role of inventions and novel technologies in a society.  Science, and technology too, is far more than the toolbox of instruments to be purchased and used for known tasks.

 As with the arts, humanities or music, science is a deep cultural need of all people. A society bereft of scientific thinking and scientific activity is poor. No matter how materially poor we are, we cannot afford to be intellectually poor by having large gaps in our culture. We could do without paintings or music, but we will be a very poor society if we do that. We can dispense with dance, and we can do away with the diversity we have in languages, traditions and cultures and have a uniform society. If we do any or all of these unthinkable things we will be a soulless society. In much the same way, if we do away with science we lose a part of our culture, the natural quest for learning and understanding.

 In Hyderabad, a very bright humanities student said, at the end of my talk, that while he saw my point, did I not think that science was a lot more expensive than, say music, to have just this ‘cultural’ justification for its support. True, a radio telescope or the Mars mission or studying the brain is a lot more expensive than encouraging Odissi or Bharata Natyam. We do need to calibrate and make sure that we cut our scientific coat according to our cloth.

 Technology is the other result of investment in science. In these applications of scientific discoveries, returns are huge and disproportional to investment in basic-science and in engineering-science. India’s space programme, once thought of as a luxury for a developing country has had tremendous economic and cultural consequences. Investing in understanding the immune system and its complexity results in vaccines and drugs. These, in turn, lead to lives saved, to better lives, the result of which is that we can have the time and health to pursue our interests. This results in new scientific frontiers being addressable. In the examples above, the technologies I mention are not ‘copied’ form elsewhere but require considerable inventiveness to apply them in affordable ways.

the elegance of the scientific method

allows us to understand the universe

much better: is this the only universe?

how did it come about?

how did life originate?

How does the brain work?

Opposition to science comes in various shapes and guises. Largely though, I would put them into three categories, Nativist, utopian and dystopian ideologies. The arguments in each case can be quite sophisticated and enamor many and most of us fall into these categories at one time or another.

 The nativist view harks back to a Satya- Yug, or a Garden of Eden when everything was fine with the world, when rivers carried honey and humans lived in fragrant, opulent forests. Nativists though choose particular moments in history as their ideal. ‘All was great in ancient India’ or in some other chosen period. There is little evidence for such idyllic times in the past, and if there were such times there’s not too much to be done about it: Unfortunately, time (at least for mere biologists) is unidirectional and will not turn back.

 Then, there is the utopian view: Let’s grow all that we need in our back garden, don’t commute to work, live in a commune where everybody is very interactive and very happy… nice world to imagine perhaps, but we have what we have—which is very grim in large parts– and we have to deal with it in a very real way. Such dreams can feed the rich in rich countries, but densely populated large countries don’t have the luxury of utopian solutions today.

The most bullish anti-science argument is the dystopian one: Science messes up everything. It makes bombs, causes blasts, pollutes the environment and so on and so we do not need science. Science, this view argues, is in cahoots with crass commercial calculations of the big market which is taking over our country and the planet, all governments act at their behest, and so forth.  Interestingly, the answer to this (wrong) diatribe is to ask for more science and more investment in science. This investment in science if well-connected with our people and our societies and our quests and needs, can be truly transformative. The dystopian views come from the valid concern that science can be distorting when driven solely by market forces. The poor connectivity of scientists and technologists to their societies exacerbates this concern. In trying to stem the advance of the market, the dystopian logic demands stringent and expensive regulatory hurdles. This is counter-productive, as only the big-players can jump through these hoops. If regulation were correct and appropriate, then publicly funded science and technologies can make a prominent presence, in India at least. This can dispel some of the valid concerns in the dystopian argument.

 Science has fundamental meaning for all societies. The scientific method is invaluable in every aspect of our lives. Its elegance allows us to understand nature and the universe. Is this the only universe we have, how did it come about, what is the meaning of the stars that we see, how did life originate?  How does the brain work? These are some of the questions that intrigue us humans who, naturally curious, search for answers. These answers result in technologies that change our directions and our planet. We realize much more today than ever before that these changes we make must be calibrated to meet our needs and yet sustain our planet. This is feasible through good policies: Science and not dogma and ideology, provides the evidence for these policies.

 There is a worldwide perception that in times of crisis, one must invest in doing something useful and at time of plenty one has the time to look at basic research. Interestingly, India has been an exception, as we have invested in basic science even during crisis.

two decades of continued investment

on rotavirus studies has given India

the cheapest vaccine against it,

creating for us a global economic

and diplomatic leadership edge

 

One example is how the government, its science agencies, in collaboration with the private sector in the country, international agencies and health organisations and scholars worked for two decades from science to translation and developed an inexpensive vaccine against the deadly rotavirus.

This very material outcome of continued investment in science through 20 years of financial, social and political crises of all manners will not just benefit India’s poor, but will help the poor across the world.

Hidden inside such successes is a larger issue. Can India combine science, technology and translation to scale? Can we innovate to do extraordinary science with meager resources? Can we design affordable solutions to our problems?

The rotavirus vaccine saga provides a partial answer. Was there was a ‘top-down’ planning to work on the indigenous rotavirus vaccine? Not really. The vaccine came about through passion, chance, grit… the details of which have been outlined elsewhere.

The Indian government, all through these years, had kept investing in that project. Scale, then, can come from opportunistic investment in people and their audacious goals. Yet, ‘top-down’ programmes can create an ambience that allows bright and well-trained minds to surface.

Similarly, India has invested in plant biology, genetics, breeding and in food technology. Though the debate has recently been focused on GM issues, the fact remains that without investing in agricultural technology, we cannot address the issues of poverty and food security

Diseases such as malaria, dengue, Japanese encephalitis, lymphatic filariasis, children under five years with stunted growth are a huge burden on India. Preventive and social medicine and a growing economy may address many of these issues well. But science and technology can be transformative here, all the way from the study of these problems revealing new biology as well as providing novel and effective solutions. If we do not delve into these issues, no one else will. And if we do, these and many other areas of study in our environment can provide new challenges in basic biology and well as applications. Studying scientific problems defined from our surroundings as well as the best problems identified anyone in the world can develop an excellent foundation of research in India.

When discussing investment, many ask, for all the money put into science so far, how many Nobel laureates have we created in the last 60 years?

The resources that each science investigator in our best institutions gets in India are quite high. The problem in India is not that we are poorly funding our researchers, but that we don’t fund a large number of researchers. Further, the pipeline that takes funds to our scientists operates in sputters and bursts. We thus need to make our systems hugely more efficient and to also expand the footprint of science. These are the major challenges to overcome if more money is to make an impact.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, science was an individual’s pursuit of passion, J C Bose, C V Raman and, Meghnad Saha are such examples from India. But now, science is a massive institutionalized structure in all large economies. We can no longer rely on random excellence in a huge enterprise, whose centre of mass is in the West and which has with a very large population of excellence.

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It is here that we fail in not having a larger and robust strength of scientists who could crowd the wall of excellence. Laurels will be a collateral consequence of having such a cohort. This necessitates more investment as well as a focus on investing this well. As the number of excellent scientists grows to the hundreds and thousands in a country the size of India, a significant number of them will surely be ranked amongst the best in their field globally

Our investment is science today is very modest. To lower this baseline through cuts in difficult times is tempting, but this will be cutting our feet below our knees at a time when there are demanding challenges ahead. This is the message we need to convey to those who control the purse strings, while we set our own house in better order to make dents on difficult problems. 

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3 Comments
  1. Sangita permalink

    Very appropriate for the current situation. The investment in science should be more where there is high impact both socially and economically

  2. Seema permalink

    Informative, imaginative, provocative, elegant and beautiful piece. In the New Year, bang on! Not just a worded piece, but spurring us on: to act. Thank you.

  3. Well said! There is a perception and complaint about investment in Science in this country – that returns are not commensurate with that of investment and that Science does not contribute significantly to improve the Economy. Such opinions are obviously articulated by those who neither understand Science nor Economics. History of Science has shown that Economy has to grow first to make large investments into Science which in turn will spiral Economy up and not the other way. China is a living example – it did no Science to improve it’s economy. “Chinese Science” was an oxymoron three-four decades ago. Its improved economy is driving its Science now in a big way and benefits to it’s economy by Science will show up in the coming decades.

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