Science with spirit

November 21, 1997

Scientists, in tune with the people, are using theirinfluence to move them towards a modernity that is all their own, writes Yash Pal

My working life started a couple of years after independence. I was a research student at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), set up in 1945 by Homi Bhabha in a part of his mother's house in Pedder Road in Bombay. Bhabha had promised to start a school of physics second to none in the world. In a few years' time, he said, when nuclear energy would be used for producing electrical power, India would not have to look abroad for experts.

This was at a time when India did not make or manufacture an amplifier or a radio, let alone a Geiger counter. In the India of 1947, pencils, fountain pens, sewing needles, bicycles, watches, even sticks of chalk, were all imported, mostly from the United Kingdom. For many of us young scientists, touched by the dream of independence, science was meant to liberate the country from such dependence. We were strongly influenced by Jawaharlal Nehru, whose rhetoric for freedom had always included the cultural and practical implications of science and technology.

Bhabha's promise was substantially met. The TIFR became the cradle of the much larger programme of the Atomic Energy Commission. Reactors and power plants were built. The technology was largely developed in India. Uranium was found and mined, processing technology developed, heavy water plants were set up, the metallurgy for cladding the fuel was mastered, control systems were designed and fabricated, plutonium was extracted, and a whole lot of associated technology generated from scratch (not even simple vacuum technology existed in 1947, nor any means of fabricating and testing large pressure vessels). Although the nuclear power programme, after initial successes, did not add as much capacity to the power grid as had been dreamed, this was not so much the fault of the technology or the scientists, as of non-availability of capital and, partly, of the changed geo-political climate.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Bhabha though, was that he never allowed the spirit of the TIFR, as a free-flying fundamental research institute, to be submerged under the much larger atomic energy programme which it had helped spawn. He proved that if excellent, motivated people were put together and given freedom and support, good things would slowly emerge. Even when these people spent half their day in the canteen, they would fertilise everyone's thinking. Some of my best memories are of exchanging news with different groups in the institute during long coffee breaks and lunch. This was the only research institute in India, maybe in the world, where there was a vacation period of 70 days a year and hardly anyone took it, except to go and work with colleagues elsewhere in India or abroad. We felt guilty that our poor country was supporting us in having so much fun. I genuinely felt that my institute was the best place in the world to work in - for science and also for engaging oneself in a number of issues and problems in the country at large.

But, personal bias apart, the TIFR was just one institute among many. Nearly 150 major laboratories have been set up in India since 1947, most of them by the state. Very few of any significance have been started in the private sector. Even public-sector industry has put few resources into design and development. There are now some 220 universities, besides 8,000 colleges - there were 23 and 700 before independence. These include some prestigious central and state universities, institutes of technology, medicine and agriculture. Nevertheless, in a country of 950 million, barely 4 per cent of young people in the age group 17 to 23 receive a college education.

Good educational institutions also contributed to the growth of science and technology, but nowhere near as fast, proportionately, as the growth in the number of teachers and students. The reason was the relatively poor funding of research in the universities. India was so involved in the setting up of national and regional research laboratories that university funding for research was considered a poor use of meagre resources. Most universities had barely enough money for teachers' salaries, electricity and other charges. I find it amazing that the universities have contributed a significant portion of the new scientific knowledge generated in India during the past few decades. I estimate that more than 12,000 PhD theses are written every year, of which about 40 per cent are in science and technology. Though many may be not be worth much, some do contain valuable insights and data. However, this value is seldom appreciated in the market place. Apart from in a few areas, the link between university research and industry has remained weak.

The time has now come to shift our emphasis towards universities. Education and research should co-exist. We need to break down the barriers between the universities and the national laboratories. A start has been made through the setting up of a number of inter-university centres. One is a collaboration with the department of atomic energy, another with the department of space, and yet another with the institute of advanced studies, in Shimla. More of this is required in many different areas. In some of the really challenging areas requiring a high level of understanding, India is in a very peculiar situation. Our theoretical work in metallurgy is considered excellent - but this has not been converted into competitive industrial production. We understand titanium technology, and have actually set up small plants for various titanium alloys - but we have failed to attract capital or support for exploiting this technology in order to set up a niche industry. We are generally considered good at designing catalysts, and have used them in our petroleum and chemical technology industries - but we have not milked our expertise to the extent we could have. Perhaps this area will soon bloom; already the growth in chemical technology has reached about 8 per cent. India has become one of the world's largest manufacturers of chemical fertiliser. And we seem to have developed expertise in designing more economic processes for the production of a large number of drugs and pharmaceuticals under a regime of patent law that recognises only process patents and not product patents.The result has been that many of the life-saving drugs produced in India are five to ten times cheaper than those produced in western countries.

In consumer goods, India makes most of the products people use. Until recently, with a large captive market, the quality and variety of consumer goods was stagnant. In the past five years, this situation has begun to improve, because of increased competition. Perhaps private and public-sector industry will now put more resources into design and development than before. However, in the short run, many industrialists will find it profitable to play the role of "screwdriver" specialists or commission agents for their foreign collaborators.

I have come to the conclusion that it is now feasible for the capabilities created in various cavities, corners and cubicles of this country to combine as a fertile mixture. It may seem difficult to imagine that in a country without safe drinking water for a large proportion of its people, where half the adults have never been to school, where household plumbing is non-existent or poor, where many regions are without electricity, where highways are grossly inadequate, vehicles belch clouds of noxious gases, rivers are becoming sewers, millions are jobless and hungry, its people should also show excellence in science and technology of a kind associated with advanced industrial economies.

But consider the evidence. India designs and builds first-class satellites for communication and remote sensing, and launches some of them so as to provide services to various developed countries and for organisations such as Intelsat. India designs and manufactures a large number of rural electronic exchanges, which have proved to be amazingly successful in tens of thousands of semi-rural and rural locations. After being denied a super-computer import licence by the United States, India went ahead and built at least three superior versions of parallel computers. India is building particle accelerators, highpower lasers, and experimental fusion devices, such as Tokamaks to study the quirks of hot plasma. India designs vaccines and puts them through extensive trials. India designs and manufactures heart valves and other biomedical equipment.And, on occasions, when strongly moved by sociological imperatives, India has mounted pioneering socio-technical programmes like the Site (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment), dubbed by Arthur C. Clarke as the greatest communication experiment in history. The world's largest meter-wave radio-telescope, based on a novel design by Govind Swarup and aimed at studying the epoch of galaxy formation, has just been commissioned. There have been striking developments in telecommunications at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, and elsewhere.

Looking at these and a large number of other accomplishments, alongside the sorry state of a lot of the country's technical infrastructure and consumer goods, it seems to me that India's capabilities are overestimated by those who cannot make a difference, and greatly underestimated by those who can. Perhaps we cannot overcome the stereotype of Indians as being only spiritual. Or is the answer simpler: we have not yet learned the art of applying the know-how we develop in one context to a different context. At any rate, we are much too dazzled by the displays of finished things in distant supermarkets.

Fortunately, the tradition of teaching and learning is very much alive in the fabric of society. Most things in India of which we are really proud, are generated by a subterranean system based on this tradition. Our artists and craftsmen, potters and weavers, fabric designers and jewellers,musicians and dancers, folk artists and myth makers, are all generated by this system. This is also true of our watch-makers, masons and diamond workers; as also our mechanics and carpenters. What we need is to develop an integral connection between all this learning which is local and intimate and the learning that is global and universal.

The past two and a half decades have seen the emergence of the so-called people's science movements which are beginning to improve the ambience of education and science. The initiative came from scientists who were interested in the popularisation of science. Some left their laboratories and universities to improve the fabric of the country and came away with a deeper understanding of its sociology, constraints and mores of learning. They also developed respect for the understanding, even the science, of those considered to be ignorant yokels. Science popularisers became social activists and often took up projects that would have overwhelmed any administration. Thousands of these people have been involved in research and the actual operation of programmes to improve literacy, health, the environment and science education. They have set up village libraries, organised science parliaments in villages, mobilised people to tackle their own problems in educating their children and caring for their land. They have brought out magazines, developed curricula and written books. Their interaction with teachers and children, and the involvement of these teachers and children with them, have been key components.

I may be wrong, but the most thoughtful among these activists strike me as being interested primarily in helping to evolve new processes in tune with the life and environment of the people. Materials and learning packages developed by them are taken just as exemplars, not binding recommendations. Slowly, but definitely, they have been exercising a growing influence on the establishment structures, including departments of education. Tens of thousands are passionately involved in creating a new India. I have learned a great deal from them and regard them, and others like them, as an assurance that India will overcome, that we will be able to move towards a modernity which will be our own.

Yash Pal is a national research professor and former chairman, University Grants Commission, Government of India.

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