Quantum Leap

This National Science Day, what India can do to stop being an embarrassment

Quality of education and research needs a big boost in institutions outside the so-called elite centres like IITs.

 |  Quantum Leap  |  3-minute read |   27-02-2018
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We will be celebrating National Science Day tomorrow (February 28). Unlike other "days" which are observed because they mark the birthday of someone or an important event in the past, science day is the celebration of a discovery.

It was on February 28, 1928, that Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman made the details of his seminal discovery about the scattering of light, which came to be known as the Raman Effect and won him the Nobel Prize in physics two years hence.

Over the years, however, the science day has been reduced to an annual ritual, a day when platitudes are echoed and Raman’s portraits are garlanded. There is little serious discourse about science, its role in society and more importantly, problems scientists and young researchers face. It’s time we move from tokenism to introspection.

India’s performance in science and technology has been impressive, with early investments in developing a robust infrastructure both for research and teaching, and a second round of institution building in the past fifteen years or so.

Some of these initiatives, like establishing a chain of Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, incentivising research in universities and expanding research institutes in the life sciences area, have shown good results in a short time.

India is also participating in mega science projects like the Large Hadron Collider and gravitational wave observatories under LIGO. With this, India is firmly positioned as a major player with the necessary capacity and skills in some of the most cutting-edge areas of science and technology.

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However, India is lagging when it comes to investments in science proportionate to its GDP or number of researchers per million of population. On these indicators, we fare poorly when compared with developed economies and even those in the BRICS grouping of fastest growing economies.

R&D spending of 0.69 per cent of the GDP is not such a great figure for a nation that aspires to be counted among the top five scientific nations by 2020. In contrast, China spends 2.05 per cent of its GDP on R&D, Brazil 1.24 per cent and Russia 1.19 per cent.

The exodus of talent to the West is a problem that has plagued scientific research for a long time. Now, the government has launched a new fellowship scheme to retain young researchers to pursue doctoral and research studies. All such schemes are temporary.

We need to develop an ecosystem that attracts and retains talent in different branches of science and engineering. For this, quality of education and research culture needs a boost in universities and institutions outside the so-called elite centres like IITs.

In the 1960s, IIT Kanpur was established with help from a consortium of American institutions led by MIT. At the end of the ten-year project, the review panel of MIT commented that “we wanted to create an Indian MIT not an MIT in India.” The statement is relevant even today.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Writer

Dinesh C Sharma Dinesh C Sharma @dineshcsharma

Journalist, columnist and author based in New Delhi.

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