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Rise and decline of modern science in India

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JC Bose became the first Indian mainstream modern scientist in 1895 with the publication of his first experimental paper on mm-wave radio waves. I discuss 12 decades of Indian pursuit of science by identifying three sequential stages: nationalist phase(1895-1945); international phase (1945-(say) 1990); and the current global phase. The year 1945 is important because this is the year Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Bombay was established.

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Rise and decline of modern science in India

  1. 1. Talk given at Cal. Univ. Physics Centenary Celebrations 7 Jan. 2016 Rise and Decline of Modern Science in India Rajesh Kochhar Mathematics Department Panjab University Chandigarh Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali rkochhar2000@gmail.com
  2. 2. India was the first country outside the Western world to take to modern science, with Calcutta as the science centre. In the closing years of the 19th century, two UK-trained Presidency College Calcutta professors, the physicist JC Bose and chemist PC Ray, became the world’s first non-White modern mainstream scientists. A generation later, MN Saha at Calcutta University (in 1920) and SN Bose at Dacca University (in 1924) published epoch-making Nobel Prize-level theoretical work in physics.
  3. 3. Finally, CV Raman’s 1930 physics Nobel Prize became the first ever to go out of the Western world. It is noteworthy that Raman almost missed the Prize. Chronologically speaking, two Soviet physicists, Leonid Mandelstam (1879-1957) and Grigory Landsberg (1890-1957) observed what came to be known as Raman Effect a week before Raman did. However, because of bureaucracy, the discovery announcement was delayed. If these two researchers had been West European or North American rather than Soviet, their publication would have preceded Raman’s and the Prize gone to them.
  4. 4. In retrospect, it would perhaps have been better for Indian science if Raman had missed his Nobel. The freak individual honour has raised false hopes, blinded us to the inherent shortcomings of Indian science, and made a clear- headed analysis well nigh impossible.
  5. 5. • Normally an activity begins modestly, reaches the peak, stabilizes and then slowly declines. Modern science in India however began at the top and has had no place to go except downward. On the other hand, for China the present situation is an improvement over the past.  India’s expenditure on R&D remains a lowly 0.9%.  China is taking its science very seriously. Since 1999 it has been increasing its R&D spending by 20% every year so that in 2012 it stood at an impressive 2% of GDP.
  6. 6. World share India World share China World share USA Papers % Relative Citation Index Papers % Relative Citation Index Papers % Relative Citation Index 1996-2000 1.89 0.57 3.14 0.41 27.88 1.69 2008-2012 3.45 0.63 14.58 0.64 22.93 1.71
  7. 7. While India consistently ranks low in all merit-based international listings, it does have a dubious distinction to its credit. Recent years have seen an alarming growth in new, obscure open-access online journals (‘predatory’ journals) where there is no quality control. In a span of five years, 2010-2014, the number of papers published in these journals rose 800% to reach the figure of 420,000. Of these, the biggest chunk came from India which accounted for 34.7% of the output. In USA, for every 100 papers in reputed journals, only six were published in dubious journals. In sharp contrast, for every one good Indian paper, there were three in low-level journals.
  8. 8.  Permit me to narrate a personal anecdote which provides valuable insight into official Chinese thinking. In 2005, the Chinese Deputy Science Minister with his team visited us at NISTADS ( National Inst of Sci. Tech & Development Studies, New Delhi). A short time previously, Business Standard had published a long article arguing that just as China had become the world hub for manufacture, India should become the hub for services.
  9. 9. • I wrote a short letter ( Business Standard, 5-Oct-2005) saying that the prescription is wrong. China has become the hub for low-skill manufacture; India should become high-skill manufacturing hub. I gave a copy of this letter to the Chinese Minister who took my permission to keep it. Then he made a very significant statement in English:
  10. 10. ‘We know we cannot compete with the West on today’s technologies. We are therefore making money from yesterday’s technologies and investing it in the technologies of tomorrow.’ • In contrast to China, India has wrongly viewed science as an intellectual activity rather than as an economic tool. • It is pertinent to recall that many celebrated British scientific names whom we know from text books ( Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle) all worked to advance the cause of East India Company.
  11. 11. It will be instructive to look at the past 12 decades of Indian science with a view to understanding • how we have ended where we are and • where we go from here.
  12. 12. INDIAN PURSUIT OF SCIENCE can be discussed in terms of three sequential phases:  (i) Nationalist Phase (1895);  (ii) International Phase(1945); and  (iii) Globalization Phase (c. 1990). - The first phase can be assigned a precise beginning, 1895, when Bose’s first paper on radio physics appeared. - The second phase can nominally be taken to begin with the 1945 setting up of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bangalore/Bombay , by Homi Bhabha. - The third phase, now on, began with the onset of globalization.
  13. 13. • As we move down the phases, there is a general decline in the quality of Indian science and in its impact on the world. • I would argue that there is a striking correlation between these three phases and the stages in the diminishing role perceived by the middle class for itself in the national scheme of things.
  14. 14. NATIONALIST PHASE: PRE-HISTORY • Nationalist phase has a very instructive pre-history. Although Dr Mahendralal Sircar failed to initiate scientific research under Indian auspices at his Indian Association for Cultivation of Science (estd 1876), he succeeded in achieving two things. • Sircar’s campaign compelled the colonial administration to induct science into its education system.
  15. 15. • It introduced science culture in Bengal. Thanks to Science Association, career in science became an attractive option for Bengalis. Of all Gilchrist scholars sent by the Government to London and Edinburgh for higher studies, only the Bengalis opted for science : Aghornath Chattopadhyay (1871), Pramatha Nath Bose (1874), and Prafulla Chandra Ray (1882).
  16. 16. Generally speaking, the British were not interested in creating laboratory or research facilities in India. A small exception however had to be made in the case of chemistry for reasons of administration and good governance. Alexander Pedler was appointed Professor of Chemistry in Presidency College in 1874. ‘Under instruction from the Government’, he ‘came with a considerable supply of chemical apparatus’ and started practical classes in 1875.
  17. 17. • If today India has very successful chemical and pharmaceutical industries, the roots go back to Pedler. Pedler can truly be called founder of modern chemistry education in India. - • Accounts of early institutional history of IACS have been coloured by the circumstance that 25 years after its establishment, it became Raman’s workplace. • The following points from the pre- and early history of IACS are important for understanding later developments.
  18. 18. • For his own reasons, Lieut.-Gov. of Bengal Richard Temple was keen to set up polytechnics in Bengal, but support from the Indians was not forthcoming. The upper- caste dominated leadership did not want a nation of mechanics (why not?); it rejected science application in favour of the more glamorous science speculation.
  19. 19. • Hindu Vidyalaya was set up in 1817 as a private body, but chose to become government-aided in 1823. In contrast, IACS began in 1876 as a government-aided institution but opted to become private in 1881. • If Sircar had accepted the status of a government-aided science college and focused on the laboratory rather than the lecture theatre, modern scientific research might have taken roots in India in the 1880s itself.
  20. 20. • Sircar himself could easily have become a discoverer. But he preferred to be a high-profile demonstrator. The high point of Sircar’s social life was an invitation from the Viceroy to display the spectacle of the newly invented Crookes tube . It was a toy for India but a research tool in Europe. It was later used by JJ Thomson in England to discover the electron. In 1897 Father Lafont assisted by a Tagore boy (Maharaja Jotindro Mohan Tagore’s son Pradyot Kumar) took the X-ray image of the Viceroy Lord Elgin’s s hand decorated with a ring and won a photography prize for the effort .
  21. 21. • Sircar bitterly complained about the failure of the native community to shell out enough funds for instituting professorships. May be in the first flush of excitement he spent the collected money on buildings hoping that the inflow would continue. His hopes were badly belied. The upper classes were ready to financially support Sircar in his pursuits because he was one of them. But they were not ready to give money for creating employment for others.
  22. 22. • The Indian wealthy owed nothing to science; there was no reason for them to support science. • Eventually it was left for the colonial establishment to provide a forum for scientific research by Indians.
  23. 23. NATIONALIST PHASE • Although creativity-wise, Bose’s personal research ranked higher than Ray’s, the over-all impact and long-time influence of Ray was far greater. • Bose carried out his experimental studies on the optical properties of mm-length radio waves in his personal lab, did not train any students or assistants and gave this research up altogether in 1900 or 1901. He chose to devote the rest of his life to a study of the living and the non-living which work at the time was considered to be pseudo-science.
  24. 24. • Bose could have made millions from royalty on his radio work, but he did not. • If he had done so, India would have learnt to appreciate science as a producer of wealth and physics-based industries would have been started. • As it turned out, industrial physics never ever took roots in India.
  25. 25. • Tagore wrote to Bose (who was then in Europe) on 4 June 1901: “I bow my heart at the feet of the God who has chosen you as the instrument of removal of India’s shame”. Those indeed were the days when God operated through the West. Even 100 years later, our aim still is to get a pat on the back from the West
  26. 26. • In 1901 itself Tagore wrote a poem in Bengali, titled To Jagadishchandra Bose, which dramatically opened with the lines: “Young image of what old Rishi of Ind/Art thou, O Arya savant, Jagadis? • Pre-independence India chose to Brahminize science, just as after independence we have Kshatriya-ized it. Artisanisation of science, which gave Europe its power, never took off in India
  27. 27. • In contrast to Bose’s personal lab, Ray carried out his chemical researches in the College lab, and set up a flourishing school as well as industry. • While the driving force in Calcutta was nationalism, it needs to be appreciated that Dacca University emerged as a strong training centre under a British chemist Edwin Roy Watson (1880-1926) who remained there from 1906 till 1921 excluding the war years when he returned home for war-oriented research.
  28. 28.  The spectacular achievements of the Nationalist Phase were made possible by a fortuitous combination of circumstances. (i) Modern science was young then. It was just a short step ahead of, or rather a continuation of, M. Sc.- level studies. -Thus Raman could publish research papers in international journals while still a student and establish his credentials as a world-class experimentalist working part-time. - There was hardly any difference between a classroom textbook and a research journal. -
  29. 29. • Saha and Satyen Bose as young lecturers produced the first ever English translation of Einstein for use as course material. • Saha and before him Jagadis Bose could identify research problems by reading popular accounts. (ii) Another very important feature of this phase was that the caliber of teachers was exceptionally high. Teaching was the best career option after the civil service.
  30. 30. - Surendra Nath Banerjee after being unfairly dismissed from ICS became a college professor (He taught P.C. Ray English literature). - Since Saha could not enter civil services because of his pronounced nationalist leanings, he became a university lecturer. Raman left a cushy civil job to become a professor. (iii) As J.C. Bose noted, in his time the Presidency College Calcutta was among the best equipped anywhere in the world. The infrastructural and technological requirements of experimental research were very modest and easily available at the level of college teaching.
  31. 31. J. Bose set up his radio lab with the help of atraditional tinsmith. Ray had a B.Sc. - failed assistant, Jitendra Nath Rakshit, who “Out of a few bits of rejected glass - tubing” “could improvise an apparatus, which hitherto could be had from a firm in England or Germany after months of anxious waiting”.
  32. 32. • Raman used to boast that his equipment cost only 200 rupees. Raman missed the point completely. What is important is not the cost, but the fact that at the time world-class research could be carried out in a college practical lab. (iv) The take-off stage of modern physics coincided with the enhanced sense of Indian nationalism. Making scientific discoveries requires a certain amount of defiance. The suppressed semi-articulated resentment against the colonial rulers provided that defiance.
  33. 33. - Paradoxically, while Indian achievements in science were perceived as part of the nationalist movement, at the same time honours bestowed by the colonial rulers were coveted and even flaunted. • In the early days when India was new to modern science, it was natural that recognition be sought from the West. A very serious shortcoming of Indian science has been and still is that it never became self-assessing. Scientists have continued looking toward the West for guidance, encouragement, support and recognition.
  34. 34. • In the pre-Gandhian years, the nationalist movement was strictly a middle class affair, with the leadership still making appeals to the Empire’s sense of noblesse oblige. • In this scheme science and public affairs reinforced each other. Things changed with the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi on the scene. • Leadership remained in the hands of the middle class but its constituency became more broad-based.
  35. 35. • As a strategy, Mahatma Gandhi put the West on the defensive on ethical grounds. Since modern science was largely seen as a part of the Western civilizational baggage, it went out of focus during years of Gandhi’s ascendancy. • Science returned centre stage with the emergence of Jawaharlal Nehru as the undisputed leader of independent India.
  36. 36. Second World War and Independence • At the time of the Second World War (1939-1945) there were two mutually exclusive streams in Indian science: routine science under the government, and nationalism-inspired research activity by the Indians in the universities. • The twain met during the war.
  37. 37. The government needed the help of Indian academics in its war effort. And it was a foregone conclusion that the British would leave India after the war. Indians were already in important positions in government. Though still working under British auspices, they sought to dovetail their country’s post-independence interests into the British exigencies of war’.
  38. 38. CSIR • Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was set up on 12 March 1942.( There is no reason for CSIR to celebrate its foundation day on 26 Sep.) Its scientific head was Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar who had been brought two years previously from Punjab University Lahore into the government as Director Scientific and Industrial Research.
  39. 39. Two years later, in 1944, CSIR sanctioned the establishment of five research laboratories the foundation stones of which were laid between December 1945 and April 1947 and which were opened between January and November 1950.
  40. 40. • In the enthusiasm for science, too many labs were opened in too short a time. Since there was no felt need for them and they were being opened for the sake of opening, extraneous arguments were proffered and accepted for their establishment and location. • National Chemical Lab was located in Poona to be near Bombay which was already a major hub for chemical industry. ( It was funded by the House of Tata which even wanted it to carry their name.)
  41. 41. • In contrast, there was however no obvious venue for the Physical Lab. It was decided to locate it in Delhi rather than Calcutta on the irrelevant ground that this would enable the laboratory ‘to keep in touch with the government’. • Central Electronics Engineering Research Institute was opened in Pilani on the personal request of Ghanshyam Das Birla (1894-1983 ) whose birth place it was.
  42. 42. • Central Electro Chemical Research Institute was set up at Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu because a wealthy local landowner (Alagappa Chettiar) offered 300 acres of land and 15 lakh rupees provided it was located there. The 1957 chemistry Nobel laureate, Alexander Robertus Todd, who attended the inauguration, has recorded that For the distinguished guests assembled for the opening ceremony, Chettiar hosted a lunch where ‘plates and goblets used were silver or gold’.
  43. 43. • The research carried out by Indians in the universities was basic in nature. Sudden creation of national labs without creating a pool of trained personnel beforehand robbed the universities of talent. It also blurred the distinction between applied and basic research. • Without linkage to economy, a laboratory would merely be an office. Government science in general is likely to be more government than science.
  44. 44. • The first Indian research Institute ( as distinct from colonial government establishments and the personal Bose Institute Calcutta) was Tata Institute of Fundamental Research set up in Bangalore in 1945 and shifted to Bombay before the year end. It was the result of Homi Bhabha’s initiative whose father’s sister was married to Sir Dorab Tata.
  45. 45.  Apart from TIFR two more laboratories were opened: Physical Research Laboratory Ahmedabad (1947) and Bangalore-based ‘Research Institute of the Indian Academy of Sciences, directed by Sir C.V. Raman’ (1948).  CSIR supported all three. Though legally private entities TIFR, PRL and (post-Raman) RRI became for all purposes national facilities, funded by various departments: DAE, DoS, DST.
  46. 46. • Nehru had a soft corner for persons with an aristocratic background. He thus was more comfortable with a Bhabha than with a Saha. • On his return to India from Cambridge in 1939, Bhabha held temporary appointments in the Tata-owned Indian Institute of Science Bangalore.
  47. 47. • Bhabha turned down offers of regular appointment from Allahabad University as well as Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science Calcutta, because he was ‘only interested in research and not in teaching’, which to him constituted ‘routine duties’. • And yet, before leaving for India, Bhabha had applied for a Reader’s position at Liverpool, but was not selected. Bhabha was willing to teach in England, but not in India.
  48. 48.  He was a beneficiary of the British University system and was ready to become part of it. But he would not extend a similar courtesy to an Indian University. • As TIFR director, Bhabha could comfortably deal with people whom he had inducted into his own social club. • It would be tempting to speculate on the impact an aristocratic Bhabha would have made on the rank and file of Indian students in a classroom and vice versa.
  49. 49. • Incidentally, we have it on the testimony of a leading nuclear scientist of the time, Otto Robert Frisch (1904-1979), that at the time of his return to India in 1939 Bhabha did not know how to use a Geiger counter, the most elementary gadget in experimental nuclear science. • He however knew the significance of the new emerging field. • Early 1946, CSIR set up an advisory Atomic Research Committee under the chairmanship of Bhabha, which eventually led to the formation of Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).
  50. 50. • Bhabha is important on two distinct fronts. • He initiated India’s foreign-policy related big science, and he changed the social setting of fundamental research. • Bhabha headed both TIFR and AEC which thus enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. And yet, they were guided by different philosophies.
  51. 51. • While the atomic establishment was to be self-contained with its own rigorous manpower training programme, TIFR was to be integrated socially and intellectually with the West. • It is as if the Trombay Bhabha was distinct from the Colaba Bhabha
  52. 52.  Bhabha insisted at least with the TIFR senior faculty that they come in a tie. Those without it were expected to avoid high visibility.  Two separate canteens, aptly designated the west canteen and the east canteen, were constructed for the upper crust and the lower crust respectively. The European cuisine of the west canteen immediately became the talk of the town.  In Bhabha’s time chapati and rice were banned from the west canteen. In a minor concession after Bhabha’s death, rice has been permitted, but chapati still remains forbidden.
  53. 53. • At the professional level, TIFR had some very constructive features. • Bhabha believed in identifying persons and building institutions around them. • In contrast, CSIR first built buildings and then scrambled to fill the posts. • At least in the early years, TIFR offered higher salaries than elsewhere in India.
  54. 54. • Bhabha’s greatest asset however was that he lay outside the caste hierarchy and beyond regional or linguistic parochialism. • He could thus build a truly Indian institution. • Contrast this with the situation in the sisterly Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, where ‘early in 1943, there was a serious agitation by students against the construction of a common dining hall, since they preferred the already existing four different messes which were run almost on a regional basis.’
  55. 55. Mentoring • An important difference between the university system and the lab/institute system needs to be mentioned. In the pre-career advancement era, once a person became professor, there was no professional peak left to be scaled. A professor could happily take up the role of mentoring students and junior colleagues.
  56. 56. • In the lab/institute system, a scientist has always a higher pay scale to aspire for. He may thus be more interested in strengthening his own cv rather than that of his junior colleagues.
  57. 57. INTERNATIONAL PHASE • During this phase, at least in the earlier part, nation building was a recurrent theme. Attempts at industrialization, reverse engineering, irrigation dams, agricultural production, strategic science, health-care and desire for expansion of science and engineering all placed science (including technology and engineering) in a pivotal place. • This rubbed onto basic scientific research also.
  58. 58.  Generally speaking, research in the International Phase was of lesser quality than in the Nationalist Phase.  This is understandable because in the interim science had developed faster than India had.  Indian science depended on foreign collaboration and visits; and had an eye on the man-power needs of post-war West.  Yet, it fitted in with the national desire to harness science for economic development and as an instrument of national prestige.
  59. 59. • Although political power now vested in elected representatives, the distance between them and the middle class was still small. • The distance has since increased to such an extent that middle class has largely lost whatever sense of national obligation it had cherished earlier.
  60. 60. GLOBALIZATION PHASE  Globalization has transformed Indian economy as well as the Indian middle class. Acting short-sightedly, India has neglected agriculture and manufacture and focused on service sector.  Since the service sector is manifestly science-less, the value of science in education and daily life has declined.
  61. 61. • Thus paradoxically while our dependence and fascination for new technology has gone up, respect for science itself has gone down. If the economy of a country becomes derivative, so will its culture. • Globalization has introduced Upper Class India to a consumerist lifestyle that is beyond the intrinsic strength of Indian economy. This lifestyle can only be maintained by servicing the Western economy. Upper-class children therefore will generally be not interested in a career in science, at least in India.
  62. 62. • Our state education system should rigorously train boys and girls coming from socially disadvantaged sections, for whom a science-related career in universities, defence, national labs, public sector undertakings, etc., would be a social step upward and would therefore be enthusiastically accepted.
  63. 63. • Personally, I would like to judge a country not by the quality of its researchers but by the quality of its teachers. • As things stand, a typical Indian B.Sc. does not know enough science to be able to teach it at school .
  64. 64. • Science cannot flourish in a society whose economy does not require science. The purpose of science is to produce wealth and improve quality of life. The purpose of this wealth is to support science. • This symbiotic relationship needs to be established because a country cannot sustain science as a purely cultural activity for an extended period of time.
  65. 65. • If science is to survive, leave aside flourish, in India, it must play a leading role in GDP. • At the same time, fruits of rigorous state education should be made available to those whose parents did not enjoy these fruits.
  66. 66. Science belongs to its harnessers not its worshippers.
  67. 67. Thank you

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