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An open letter to the Indian Scientist

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Summary

At the moment, we are bowing too deeply at the altar of western science, and thereby turning the pursuit of science into dogma.

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Dear Colleague,

With all the swift changes that we see around us today, it appears that India is at a tipping point. A revolution is underway in the Indian financial sector. But a revolution of this size and scale is not likely to be confined to its native domain; it is likely to spread to other areas… perhaps to Indian science, or yonder to Indian academics in general.

In this context, I wish to present a few reflections, as one Indian scientist to another. The current scenario in Indian science is such that, if you wish to survive and thrive, you can only do so by consenting to be part of Western coteries of science, and be willing to be in a sense subservient to their activity. You imbibe their ways of thought, you echo their views, you accept their unsubstantiated opinions, you repeat their utterances in slightly repainted jargon, you confirm their conclusions in a thousand ways, and, as if that’s not enough, you even entertain them in a wide variety of non-academic methods. Then you can have a life, your career rests securely on the bedrock of western modality.

But if you work in isolation, exploring new avenues, fumbling, groping along, taking great risks, trusting your intuition in search of something else (which is how a true scientist works, we learnt in our early years from the fairy tales of scientists’ lives), be prepared for your doom.

These philosophies, or strategies if you will, of scientific career-building, are reflected year after year in the manner we organise our international conferences and workshops. We invite a shining host of dignitaries from the West, beseech them to stand tall on the dais and pontificate; we invite the struggling, uninformed, purblind hordes of the locals, and order them to stay in the well and slurp in all the knowledge that they can, gratefully, in knelt positions.

Any number of Indian scientists, particularly those active today, would have had this ignoble experience. They turn out a piece of work which they are legitimately proud of. The manuscript is submitted, with hope and justified confidence, to a top journal like Nature or PNAS. It promptly gets rejected for some fragile reason. The descent then begins, like that of Ganga from her heavenly abode, in stages, to this lowly earth. The manuscript gets rejected, in stages, by lesser and lesser journals, until it gets published at a level that is way below the quality of the science that it proudly set out to proclaim.

The misery doesn’t end there. A few years later, a very similar work shows up, from the great Elsewhere, in a top journal and — the juiciest part — they don’t cite the Indian paper.

Therefore, a growing young scientist in India today tries to build her/his career completely by looking westward, by making sure at every step that her/his equation with these western Temples of Learning is just right. By corollary, we don’t look up to or look at — if not look down upon — the work of our Indian colleagues. We rarely follow the scientific work of other Indian colleagues, perhaps because such attention has no practical and material consequence. Thus, we constantly face what is popularly called a “double whammy.” As it is, the Western academics care two hoots about our work and, what’s more, we are also written off by our beloved compatriots.

These difficulties are seriously compounded by the current practices — necessary but increasingly becoming unhealthy — of reducing scientific quality to numbers. These days, when two Indian scientists meet, the most interesting questions asked are not “what are you working on these days?” or “what are the IDEAS with which you are preoccupied of late?” but “where have you published?” and “where are you going this summer?”

You don’t have to read papers anymore to judge science. Thanks to the whole Impact Factor revolution, the task of assessing the quality of scientific work, the depth of a scientific idea, can now be deftly handled by anyone who knows how to add up to the second decimal.

This kind of sidelining of science at a national level is experienced by other Asian nations too. But the way they cope with it seems to be quite different. The Japanese, with their strong sense of nationalism, will lose no opportunity to project the work of a fellow Japanese scientist, over a comparable piece of work from the West. Russians too are eager to substitute, or at least insert, the name of a deserving fellow Russian where a comparable piece from the West is discussed (e.g., not Hopf bifurcation but Andronov-Hopf bifurcation).

This slavish mindset seems to be entrenched among students also. If there is a new line of thought about a research topic that comes from one of us, pitted against something from the Establishment, they comfortably, unhesitatingly choose the Establishment. I had to spend hours in patient discussion with my own students to convince them that there are other, more interesting ways of looking at a problem, leading to more comprehensive solutions. My experience with an undergrad student was memorable: he would refuse to even consider my line of thinking about a topic simply because “this person from Yale and that other person from RIKEN doesn’t think so.”

It is supposed to be our duty and mandate to train the next-gen scientists to judge a piece of work as it is, without the aid of the irrelevant socio-academic tags (impact factors, etc.). They seem to begin their careers with a subconscious conviction that the Indian science is intrinsically inferior and salvation lies elsewhere. The Advaita Vedanta assertion, ‘Brahma satyam, jagan mithyaa [The Brahman alone is the Truth; mundane life is an illusion]’ seems to be echoed here as “Western science is true and glorious, the sole existent; and Indian science? Ah! It’s a myth”.

The somewhat dogmatic mindset has crept beyond the walls of our academic campuses also. How often do we see the local media covering the scientific work of an Indian colleague? I once saw a piece of work on computational neuroscience from a United States university reported in a local Chennai paper. It is a standard piece of work. Many of us in India have more interesting things to say. Why isn’t it talked about as much? I asked. I was told that the media doesn’t like to cover Indian science, as much as it does science from abroad, simply because the readers don’t like to read about it.

Why are we not proud of what we do — of what we are? Why are we often embarrassed (or even sorry) about our work? How come we don’t share and discuss the work we do here, in our country, in India, and talk about it with excitement, energy and self-confidence? Why don’t we lower, just for a moment, our gaze, which is constantly fixed upon the Western stars, and look here, look around, and be surprised by the fresh blossoms of science blooming everywhere?

There have been bright stars — the Boses and Ramans — among us all along, those who worked and shone in the darkest nights. But they are solitary heroes. They rose high over a ground that is barren, in a scientific community that was generally comatose.

But today, if Indian science — alongwith the Indian scientific community at large — is to grow and occupy its rightful place, it can only be done with the powerful propulsion that can come from a genuine spirit of nationalism. (Of course, not a crude, semi-blind nationalism that sacrifices Truth at the altar of Tradition.) That’s how any nation such as U.S., Japan, Germany that climbed to a high place in science has done it. All that it takes is an iota of self-respect, a tiny drop of conscience, a brief moment of self-reflection. If we but redefine ourselves, we may reclaim our rightful place in world Science.

Sincerely,

Yours truly

 

Prof V Srinivasa Chakravarthy is associated with Department of Biotechnology at IIT Madras.

This article appeared first in thREAD of The Hindu.

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This is most refreshing and I am happy to see that Prof Chakravarthy has called out not an elephant but the herd of elephants in the Indian scientific room.
I am not a scientist and recall (with a bit of a shudder) the lectures in school on a parade of scientists whose works, we were told, had given us the beneficial world which we blithely inhabited. Their names were Copernicus, da Vinci, Galileo, Kepler, Harvey, Boyle, Newton, Dalton, Davy, Faraday, Darwin, Mendel, Pasteur, Mendelev, Koch, Curie, Rutherford Fleming, Einstein and I'm sure I'm missing quite a few.
Left to a footnote in those times were the names Raman, the two Boses, Ramanujan, Saha. In the scientific firmament of the world described to us, through the authority of schoolteachers, and reinforced by the topical English language press of the day, the latter group of names seemed to be but dim flickers before a great sweep of western brilliance. This is a picture, a personal one, of some 42-43 years ago, a time when to speak to a relative on the telephone one booked a trunk call and if your family was well-off enough to buy a scooter, it was on a waiting list some seven months long.
As youngsters growing up in big city, whatever curiosity me and my friends had about this apparently lesser, Indian, set of names, was shunted aside by the cultural attractions being dangled before an India that was not yet 'liberalised' (but, we were promised, could be). Blue jeans and pop songs and Rambo became important. Some of my friends, for we were now in what was called junior college, had their families preparing them for SATs and GMATs and other activities which I scarcely understood, and the low level of curiosity we had now all but vanished.
In college, looking around at students who studied literature, classical art, philosophy and languages, I found them admiring Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and of course Tolstoi. Some argued about Nietzsche, Bacon, Descartes and Hobbes. Others pooh-poohed even this group, saying that Wittgenstein and Heidegger had all the answers. Still others haughtily informed all the rest that it was Habermas, Derrida, Levi-Strauss and Foucault who should be studied. Aspiring litterateurs pranced about, quoting George Eliot, G K Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, the Bronte sisters, W M Thackeray, J S Mill, Thomas Carlyle, Shelley, Keats, Browning, Tennyson, Dickens.
By the time we had completed a bachelor's course or its equivalent, the influence of the western philosophical, literary and scientific canons had pervaded yet another cohort of graduates, very very few of whom had the cultural grounding sufficient to identify and distinguish the truth and tradition that I think Prof Chakravarthy is talking about.
Many years later I became involved with Unesco's culture section, in a programme that has to do with what the western world usually calls traditional knowledge and what Unesco calls intangible cultural heritage. I found, over time and thanks to visits through this programme to several countries in Asia, including our neighbouring countries, that in none of these cultures and in none of their languages are there terms equivalent either to 'traditional knowledge' or to 'intangible cultural heritage' (which I was there to guide them about).
But the west had set a standard, signed on to by their governments (ours has done too), which describes how to identify a system of knowledge, and which (presumptuously) prescribes an epistemology to deal with those systems of knowledge. Over the last eight years, I have found hardly two or three people (from amongst several hundred I have met in various capacities) who have dared to question this imposition.
And so to return to this article, it is a rightful place even for endogenously describing and encouraging methods of appreciating, our streams of knowledge, sciences and cultural fabrics, that we must reclaim. Regards, Rahul Goswami