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The Development Agenda and the Progress of Science and Technology in India

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Summary

The massive dissatisfaction over development outcomes will eventually force us to adopt at least some part of the development agenda. It is better that we do this on our own terms and preserve our autonomy and our notion of rigour.

Full Article

Institutions such as IISc, IITs or IISERs are some of the most eminent institutions in India and are currently headed by very eminent and distinguished academicians, scientists and able administrators. The conduct of Science and Technology (S&T) in the country is directly and indirectly influenced by the conduct, the methods, the topics of research and the notions of rigour and soundness that these institutions practice[1,2].

 

The shadow under the lamp

Yet all is not well in Indian S&T.  The JEE, GATE and other competitive exams now define the teaching of Science at the school level and the meaning of engineering in this country. However, the students selected by such a process have undergone extensive and expensive coaching and have little interest in working in core sectors with Indian companies or agencies. This has seriously hampered our research and the fulfillment of our mandate. Sadly, we have conducted very little research on these exams, their curricula and their formats, the demographics and their overall impact on society.

 

We also see a dropping quality of PhD applicants, a narrow focus on academic research with little relevance, an over-supply of post-graduates and few openings other than in academics. We also see the newly started IITs and IISERs groping for definition and fighting for the same pool of central funding. The so-called placement problem is acute for these new institutions, esp. the IISERs where there are few pathways for gainful employment for students who do not want to pursue a Ph.D. In fact, the defining feature of Indian elite S&T is the absorption of a small fraction of our graduates into global science or the global economy. The harm done by this is evident across all sectors of the Indian economy [3].

 

Then, there is a great disconnect between the state universities and the centrally funded institutions. This has a serious bearing on our post-graduate programs and on the general employability of the college graduate. Moreover, our inability or unwillingness to find regional institutions as partners has severely limited our ability to undertake research in many key areas, e.g., groundwater or sustainable technologies for small enterprises.

 

The development deficit and its connect with S&T

On the other hand, we also have the development agenda of sadak, bijli, paani, and other material needs of a young and impatient population. We see age-old practices of delivery based on outdated knowledge and a governance which is failing. We also have small, household and rural enterprises, who are our largest employers, struggling in the market place.

 

An important cause is the absence of the above agenda in our curricula, our research agenda and our modes of engagement. We have not recognized these sectors as essentially engineering and scientific services, but which require an inter-disciplinary and field-oriented methodology within a regional context.  We have also failed to formalize these sectors so as to bring out the key processes and problems, ways of measurements, agents and their protocols, in other words, opening them up for analysis and ultimately improving outcomes. If we had done this, perhaps today we would have the necessary empirics to have innovated on new gadgets and processes, and created new job definitions and professions, which bring efficiency and deliver value and actually pay for themselves. Examples of such positions are District Drinking Water Analyst, or District Public Transport Manager, or Cooking Energy Auditor, the City Economist, or even the Scientific Advisor to the District Collector!

 

I must add that engagement with the development agenda has always been part of the research and training within universities in the West. It was only in 1958 that MIT dismantled the Department of Sanitation Engineering. Or see, for example, the Transportation Center at the University of Toronto or the inter-disciplinary Twente Water Center. Today, various top universities are redefining engineering education, e.g., “Engineering+X” at University of Southern California, Development Engineering at UC Berkeley or the Tata Center at MIT. There is a new focus on engagement, i.e., identifying key stakeholders and establishing direct dialogue with them. Even in colonial times, the Thomson Institute (now IIT Rourkee) was to supply knowledge and engagement to what the colonial administration perceived as its development agenda. It is after independence that we have (i) failed to incorporate the study of basic engineering needs of the common people, and (ii) failed to remain engaged with the state’s programs and processes.

 

A Proposal

My proposal is to initiate the formalization of the development agenda and reclaim it as an area of interest for our broader science and technology establishment. It is to assert that these areas are indeed amenable to scientific rigour, soundness and rational argument in broader society.

 

This is to be achieved by our network of centrally funded institutions adopting certain key measures. Perhaps, we can begin with the IITs, IISc and the IISERs. The key steps are:

 

(i) Each department is to identify 2-3 development sectors for deeper engagement and study. For example, Civil Engg. at IIT Bombay may choose Low-Cost Housing, Mechanical Engg. at IIT Mandi may choose pedestrian bridges for the hills and Chemistry at IISER-Pune may choose regional water quality assessment and analysis.

 

(ii) In these areas, the departments will develop expertise through field-work, inter-disciplinary training, student-based projects and case-studies and engagement with local and regional agencies. This will be supported by laboratories and testing facilities, technical and coordination staff and faculty leadership. This should eventually lead to key reports and publications which contribute to better practices in the sector.

 

(iii) Upon maturing, these development sectors should lead to elective courses and course material. These should be extended to regional colleges. This will enable them to participate and contribute into this broader and more effective Science and Technology. [4]

 

(iv) The collection of institutions will together evolve common frameworks for coordination, liaison and accounting, leadership, academic and institutional mechanisms of working in inter-disciplinary areas. They will also evolve a common reporting framework such as a new journal or a dedicated stream in Current Science providing an outlet for both national institutions and regional colleges to report progress.

 

We may also design a common funding scheme, say from DST, faculty incentives and possibly chair positions to give prestige to the program. A more detailed proposal is available herewith [5].

 

And its possible impact

In my opinion, such a program will be widely appreciated both outside and inside higher education, in political, social and intellectual circles and also by our alumni.  It will be seen as a positive step to broaden and deepen science and technology and strengthen our role in it, and also to provide jobs in the form of new professions. It will also be welcomed by regional institutions for they will see a role for themselves and an outlet for their creative energies. The vehicle of case-studies will allow them to engage with their immediate community and train their students in both social comprehension and scientific temper [6]. Finally, if the IIT Council or IISER Council were to make such a proposal to DST, they would most likely welcome it with open arms.

 

Perhaps, this may even go upstream and redefine school-level science as broad enough to incorporate the immediate environment such as bus routes and time-tables, as worthy of study, documentation and analysis. This will cause a deepening of scientific temper which will help our common people negotiate for themselves a better deal in the market and in society. Finally, it will show that Science has a method and outcomes not only limited to passing entrance exams or publishing papers.

 

I think the IISc, IITs and IISERs are well poised for a leadership role in this exciting and challenging mission. Firstly, their own leadership in Indian Science and Engineering will enable the mission to create the institutional space required for others to follow. Moreover, in the form of entities such as CTARA and ASTRA, they have the experience and the intellectual capacity to design this mission and to take it to conclusion.

 

Finally, I must add that the massive dissatisfaction over development outcomes will eventually force us to adopt at least some part of the development agenda. It is better that we do this on our own terms and preserve our autonomy and our notion of rigour.

 

I will end with a quote from the concluding paragraph of the mission statement of The March For Science movement:  https://www.marchforscience.com/mission/  (accessed on 16th July, 2017).

 

“The best way to ensure science will influence policy is to encourage people to appreciate and engage with science. That can only happen through education, communication, and ties of mutual respect between scientists and their communities — the paths of communication must go both ways. There has too long been a divide between the scientific community and the public. We encourage scientists to reach out to their communities, sharing their research and its impact on people’s everyday lives. We encourage them, in turn, to listen to communities and consider their research and future plans from the perspective of the people they serve. We must take science out of the labs and journals and share it with the world.”

 

The world of Science too is groping for ideas and mechanisms to re-engage with the community and re-establish its credentials as a pillar of freedom, prosperity and sustainability. In fact, this is the new frontier that Science must cross. And it would only be befitting that an innovative response should come from the largest democracy of this world.

 

Notes

[1] An older version of this letter was sent on 15th April, 2017 to Prof. Khakhar and Prof. Anurag Kumar as a personal communication. The reply of Prof. Anurag Kumar informing the author on the activities of IISc on the development agenda is gratefully acknowledged.

[2] Some of these arguments have appeared in an Op-ed article in the Indian Express on 5th August, 2017.

[3] The AICTE Review: An opportunity for engineering education reform. Milind Sohoni. In  CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 110, NO. 2, 25 JANUARY 2016, pp159-156.

[4] This approach has been implemented at CTARA. See for example our course on water and development and the case-studies there. (http://www.cse.iitb.ac.in/~sohoni/TD603)

[5] The Regional Knowledge and Practice.  Milind Sohoni. Manuscript, https://www.cse.iitb.ac.in/~sohoni/RE.pdf

[6] See Scientific temper and education: a framework for discussion Natarajan Panchapakesan, CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 113, NO. 9, 10 NOVEMBER 2017 pp 1655-56, and also an Op-ed by this author in Indian Express on 22nd December, 2017.

 

Milind Sohoni is a Professor of Computer Science at IIT-Bombay and is also deeply interested in development theories, especially in the areas of education and drinking water.

Update: This piece was slightly edited on 12-Jan-2018 to incorporate the section headings.

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5 comments

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1

it all looks like a miracle. but along with positive results, we also have to go through with major negative consequences. as if its higher technologies, the chances of getting higher security issues also increase. if there is any kind of remedy for it, kindly suggest it to us.

2
Anbazhagan Sam Venkatesan

The following description of an institute aligns with the spirit of Sohoni's article.

" The Institute of Engineering and Rural technology (IERT) at Allahabad in Northern India offers an interesting example of institution building in a relatively uncongenial climate (Gupta nd Kalra, n.d.).
This is a much-sought-after polytechnic institute that offers engineering diploma courses in some fifteen areas and non-engineering diploma courses in management,rural technology, and management of rural development.
It runs a 'technical hospital' - a training-and-production center that provides real-life learning situations and produces wooden and steel furniture,plastic products,sewing machines,farm equipment,biogas plants,windmills,various consumer products,rural agricultural equipment,an so on. It also develops and markets curricula and educational aids for educational programs in India and abroad.
It has set up a center for the development of rural technology and a wind-energy research center, and it offers course in hotel management. In a region where the prevailing ethic is characterised by indolence,corruption,intrigue,dirty politics,casteism, and nepotism,this institute stands out as a beacon of the exaltation of the mundane.
How did this institution grow?
Researchers have identified several mechanisms. these included members being aware of the institute's history and taking pride in it, a shared vision of development through technology, and a norm that stresses training practitioners to produce results with minimum resources.
At the daily morning meeting the faculty discusses current issues and arrives at consensus solutions.
IERT's early leaders set an example of self-sacrifice, staff-empowerment,the encouragement of innovation and flexibility,risk taking, and practical applications of expertise.
Its leadership style, institutionalized even at lower levels, is nurturing and supportive but also demanding of excellence.
There is a strong emphasis on working on real-life problems,on involving staff in designing and implementing new ventures, on hiring the best and the brightest, and on inviting outside experts to visit IERT and contribute to its initiatives.
IERT avoids punishment and instead emphasises fun, freedom, and autonomy as major motivators.
It employs matrix structure, with various interdisciplinary committees, and activity centers with high autonomy (although their activities are periodically reviewed by the head of IERT).
The faculty is encouraged to offer consulting services and to grow professionally by acquiring higher qualifications, attending conferences, going abroad for exposure, and so on.
The pay scales are higher than standard polytechnic-institute grades, and IERT also provides many staff benefits.
Although IERT takes government money, it wards off bureaucratic and political interference by means of a number of devices: getting many VIPs to visit its campus, organising high-profile seminars and workshops, getting funds from industry and various governments, earning money through marketing its products and services, networking with like-minded organizations in India and abroad, and displaying credible performance."

- From an article, "Thorny Glory" by Pradip N. Khandwalla, (page 178), in "Organizational Wisdom and Executive Courage" edited by Suresh Shrivastva and David L. Cooperrider, published by New Lexington Press, 1998.

There are plenty of reasons to get disheartened by the situation, as reflected in the comment by Mr. Thangasami Sangarappan. But our responsibility does not disappear with that; it only increases it for we now know what are the hurdles, what are the causes of the current situation. We must get inspiration from what C.V. Raman has said, and try again and again to make the March for Science a success:
" I can assert without fear of contradiction that the quality of the Indian mind is equal to the quality of any Teutonic, Nordic or Anglo-saxon mind. What we lack is perhaps courage, what we lack is perhaps driving force which takes one anywhere...we need a spirit...that will carry us to our rightful place under the sun...as inheritors of a proud civilization" (Venkataraman 1988:504).

With regards,
Anbazhagan

3
Thangasamy Sangarappan

As an alumnus of IIT-B anf having witnessed serious debates on the local relevance of research topics picked up for research proects at the campus even in 1970s, I read Prof.Sohoni's article with great interest. The quantum of research funding from central govt agencies have increased many fold since then and Indian tech professionals are globally much better recognized now. But the practice of picking up research topics by our scholars from 'hot areas' seen from western journals randomly continues without much change. Most research students and faculty assume that identifying locally relevant problems and their solutions are the jobs of someone else and are busy in efforts to maximize their personal career gains in the current set up.

Though the volume of publications from Indian S&T institutions and universities are increasing fast, the results from the poor quality of research delinked with practice make very little impact on global scientific progress also. While the situation regarding research relevant to our social context is far from desirable as Prof. Sohoni points out, the situation is far worse in state funded universities and self-financed institutions. The latter are also engaged now in large pot-graduate programs and research leading to Ph.D degree. With the recent linkage of this research degree with minimum qualification for senior academic positions and pay scale, the racket for production of research thesis by "innovative short-cuts" in these Ph.D factories is mushrooming and so are the volume of publications and specially started journals profiting from this business. The poor quality of inputs to PG programs combined with laxity in quality checks on research results end up in generating mediocre new faculty ensuring poor quality of education and research for decades to come. The system is supported by corruption and politicisation of top academic positions like vice-chancellors.

While the proposal of co-ordinated voluntary action by a few elite institutions(IITs, IISc, IISERs) as suggested by prof. Sohoni is welcome, the autocatalytic spread of such initiatives can be ensured only if the mainstream of university system is thoroughly overhauled and mechanisms are built to contain the rot as they emerge. Until then such initiatives can, at best, become isolated show pieces for short time. Similar efforts in the past on 'apporopriate technology', 'rural technology..' token funded by govt agencies ended up achieving not much more than personal satisfaction of participants,

Generation of relevant knowledge to solve local problems should become the main theme of all our research effortand not as additional effort 'also given some funding'. This should happen alonf with faith and confidence in the method of science among the scientific community along with a commitment to apply them for solving problems faced to-day. To achieve the main goals of "The March for Science" movement in indian context, the scientific community here has to struggle hard to effectively participate in policy planning while simultaneously spreading the relevant message to the mass of the affected population. It would be great if the progressive elements in some of our elite institutions still remaining unaffected by the general rot, provide a lead role in such a massive transformation of the community while a political leadership with the right grasp provides a sustained thrust enabling such a change.

-Thangasamy

4
Anbazhagan Sam Venkatesan

1
The article's content appears to be very timely. Milind Sohoni must certainly be congratulated.

2
In TV 2035 we get to know the expectations of the government at this point of time.
They are:

A) that institutions assume responsibility for

a) Deployment of technology,
b) Moving matured technologies from lab to field
c) Taking up targeted research for new technologies
d) Articulating and bringing to Lab, those still in imagination, and

B) that

a) Intelligentsia, universities and think-tanks actively participate in fulfilling the vision;
b) Youth get inspired and get involved;
c) R&D community, industry leaders and academia to draw their agenda and act;
d) All stakeholders create future technology landscape for themselves, for the community around and for the country;
e) Science & Technology departments to see imperatives through their own prism and align their professional pursuit accordingly.

Not that the institutions were not doing, but they now have to continue some, change some, responsibly.

3
As also as we can see from the following:

QUALITY RESEARCH
Quality research, that pushes the knowledge frontiers forward and explores potential applications,should be a part of a conducive innovation ecosystem that links it to entrepreneurs and industry/society on one side and young students on the other. Nurturing industry institute interaction in a variety of ways such as; joint problem solving, participation in teaching/learning and industry research park located on the institution campus with structured opportunities
for participation of faculty and students, is thus of crucial importance. Incentivising industry to leverage such an ecosystem to develop new products should be part of the strategy to accelerate national technology capability build up.

MSMEs have contributed significantly to employment generation as well as exports. Most of these units are not in a position to invest in R&D. As a result, they run a risk of obsolescence and loss of competitiveness. Linking them up with knowledge institutions could lead to a win-win situation.

( Extract from Preamble, TV 2035, page 17)

4
The scheme suggested by him appear that, based on the above,

a) they may be easily dovetailed into the current plan of the institutions,say, that of their plan for 2018-2019, and

The success stories of direct and tangible benefits may easily pave the way for getting funded.Because funding agencies always ask a question, 'Towards what end?'. If one is able to show the ends met to be tangible and direct, that much easy the decision making for funding would be for them.

b) based on the experience of outcomes, a singularly dedicated agency for the suggested scheme may be taken up.

And keeping the times in mind, if the agency also plans to become self-sustaining,fund-wise,the current funding agency would be more forthcoming to join in promoting the scheme.

It seem to prompt all concerned to come together and put their head together with a bias for action.The article appears to be quite an invitation for a mission.

5
But then when a proposal is 'action oriented',unlike when discussing some concepts etc., certain thoughts arise so as to ensure success for the action:

"The prince whose undertakings are carefully launched after deliberation with a body of tried counsellors will find no impediment in the achievement of his objects."

"The wise do not launch an undertaking by which,for a possible future gain, they will loose what is already got.The wise conserve what is already gained before entering on a doubtful undertaking."

But it should be remembered that a passive attitude is ruinous if the occasion calls for action.

"Plan fully before launching out an action.To think of devising ways and means in the course of the action is fatal. Think well before resolving on action. Hesitation after the decision is once taken is bad. These two are complementary principles of action."

5

Nice article, with some very good suggestions that are eminently doable.