Scientific research and study have deep roots in natural curiosity and a big impact on human development and our interpretation of the universe we live in. Our blogs discuss, debate and opine on what it takes to spread the culture of science and propagate all important research.

January 27, 2012

Enabling India to Shine in the World of Science

Any discussion of the state of science in India must begin with an introspective look at how it is handled in our schools. We need to train students to translate what they imbibe in the classroom into an understanding of the natural and physical phenomena of science, as well as of human behavior. Independent thinking and a healthy skepticism of widely accepted theories should be placed above a student's mastery over scientific literature.   If we can do this, we will have succeeded in helping the next generation to think critically and to analyze deeply.

This may seem far removed from the system that is in place today but rather than dismiss this as an unattainable ideal, we should study and attempt to change the underlying economics of the issue.

In a developing country like India, it is natural that our youth will focus on cracking examinations and building a set of skills with which they can better compete in the job market. However, real progress comes from a holistic approach that juxtaposes the specifics of science with the imponderables of philosophy or the other humanities.

Currently, our research output - as measured by indicators such as published papers and patent filings - lags behind China, the US and several developed countries. The best way to improve our performance in this area is to work on developing a research-oriented mindset among students; to encourage them to spend an undergraduate semester engaged in pure research in an area of interest. As more students do this and collaborative projects take shape and grow within the scientific community, the quality and quantity of research produced will automatically go up.

How can we cultivate this research focus? I believe that success will depend on our being able to assure our youth of good career prospects and a decent quality of life even if they pursue pure or basic research.

We do have another advantage here in India: our socio-economic and developmental challenges. Paradoxical as this may seem, these barriers to our growth actually represent a significant opportunity and source of inspiration for researchers in the country. In a country where millions of people live in conditions of poverty and lack access to healthcare, safe drinking water and basic sanitation, science and technology has a deeply seminal role to play in improving overall quality of life.

This could be through applications in bio-informatics, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, nano-technology, computer science, civil, electrical or mechanical engineering. Whatever the field, there is probably something it can offer to improve living conditions and ultimately lower the costs of vital amenities and services such as food, housing, transportation and drugs. If we are able to successfully implement such transformative solutions within our borders, then it won't be long before we can export these to the world outside to solve pressing global crises in these areas.

We will know we have arrived when we have ten Indian institutions in the Global top 50, or when these institutions rank with the likes of MIT, Harvard, CalTech, Cornell, Cambridge, or Tokyo University in terms of their research output, citation index or patent development.

We can do it as long as we supplement our desire to get there with a single-minded focus on action and execution. We have an abundance of scientific talent; that has never been in doubt. It is now up to us to unleash its full potential.