In the past India has given birth to some of the greatest original thinkers in the fields of astronomy, medicine, mathematics and philosophy.
Today our glory in science is mostly a thing of the past. In the last seven decades we would have thought that a free India would have generated achievements in science and technology that would pale even its most glorious past. Unfortunately that has not happened yet.
Largely responsible for the lacunae is the tyranny of our bureaucratic system. We have an army of civil servants armed with enormous administrative and financial powers while suffering from a myopic vision that cannot see beyond their noses and promotions.
Instead of creating a healthy climate for science to flourish, they have succeeded in putting fetters on scientific research, due to several misconceptions.
(There is no need to cause offence by specifying the particular branch of Civil Service, I am referring to, for the members of this service can easily recognise themselves; the shoe belongs where it fits.)
Therefore, when the world is poised to usher in a revolution in science in the new millennium, from AI to space, we are in a position more to sit in awe and follow than take the lead and lead the world.
Scientific and Technological developments in the last century and in the first two decades of the present have taken a quantum leap.
If somebody does a Rip Wan Winkle, going to sleep in 1900 and suddenly wakes up today, he would find himself in an entirely different planet full of technological marvels. Imagine a scientist of the early decade of 20th century do a Rip Wan Winkle and wake up today.
He would be amazed to see the hyper-quantum leaps we have taken in every science – from theoretical physics to molecular biology and the technological marvels we have achieved – from space stations to quantum computers to splicing the genes to studying the brains through single photon emission.
Imagine a brilliant physicist of Newtonian vintage coming back to see Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, you will get what I am saying. And what Indian contribution would he see in that marvel?
Today India is more a follower than a leader in unleashing scientific discoveries and more a consumer than innovator in technology. Ther are a few exceptions.
This is underscored by the fact only four of our scientists (CV Raman, S Chandrasekhar, Hargovind Khurana and Venky Ramakrishnan) have won the Nobel Prize in Science of which three had become citizens of the United States.
Compare this with the United States (383), United Kingdom and Germany (both 132 each) and these followed by France, Switzerland and Austria. An Asian nation like ours Japan too has produced more Nobel Laureates. Our figure, as indicated above, remains at a pathetic four!
Why is it so despite hundreds of educational institutions that have mushroomed all over the nation?
There is something basically wrong with our educational system in injecting the joy and discipline of science. Our universities and isolated centres of eminences like IITs are merely manufacturing graduates like ‘silicon chips’ to be exported to ‘factories abroad, mainly to the United States and other developed countries.
This is the obvious brain drain. But with respect to Indian science there is another hidden brain drain.
The civil services are absorbing the brilliant minds weaning them away from a career in science. This is because of the steady income, status and power which the civil services offer. This is the internal invisible brain drain – from innovative scientists talented youth are becoming efficient super-clerks.
Then there are other factors.
Firstly, most of our civil servants suffer from what I would call the ‘one visit syndrome’. A civil servant goes abroad for training or to attend a conference and visits a laboratory or university for a day or two. He comes back feeling that he knows everything about the university and begins to advocate what he thinks is the right method of training young people in universities or how to run a laboratory.
It does not occur to him that a mere day’s visit to great institutions like Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard will not give him a clear idea about the atmosphere of these centres. In those universities, even the old halls, ivy branches and windy corridors breathe the air of science.
The very walls still resound to the voices of some of the greatest scientists in history. In the Great Court in Trinity College, Cambridge, England, there is a place where Newton first measured the velocity of sound and nearby in a hall there is a marble statue of Newton. Thirty Cavendish researchers, have won the Nobel Prize.
The pulse of such great universities cannot be felt in a day and at least a few months are required to gain an insight . This is what is lacking in our universities. In Oxford or Stanford, you may accidentally run into Nobel Laureates, Roger Penrose or Carolyn Bertozzi while joining others in a queue for your cup of tea.
They would be just standing behind undergraduate students without drawing undue attention to themselves. No bureaucratic fetters stifle the freedom of these great scientists who in an ideal academic atmosphere pursue research single-mindedly with total concentration devoid of constraints.
Nor are scientists interested in cultivating the goodwill of a senior bureaucrat or politician, as in our country,
A civil servant in our country very often stops learning about new ideas and developments in science as well as other allied fields after successfully passing the competitive examination i.e his mental horizon does not extend beyond the year in which he had passed the competitive examination! This kind of myopia is reflected in every sphere.
Combined with this is an obstinacy that prevents him from keeping an open mind, which is essential when new facts in science are presented. Of course, there are a few knowledgeable civil servants who do keep in touch with modern developments. But they are exceptions.
Another disturbing feature is the practice of appointing civil servants as Heads of educational institutions by virtue of their rank. This puts them in a position to sanction grants or funds for a laboratory or an institution.
Instead of asking scientists for their requirements, these civil servants, who merely have administrative control, rather strangely take it upon themselves to give ‘advice’ to such eminent persons as to how they should go about their work.
We are the only country in which a civil servant or a politician" advises" or exhorts scientists to work harder or to perform experiments more accurately .It is absurd on the part of a civil servant or politician to advise talented scientists as he is not competent to do so.
No dignitary or civil servant abroad would patronisingly tell a professor in Oxford or Cambridge in England or Harvard or Princeton in America to work harder or even set targets for him.
Some of our civil servants very often regard scientists as 'specialists' who 'know more and more of less and less', leading to a stage when they know 'everything about nothing'.
By the same argument a bureaucrat can be viewed as a ‘generalist’ who knows 'less and less' about ' more and more ' and therefore reaches a stage of 'knowing nothing about everything '. Without engaging in such semantics, I would like to categorically state that a civil servant or a politician has no right to lecture to a scientist.
As a civil servant I have noticed this kind of obnoxious attitude on the part of a significant number of my colleagues for 35 years and my only advice to them is to refrain from ‘advising’ scientists on what they should do. It is enough if they render some financial or administrative assistance when specifically requested.
Our civil servants suffer from a number of misconceptions since they are not in tune with the latest scientific developments. One of my senior colleagues was of the view that jaundice can be cured by making the patient lie down on a white bed sheet soaked in a donkey’s urine!
It was his opinion that the bile would descend from the patient’s body into the bed sheet making him free of jaundice; another colleague once told a young student that the eyes of a dog glow in the dark because of the presence of phosphorus in the eye-balls. Had he consulted a doctor or a zoologist, he would have been enlightened .
I wish to cite two more instances which would illustrate what I have been stating. A few years ago, I was listening to a lecture on pulsars by Nobel Laureate Anthony Hewish.
Pulsars are among the farthest objects in the universe used for extremely accurate measurement of time. Anthony Hewish, the discoverer of Pulsars, had before him, a slide projector provided by the institution where he was giving the lecture.
To enable the audience to see the slide, the tutor deputed to carry out the exercise had to look for a dot on the top of the slides containing various images.
Unfortunately, this proved a nerve-racking exercise for the tutor, who desperately struggled for almost half an hour in vain to locate the dot, on the very first slide itself. So there, in front of a defective projector, looking helplessly stood, one of the greatest cosmologists of the century who had successfully located the farthest objects in the universe!
Yet another illustration is the manner in which a very famous dignitary who came to inaugurate a conference of scientists suddenly branched off from the main theme to observe that there are ‘many things which mathematics or science could not explain’.
First of all it was not clear why he had descended into this ridiculous line of thought. Secondly he started working out on the black board 1 + 2 + 5 = 8, 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 =8, 3 + 3 + 2 = 8, 2 + 1 + 2 + 3 = 8.
According to him it was a puzzle as to how all the four series could add up to 8 and he wanted to know whether mathematics or science could explain such a phenomenon! It was a question which was not only, ridiculous and meaningless but also totally beyond the comprehension of any prudent intelligent man. With great difficulty and restraint a few members in the audience as well as scientists attending the function could refrain themselves from bursting into laughter.
Some of our so-called dignitaries do not exactly enhance their own image in the eyes of distinguished men of science from foreign countries who visit our country. Fortunately, they still have respect for our country because of its ancient tradition, history, culture and art.
It is rather ironical that this land of Valmiki and Vyasa, Aryabhatta and Charaka should have now descended so low that it has not produced a single great star in the scientific firmament, and on the other hand now produces bureaucrats who confuse pseudoscience and superstition with real science.
Again I am not referring to a few extraordinary people who have contributed greatly to science and technology. They are exceptions and have already left our country creating a vacuum.
Therefore, our civil servants should refrain from advising scientists, doctors and engineers in respect of their work. It is rather unfortunate that in our country, while on one hand we have a large number of civil servants who think it fit to advise scientists merely because of some rudimentary association they may have had with a particular subject during college, on the other hand there is also another anomalous situation of a scientist being put in charge, of the administration of an educational institution or a hospital, with the result, he stops being a scientist and tries to behave like a civil servant.
It is pathetic to see a scientist who had acquired fame for some significant scientific discovery in the past being made to head a laboratory to do routine administrative work.
Many bureaucrats entertain fears about scientific research going haywire and out of control if limitations are not imposed. They rather illogically argue that if biologist are given too much freedom they may end up producing Frankenstein monsters.
This argument is erroneous misleading and stifles the freedom of scientific research in a democratic society. Scientists only pursue truth. The discoveries they make can create benefits to humanity or even create problems. Here too science can help. It was Rachel Carson a scientist who alerted us to the ill-effects of DDT a technological fruit of another scientific discovery.
Even to discern the beneficial or ill effects of a product the bureaucracy needs science. Instead of a discouraging and hurdle creating bureaucracy, if bureaucracy can learn from science it can become enlightened bureaucracy.
Control of science left in the hands of bureaucrats is no more better than science controlled by medieval theo-crats. The extreme form of this was shown to us by the USSR where party commissars and bureaucrats banned genetics, arrested, persecuted and executed geneticists – not in the middle ages but right in the middle of twentieth century this happened. In India though not extreme, we almost have a caricature of Soviet and British bureaucratic systems.
If scientific research had been stifled the world would have had no Archimedes, or Copernicus, no Galileo, Newton, or Einstein. The fears entertained by bureaucrats and politicians that the next generations will breed dangerous monsters are also similarly unfounded.
Yet another absurd misconception that science and technology are synonymous. Swami Ranganathananda in his famous lecture series at Hyderabad University on science and religion beautifully brought out the difference – pure science is science as lucifera and technology is science as fructifera.
Without belittling the impact of technology on society or their importance, one has to differentiate between someone who does research in science, and propounds a theory and another who merely invents a gadget based on that theory. It has never ceased to amaze me as to why civil servants, who are supposed to be intelligent people, cannot see this simple distinction and confuse one with the other.
Civil servants especially must realise that it is our knowledge of mathematics, physics, chemistry and medical science and our passion to communicate and receive communications, that have given us a pre-eminent place on this planet.
Let us not allow bureaucratic shortsightedness, ignorance and obstinacy make us fritter away the evolutionary advantage gained by several thousands of years of development.
That automatically lays upon all the civil servants in our country whether they like it or not the awesome responsibility of not only having to escape the dictates of their narrow vision and misconceptions but also to create a favourable environment for the benefit of our scientists and thus help the country.
V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.
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