Progress in science and technology comes mostly from intense focus on solving hyperlocal problems, than chasing the glamorous ones. Lesson in there for India.
India’s science and technology (S&T) envelope can be analysed through numerous unsuccessful attempts to catch up with the cutting-edge research problems often pursued by the global academic elite. Many academics associate prestige to problems which are very popular in the contemporary West, even when they have little context to Indian society now.
Global cutting edge or front-line research problems are often an expression of what the developed nations consider as worthwhile problems to pursue. We argue here that India’s salvation lies within. A hyperlocal approach to identifying problems worthy of research and developing technologies that address them is necessary to catapult India into the league of S&T gurus.
It is almost a truism that public taxes used for scientific research automatically garner a high gain payback.
Globally, investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has historically been a high gain investment for a society. Progress in STEM fields directly translates to higher quality of life, better paying jobs and healthier population.
However, in reality the specifics and magnitude of such gains are closely tied to the scientific visions of the nation.
Cutting-edge scientific and technological problems seem to reside in the abstract, often judged by their sheer intellectual difficulty and considered above the zeitgeist of the public. This, however, is not the complete truth.
Without an element of human judgement, science by itself remains silent on what should be the true cutting-edge. A brief look at the history of science makes it clear that it has advanced through both individual curiosity as well as shaped by the milieu of its time.
Contrary to globalist interpretations of scientific progress, in reality, many of the stunning breakthroughs in science, and medicine came when scientists tried to solve problems of immediate concern. Attempts to rationalise map making in the age of exploration motivated the ‘prince of mathematics’ Carl Friedrich Gauss to develop his beautiful equations on curved spaces.
Similarly, the rather mundane problem of increasing the efficiency of the newly-discovered steam engines, led French engineer Sadi Carnot to the concept of thermodynamic entropy. Another Frenchman Louis Pasteur, laboured over his craft for the benefit of a local French wine-maker, and discovered pasteurisation.
Henri Poincare developed much of his beautiful visual mathematics amidst a frenzy of European map making, and Albert Einstein perfected his explanations of space and time while spending hours in studying patents on exquisite Swiss watches.
These examples show that sourcing a scientific vision from the local and hyperlocal requirements of the community is capable of generating breathtakingly beautiful and aesthetic scientific problems.
In the modern era, where most of risky scientific efforts are publicly funded, a research and development (R&D) vision devoid of any connect with the public is bound to be ineffective and unsustainable in the long run.
India’s S&T funding is largely controlled by the central government where investment can often be heavily dictated by global cutting edges. A nation of the size and complexity of India is best served when S&T funding is channelised at two separate tiers — a national tier and a state tier.
At the national level, funding agencies can focus largely on pan-national issues and global demands and cutting edges. Pan-national requirements of a nation, however, cannot always reflect and address local issues.
Take for example, the issue of arsenic poisoning in the eastern part of India. It is estimated that more than 100 lakh people have been exposed to arsenic poisoning in Bihar and Bengal alone, and its impact on human health likely remains severely underestimated.
In turn, the human and economic cost of this problem remains poorly understood. Yet, the issue of arsenic poisoning does not plague many of the other states of India and thus despite its severity, the problem does not have pan-India appeal. Then there is the issue of stray dogs.
India currently boasts of the dubious record of maximum number of rabies fatalities in the world. There is hardly any research in containing this urban disaster. Each community must address them as their requirements.
Similar local problems pertaining to urban pollution and maintaining complex supply chains in poor infrastructure and megacities require sustained research effort.
We propose that at the state level, S&T funding be guided by the principle of hyperlocality. The principle of hyperlocality is a principle of local enquiry. Through this principle, funding bodies can focus on information oriented around its residents and direct its primary focus towards solutions for the concerns of its local population.
Local state funding agencies are a must for incentivising the research community on local and hyperlocal problems. This will also help define newer ‘emergent’ pan-India ‘cutting edges’ through the lenses of local cutting edges.
Local funding agencies can also provide scalability to local issues, which often face little action due to the lack of incentives. Local S&T funding should specially target young investigators and incentivise them to investigate new and uncharted domains of special significance to the local environment.
Through this principle, startups can also be equipped with technology and knowledge required to solve hyperlocal issues, thus helping with local scaleup.
What necessitates such an explicit principle? Science and technology research domains worldwide are often an evolution of local ‘cutting edges’ that evolve and morph into global ‘cutting edges’.
Thus, the principle of hyperlocality requires that Indian states should endeavour to solve local and hyperlocal problems within the state, and define scientific challenges around them. This provides a perfect template to absorb and redefine global scientific zeitgeist.
For instance, a state like West Bengal can invest heavily in arsenic decontamination seeking the global cutting edges of various chemicals, filtration and diagnostic technologies. Same approach can be used by a state like Rajasthan, which should prioritise investments in water storage and harvesting technologies.
Several states with similar challenges can pool together defining emergent megatrends. This will not only create a sustainable ‘crowd sourced’ scientific landscape but also incentivise states to raise funds to solve their own problems.
Clearly, the principle of hyperlocality needs to be the centerpiece of India’s S&T policy. In many of the Western nations, this principle is implicit in the allocation of R&D resources.
In the US, several funding agencies overtly announce national prerogatives and require grant proposals to be in alignment. Other agencies require investigators to explicitly state the rationale for seeking funding. In India, there is a need to have this principle explicitly stated.
Bharat pioneered the art of self-enquiry, but India remains stuck in the chakravyuh of seeking global validation and in the constant pursuit of becoming once again the jagat-guru. Excellence in science and technology, was and remains a necessary condition for becoming a jagat-guru.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the personal opinion of the authors.