Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The emperor is naked

I want to put on a different cap in writing this post which has nothing to do with disability. I want to talk of something that has been bothering me about the scientific elite of India not putting up their hand to make some kind of statement when there is some development, where their scientific acumen is surely called upon to take a (and preferably, the right) stand. In fact, I tried to publish this in  journal run by one of the academies and the bottom line of the response I received from the editor was: I believe as written now, it is not suitable for publication in a science journal, but a proactive re-writing will communicate your thoughts more effectively. 

As I get to decide what I can post in my blog, here is an updated version of that rejected piece:

I do not think it would be unfair to say that most Indian scientists have always had a very high opinion of their calling. The number of times I have walked the corridors of, and the number of  cups of coffee I have drunk at, such august high temples of science as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata and the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, have given me enough ammunition to say without a shadow of a doubt that `we scientists' are quite pleased with our lot. Not only that, we sneer condescendingly at members of the corporate world who sully their hands with the dirty business of money. We speak contemptuously of politicians. The aim of this article is to question our right to hold such exalted opinions of ourselves.

First, let me attempt a quick overview of how we spend our time and the taxpayer's money that is lavished on our `institutes of national importance' by our government. Depending on whether one works in a `research institute' or a `teaching institution', one is expected to spend one's time in doing research and in teaching/guiding Ph.D. students, or teaching students at one of several possible levels (B.Sc., M.Sc., etc.). The former are the more prestigious and better paying places (with better facilities), and they are the first choice of the more highly regarded scientists. Besides the above truly academic work, an undue amount of one's time is spent on administrative work, and how many such activities come your way is used as a sort of `impact factor' of how highly you are regarded.

A typically accepted form of evidence of such high regard is how many - and which, if not all of them - of our three Science Academies include you among their Fellowship. With such recognition comes promotions and in return for such recognition one spends most of the rest of one's academic life in one of the following activities: nominating younger colleagues to the fellowship of such academies, and later, serving on various committees of these academies which deliberate on how to identify a small subset of the set of nominees who will be elected into the fellowship of the academy in question. Depending on how highly you are regarded, you may be asked to help with the process of such filtration at the `sectional committee level' where a mathematician, such as I, will help decide which of our young mathematicians deserve to get into a `short-list', or you may be deciding at the level of the Executive Council of the Academy as to whether a mathematician from the short-list put up by his sectional committee is more deserving of the honour of being elected into the fellowship than, say, a biologist in the short-list put up by his sectional committee. (The kind of scrapping that goes on at these meetings, and the dubious logic by which a biological apple is compared favourably with a mathematical lemon, has to be seen/heard to be believed!) If successful, the poor fellow will be consigned to a life of playing this game all over, again and again, ad nauseum.

I have long felt that a more important role to be played by the various Indian Academies of Science should be to take the initiative and send strong and unambiguous signals in matters where the onus of leadership should be clearly be on the people we acknowledge as our top scientists. The point I wish to make is that while all of us sadly shake our heads at the unhappy state of affairs in our country, we ourselves seem to do precious little which is really constructive - nor do we take a strong stand and/or provide leadership when an issue comes up which requires some amount of scientific acumen to understand/evaluate. Let me give some instances to back my case:

  1. When there was a big furore over the introduction of astrology into the curricula of our universities, and when attempts were afoot to make the learning of Vedic Mathematics a serious part of the mathematical curriculum, none of the academies stood up to call a spade the spade that was begging to be called a bloody shovel.
  2. The exercise that our academies went through and the eventual document that was brought out on the desirability or otherwise of accepting the introduction of genetically modified vegetables, left many of us quite embarrassed to be known as scientists.
  3. Newspapers are periodically full of accusations and rumours freely using words like plagiarism, when some of the names being bandied about are those of past Directors of some of our most reputed research institutions and past presidents of some of our science academies.
  4. Leaders of our country go around talking about how our scriptures show that, even several thousand years ago,  we were adept at performing plastic surgery, as well as designing planes which could fly between countries or even between planets, and this pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo even extends to the scientific sessions of the `Indian Science Congress' with people `presenting papers' on such scientific anachronisms.

I realise I am putting my head in the lion's mouth, but somebody should put up their hand and mention the `nudity of the king'. The mere fact of my living a cushy life working at an institute funded  extremely well by the Department of Atomic Energy should really impose no constraints on what views I may personally hold regarding Kudankulam or the INO project. Just because some of the names bandied about as in point 3. above - possibly for `trivial' reasons - are among the most influential in Indian science today, that does not mean I should be wary of saying that the bigger the scientists, the greater will be the import of their saying `relieve me of all decision-making responsibilities until my name is cleared of this alleged infraction'.

Please do not get me wrong; I am not saying so-and-so was guilty of such-and-such. All I am saying is that it would be great `leadership by example' if such people can say `I resign from all these prestigious positions until all innuendo or potential blots on my name or integrity as a scientist
has been unconditionally wiped out'. Only then will we begin to have the moral ground to question the Jayalalithaas, Rajas, Kanimozhis and Gadkaris of our political scene!


  1. I could not agree more. As a member of the editorial board, one of my commentary was edited significantly and of course, I could put it in my webpage and recently in a blog.

  2. Bravo! I guess nobody wants to upset the applecart or upturn the coconut sack or whatever appropriate phrase one might employ. Do you think it is because the memory of colonial powerlessness still lingers or is it simply societal malaise.