Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Mashelkar on the Spirit of Adventurism


The Beatles sang some four decades ago, "All you need is love." Raghunath Mashelkar sings now, "All you need is irreverence."

I know it sounds all wrong. But nothing, it appears, is right about science in India. Mashelkar has diagnosed the missing ingredient: irreverence. And he has gone public with it in an editorial in Science.

Let's get real and frank here, shall we? The thesis that Indian scientists are held back because of lack of irreverence is amazingly self-serving, coming as it does from a man who led a massive organization for scientific research -- the CSIR -- for over a decade. It says, in effect, that Indian scientists have failed in spite of an abundance of water, electric power, intertubes, money, infrastructure, and yes, leaders.

If only they had a bit of irreverence ...

Tsk, Tsk!

* * *

[If that link doesn't work, use the one at the end of this note at SciDev.net].

* * *

Let's turn to (some of) Mashelkar's arguments. Here's how he explains the origin of Indians' purported reverence:

  1. The situation has deep roots in Indian culture and tradition. The ancient Sanskrit saying "baba vakyam pramanam" means "the words of the elders are the ultimate truth," thus condemning the type of irreverence inspired by the persistent questioning that is necessary for science.

  2. The Indian educational system, which is textbook-centered rather than student-centered, discourages inquisitive attitudes at an early age. Rigid unimaginative curricula and examinations based on single correct answers further cement intolerance for creativity.

  3. And the bureaucracy inherited from the time of British rule over-rides meritocracy.

Let's leave aside the silliness of blaming the Raj, even obliquely; the British left 60 years go. Let's also ignore the blame-the-bureaucracy argument; it's disingenuous when it comes from a man who headed that bureaucracy for over 10 years.

Blaming rote learning won't get us far as an explanation for lack of creativity. Exceptions abound -- especially in music, a field famous not just for mind-numbing repetition during the early years, but also for institutionalized reverence.

Finally, as stereotypes go, reverence to authority is seen as a defining feature of not just the Indian culture, but of Asian cultures in general. And as arguments go, it's too convenient: When you are down, it explains why you are are not competitive; when you are competitive, it explains why you are not creative; when you are creative, it explains why you don't get Nobels.

It's one thing for the Westerners to beat the Asians with that stick. It takes a certain "reverent Asian mind" to peddle that argument to his own people, and bask in the audacity of it all!

* * *

I don't wish to go on. I'll just say that Indian scientists work under conditions that take a lot of basic, essential things out of their control -- from funding to electric power to water. What they need from their leaders are the resolve, the skill and the mental wherewithal to solve these little problems, so that they -- I mean the scientists -- can go about solving Big Problems.

Leaders who are impotent -- or, were impotent -- to get the little things right for their scientists should, at the least, shut the fuck up.

* * *

Mashelkar's little lecture about irreverence does many wonderful things -- for the leaders. It underplays -- conveniently! -- their role in ensuring the success of the scientists working in their organizations. It puts the blame for lack of success -- conveniently! -- on the working scientists themselves.

It allows leaders like Mashelkar give a grand and statesmanlike sheen to their high-profile outpourings -- it doesn't get any more high-profile than an editorial in Science! -- even though what they're doing are trashing their own people and peddling mindless boilerplate. Just think about it: wouldn't Mashelkar's editorial work even when we replace irreverence with initiative, proactive nature, big-think, audacity, or creativity? In fact, Mashelkar himself uses creativity synonymously with irreverence.

As a synonym for irreverence, Mashelkar also uses something else: 'spirit of adventurism.'

Yes, you read that right: it's adventurism, not adventure.

All I can say is: Sic!

15 Comments:

  1. Raj said...

    Abi, you are right in pricking this hot air balloon. Some scientists, with or without any achievements to their credit, manage to crack the system and attain iconic status. Then they go around with their acquired halo, pontificating to one and all.

    Remember the plagiarism incident involving Mashelkar which you had tracked in your blog, 2-3 years back? When exposed, the man had the temerity to blame some sub-committee for the ‘editorial lapses’ and then pompously withdrew from the committee following ‘highest tradition and ethical practice”. He ended up bagging additional brownie points.

    Credit, if any, will go to the leader. Blame, if any, will fall on a lowly soul in a sub-committee. That's leadership here.

    Irreverence indeed!

  2. happy-scientist said...

    Oh Dear ! Abi is frothing at the mouth with irreverence :-)

  3. Prithwiraj said...

    @Raj The better question is, "What kind of signal is Science sending by letting a known plagiarist write their editorial?"

  4. Abi said...

    @Raj, @Prithwiraj: I wanted this post to be specific to Mashelkar's editorial in Science. When there is so much in it to criticize, there's no need to mix it up with his past misdeeds.

    Now that you both bring up the plagiarism case, here's my take: the man deserves a break. The Society for Scientific Values investigated the plagiarism in his book (co-authored with Shahid Ali Khan). In his response, Mashelkar owned up to it and apologized. You can find his letter on the SSV website.

    Having said that, I agree that he showed poor judgment in the 'other' plagiarism case -- the one in the Mashelkar Committee report, and in the way he reacted when the scandal broke. However, the man did come back to the committee, and produced a (controversial) report that was accepted by the government. So it's perhaps a good idea for all of us to just move on.

    @Happy-Scientist: Mashelkar uses a high profile outlet to paint an entire community of scientists as uncreative. My response to him may have an angry tone, but it does engage some of Mashelkar's arguments. And what's your contribution? Some snark about "frothing at the mouth." Very nice.

    No wonder you're a Happy Scientist!

  5. happy-scientist said...

    Tsk Tsk Abi ! Take a chill pill !

    You can also be a 'happy scientist' if you take what others dish out to you with a healthy dose of irreverence :-)

    Ok, so a pompous old man has used a high profile journal to say some crap. This is not the first time something like this has happened, neither will it be the last. Why be a twit and work oneself into a lather over it ? In doing so, you end up sounding just like the person you so despise ! The only difference being that he has an editorial in Science for his ranting, and you have your blog :-)

  6. gaddeswarup said...

    I am hesitant about entering a discussion of angry exchanges but these are the kind of questions that I have been wondering about. It seems difficult to formulate these questions in a way that evidence can be presented ( apart from anecdotes) to refute or support evidence. One impression I have, which may be wrong, is that the number of outstanding scientists produced by India in the sixty years before independence is larger than in the sixty years after.I am thinking of names like J.C. Bose, S.N. Bose, Meghnath Saha, Mahalanobis, C.R. Rao, R.C.Bose, C.V.Raman, K.S. Krishnan... Some of them Did a lot of work after independence but were essentially formed scientists before independence. A few like Yellapraggada Subbarao worked in USA but many worked in India. This is just my impression which may not be correct. It may be just that I am remembering familiar names and the new big names may not be so familiar to me. I also think that it is different story in mathematics. I wonder whether somebody can comment on these.

  7. Abi said...

    This is from Ajit Jadhav who sent his comment to me by e-mail, because he could not post it here due to some quirk in Blogger.com's commenting system:

    -------

    Dear Abi,

    I read this post of yours today sometime in the afternoon. At that time, I had casually thought that perhaps you are just having "a bad hair day!"... But then, I come back again (around 10:20 PM) and, judging also from your reply, now it's clear that you are pretty serious about both the man and the issue. ... So, I decided to drop a note. ... No, I am not so much as going to argue the points as am going to make just a few observations which, I think, are relevant.

    1. About "baabaa vaakya pramaaNam." First of all, just what is wrong with a criticism of this attitude? Isn't it healthy? Secondly, have you actually engaged with the criticism given by Mashelkar? ... I mean, all that you really say is that this form of criticism is too convenient in a broader context too. But I still fail to see how convenience, as such, comes to deny the truth of it.

    2. About the man. I would have liked it if you had referred to the dramatic rise in the number of patents filed after Mashelkar's stint as the DG of CSIR. And, if you were to keep in mind his stature: FRS. It does mean something; and cultural standards in science still are better than those in many other fields. I don't think your tone is right, that's all. Finally, also, if you were to make a distinction between an an honest error and a deliberate evil. Man is not infallible, observed Ayn Rand. Read further at the Lexicon site.

    3. About your department. I had always wanted to obtain international patents for my PhD research. When I went applying to your department (IISc Bangalore, Metallurgy), as recently as about 6--7 years ago, I was bluntly told, to my utter disbelief, right to my face, that if patents is what I had in mind, it would be impossible for me to do research at "this place."

    Also, historically, not just IIT Bombay but also the University of Pune had put a patents policy in place before IISc did.

    A question, if you wish to answer: Is IISc still full of explicit or implicit socialists who almost militate against any idea/thought of any advocacy of capitalist ideas such as individually owned intellectual property rights and their protection?

    4. It almost seems out of place to add here that Dr. R. A. Mashelkar is one of the few men of Indian science who I admire.

    Sincerely,

    --Ajit
    [Typos and errors are regretted; English is my second language.]

  8. Abi said...

    @Happy-Scientist: You said, "so a pompous old man has used a high profile journal to say some crap."

    This makes me too a happy scientist. Thank you for this chill pill.

    @Swarup: I know of at least one line of critique about India's S&T policy post-Independence: that it privileged R&D labs over universities for research funding. New labs were being created left, right and centre (CSIR, DAE, ICAR, Defence, Space...), and in a poor country, this was possible only at the expense of something else. That something else was university research, which got decimated -- it lost more than money, it lost prestige, and hence, the brightest scientific minds whose preferred careers were in the Labs. Further, the labs took a long time to get up to speed; the result is that Indian science suffered everywhere -- and especially at our universities. [I know of a similar critique about research in social sciences as well].

    That our universities are getting the right sort of attention and money is a recent phenomenon.

    Ajit: Mashelkar's critique of reverence has a major hole. It mixes up reverence for elders and gurus with lack of creativity and spirit of adventure. This association does not hold -- the tradition of Indian classical music is a famous counter-example.

    As I said, reverence is a stereotype about Asians in general -- and it's used in the West in pretty much the same context Mashelkar uses it in: lack of creativity. I just want to protest the ugliness inherent in it.

    My post is not about the man; it's about his views on what ails Indian science. I am full of admiration for Mashelkar's scientific achievements. His editorial causes all the more dismay, mainly because of the stature of the man and the journal which featured him.

    As for your unpleasant encounter with our department, I'm sorry about the mismatch between your expectations and our reality. As you pointed out yourself, IISc does have an IP cell, and we do have quite a few patent-wielding faculty.

  9. Raj said...

    Abi, the pacifist, I didn't mean to bring the plagiarism issue out of context or question his achievements. What I wanted to point out was that when the shit hit the fan, the leader deflected it back to some lowly sub-committee instead of taking it on himself. What kind of 'reverence' can one have for a 'guru' like that?

  10. Abi said...

    @Raj: Point taken. Just to deflect the charge of pacifism, here's another angle: In the scandal surrounding the Mashelkar Committee report, the really serious problem was not in outsourcing the work to a blog devoted to IP issues (which was interpreted as plagiarism); it was his irreverent attitude towards professionalism and decency ;-)

  11. Abi said...

    Another response from Ajit Jadhav; Blogger.com's commenting system continues to rebuff him.

    -----------

    Abi:

    Thanks for taking care to post my previous comment.

    If you are going to seriously argue about this issue, we would better define the main terms. As to me: it's not easy to do so while sitting in a hot stuffy cybercafe. ... Will write about it later at my blog. ... Just a "trailor" here: I thought that what "baabaa..." actually implied was elevating the guru's consciousness above metaphysical reality. If you substitute an utterance in place of an epistemologically proper standard, that's what you would get. Similarly, by "reverence," in this context, I thought that Mashelkar was drawing on a long history of the conflict between the rational thought on the one hand and religion on the other, as illustrated by, say, Copernicus, Galileo...

    More, later (at my blog), but for the time being, let me just address what you assert to be a counter-case...

    I always thought that the tradition of classical Indian music tradition supplies a prime example of a systematic suppression of the student's creativity. Any creativity that a student might come to express is despite the system, and an all too rare occurance.

    The tradition does have its share of +ve points. For instance, it does have, and does uphold, *some* standards (as against the chaos of atonal music and acid rock), at least at the level of tonal, melodic and compositional elements. Also it does manage to propagate both knowledge and art (skill) at an incredibly high level of fidelity.

    But, creativity? Hah! ... But since you obviously won't agree with me here, can you name:
    (i) the number of new "raag"s that have gone to become a core part of the popularly rendered repertoire in the classical concerts / performances
    (ii) the number of renditions from top-level Indian classical musicians (e.g. those who participate in the Sawai Gandharva at Pune) that have attempted to integrate the element of harmony in their mainstream classical musical work.

    Measured against the spread of the system, you will find that any numbers you might come up with are, actually, minuscule.

    And re. what you say in your reply about IISc. ... Nice try!

    --Ajit

  12. Abi said...

    @Ajit: Just a quick response.

    (a) We are going to keep disagreeing about creativity in Indian classical music. So I stop here.

    (b) You said, "re. what you say in your reply about IISc. ... Nice try!"

    And I say, "Thanks!"

    I look forward to your post.

  13. happy-scientist said...

    Abi,

    Now that you have probably cooled down a tad :-), I have a suggestion to make. Don't you think that someone (like you) should actually refute these 'arguments' put forward by Mashelkar in a more formal forum ? Shouldn't one try to put in a point by point rebuttal (akin to your blog) to the editors of Science itself ?

    Okay, so the editors of Science may not accept it, ... but don't you think that it is worth a try ? You can put in a copy of that in your blog, or even try and put one in 'Current Science'. The point I am trying to make is that it would be unfortunate that 'slander' like this goes unchallenged. What Mashelkar has written is only symptomatic of what many other 'Science Managers' probably think.

    wrt Ajit Jadhav's comments: he has chosen not to comprehend the reason for your angst. It is simply not about the person, who has admirable credentials. It is about his 'holier than thou' discourse which very conveniently paints a large number of people as 'reverent and thus not creative' without taking any blame for their own shortcomings. Mighty rich, if i may so add !

  14. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    I think all Mashelkar meant to say was that Indian scientists are not bold enough. Lack of a spirit of adventure, hero worship of gurus etc, is only symptomatic of that. Of course this is too sweeping a statement to make and one certainly should not make it in a high profile editorial.

  15. The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

    Abi,
    I second one of the earlier comments in urging you to write a letter to the editor of Science, I am in the process of framing one myself, but the more people that write in, the better.