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 ...
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[If that link doesn't work, use the one at the end of this note at SciDev.net].
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Let's turn to (some of) Mashelkar's arguments. Here's how he explains the origin of Indians' purported reverence:
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.
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.
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!
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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.
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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!