Friday, December 02, 2005

Changes in the way science is done (Part 1)

D. Balasubramanian, an ex-Director of CCMB and currently with L.V. Prasad Eye Institute (both in Hyderabad), has a regular, long-running and interesting column called 'Speaking of Science' in the Hindu.

His latest column -- which appeared yesterday -- asks the question: when did science go from an individual enterprise (Galileo peering into his telescope directed at the moon) to a group enterprise (small research groups in academia and large ones in particle physics and astronomy). And of course, the related question: why did this happen?

Curiously, he attributes it to the advent of national research labs. I say curiously, because it is not the national labs, per se, that caused this change. One can have a national lab full of loners, pursuing their own little niches.

Clearly, the answer to that question must lie in the type of problems that began to be attacked. Some problems simply needed a group to solve. Large observatories, for example, require groups of people to run, manage, choose specific parts of the sky to explore, decode the fuzzy pictures that emerge from their viewing, analyze the results and so on. As the problems got bigger, the groups got bigger too.

In his argument, he also cites, unnecessarily, the war effort in the US in the 1930s and 40s as one of the reasons for the shift from individuals to groups. But the war effort has nothing to do with the shift, which would have happened anyway -- even in the absence of war.

However, the birth of large national labs institutionalized the large group research, which is also expensive. And, the war effort made it necessary to hasten the birth of national labs. Balasubramanian does mention them all, but my only quibble is that his causal chain is all badly mixed up.

Having said that, I have to commend him for two things. First, for pointing us to some interesting sociological studies on how the national lab culture treats a scientist as just another brick in the wall, and what this trend might mean. This is perhaps worth exploring.

More importantly, I commend him for pointing out some of the sorry results the culture of national labs has produced in India -- not for the labs themselves, but for the universities. Let me just hand over the mike to Balasubramanian here. Please listen to a man who has been there, done that, and seen it all:

The few prominent heroes had given way to an army of anonymous workers. In India, this came to be felt in an unforeseen, and unfortunate, way. The government invested money in large projects, missions and new research labs that a single department or researcher could not acquire. Resources available to individual scientists in universities were far less and university research could not keep pace. They produced quality students but these had to often learn sophisticated research methods and approaches elsewhere, outside their university. It is only now that this asymmetry is being addressed in some manner. However, it is clear -- to me, at least -- that this depends on the type of problems tackled by scientists. A group enterprise is made essential by the nature of research in experimental particle physics, in which experiments have very different facets, and hence very different expertise.


All of these [new technologies and products] are possible only through ideas — ideas that need to be thought of, that need to be tested, found working and then applied to achieve the ends. And ideas come from individuals; this cannot change. Therefore the individual scientist cannot be replaced. It is him that we need to make more and more of.

And a sure way to do so is through schools, colleges and universities. It is these that we need to sow, nourish and multiply.


  1. Anonymous said...

    In some sense, hasn't science always required a community, though? Beyond having the community training its apprentices in the proper methods of observation, calculation, and argumentation (those astronomical observations that the Egyptians and Babylonians had were written down in part so future generations could use them), scientists seem to need a community in order to maintain the appropriate level of skepticism about their own observations and the conclusions they draw from them. Galileo's writings were all about interacting with a community of other scientists and persuading them -- and in the process of trying to persuade them, he anticipated their objections and felt it necessary to answer them.

    Granted, this is a different kind of community than the huge lab or research center, but I think it's critical to remember that the "community" character of science is essential rather than just convenient.

    Thanks for such interesting posts!

  2. Abi said...

    Dr. Free-Ride,

    You are absolutely right about science having always been a group activity. However, I think Balasubramanian is talking about those who take science to the next higher level, through essentially their own efforts. He gives the examples of people who worked essentially by themselves, and made great leaps: Einstein, J.C. Bose, Raman, and so on.

    As easier problems get more and more complicated, it does require genuine group activity to make further progress -- even in small steps -- as in experimental particle physics or astronomy. My point is that this is bound to happen; the contribution of the big labs and the war effort is 'only' to accelerate this process.

    Finally, thanks for your nice words!