Thursday, May 01, 2008

A grim view of India's science institutions

The prototypical Indian science institution looks drab and is dingy, with sanitary facilities that rival those in our railway stations. Small wonder then that its inhabitants typically see themselves as disempowered and undeserving. Diversity of research or personality is often frowned upon, those who don't match stereotypes or work on subjects that have been hammered to death are labelled 'too independent'. In the still predominantly male corridors of science departments, one can still hear statements like "It's no good hiring girls, all they do is prepare to get married" or, "Of course no one listens to a woman's seminar - all she needs is to look good".

Hierarchy is alive and well in science institutes, and sycophancy acts as a good lubricant in career advancement. It is rare to find research teams where juniors can freely contradict their seniors in ways that are essential to the scientific temper; dissent is, after all, the beginning of discovery. This leads to individual, rather than collective, successes by Indian scientists, and a consequent lack of real impact on global platforms.

Another paradox concerns international contacts: on the one hand, independent foreign collaborations are often frowned upon, and those who are part of such projects are accused of "seeking out white skin", and are occasionally denied leave and funding by envious science managers. On the other hand - and not surprisingly - the latter often preside over scientific call centres, where armies of students and postdocs do the number-crunching for international projects, without having the least idea of their overall scientific design. Little wonder, then, that apolitical, productive and independent scientists feel powerless and invisible in such a system.

That's from this ToI op-ed by Anita Mehta, a condensed matter physicist at S.N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Kolkata.

Thanks to my colleague Anant for the e-mail pointer.


  1. Wavefunction said...

    The "sanitary facilities" in the IISc. department of organic chemistry are appalling. It's safe to even call them non-existent. As one of many horrible inadequacies, water used to drip from top when it was raining. I wonder if anything has changed since 2003 when I last saw that piece of garbage in the middle of the "garden" there.

  2. Niket said...

    Ouch! So true!!

  3. Rahul Basu said...

    Forgive me if I sound chauvinistic, but I don't recognise our (i.e. IMSc's) toilet facilities (since there seems to be an obsession with these) in this description. But more to the point, is there nothing right with any Indian academic institution.

    Grand but infantile statements like "dissent is, after all, the beginning of discovery" followed by "sycophancy acts as a good lubricant in career advancement" do not necessarily imply that what is true at her parent institute is true everywhere else. Perhaps SNBose Centre has poor toilets but why visits the sins of this institute on all of us.

  4. Anant said...

    I find the call to take note of the `invisible majority' commendable. If any dent is to be made on a long time scale, there is no option but to tone down the star system and pull up the over all average by working on the large numbers of well trained persons who have, for one reason or another, become less active than they can be, or inactive.

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