Warped science

"WE HAVE been the providers of knowledge, but we have never been able to convert it into something profitable, useful and productive," admits the eminent Indian material scientist, C N R Rao, in a recent interview to The Asian Age. Rao attributed this to the poor investment in scientific research, a valid observation which hardly has any solution in a poor country like India. But a question arises as a corollary: is the money being spent worth it, especially when we don't have more to invest?

The problem has to be analysed in the context of our needs and priorities. Indian R&D establishments try to emulate Western research trends rather than address immediate needs and use available resources in the country. What we fail to admit is that Indian R&D only fills in the gaps in Western research. For instance, Indian labs struggle for years to compute the molecular orbitals of a hypothetical molecule, to raise the critical temperature of superconductivity by a degree or to grow Gallium arsenide crystals a few millimetres longer. But these are only supplementary data provided free to Western companies which will ultimately utilise this knowledge and develop the final product.

The case of following the Western lead is nowhere more evident than in the field of superconductivity. When labs in the West came up with new ceramic superconducting materials, Indian labs plunged into the same ceramic materials, just varying their composition a bit. They studied all kinds of properties of these combinations and generated huge chunks of data. But, looking from the developmental perspective, no Indian company is going to venture into superconductor cables; nor does India have the wealth to develop their applications (like super-fast trains) -- not while our railways languish with old-fashioned engines.

True, our scientists gain enormous knowledge on their way to attaining the required expertise. The reality is, however, that Indian industries prefer expensive foreign technology to unreliable indigenous ones. The outcome: Indian scientific manpower is professionally trained to suit Western needs, resulting in the almost proverbial brain drain.

Our universities and national laboratories have thus become centres for conducting research dictated by Western priorities. Research on superconductivity, crystal growth or protein conformation is not simple -- they need sophisticated instruments and rare raw materials, mostly imported, and their routine operations cost enormous amounts of money. Even special institutions created for research on leather or food are not spared from this trend.
Fusion fiasco When a new scientific theme emerges in the West, the entire focus shifts immediately. Perhaps it is best exemplified by the cold fusion fiasco a few years back. There were reports of cold fusion from many Indian labs even after it turned out to be a hoax in the West. Interestingly, my friends working on superconductivity heaved a collective sigh of relief because cold fusion would have taken the lead for a greater share of research funds if it had become a successful story in the West.

The irony is that while hi-tech institutions in India conduct serious research on robotics, corporation janitors still clean the filth inside drainage manholes without any protection; while automobile researchers are engaged in advanced finite element computations to increase the comfort in cars, the majority of Indian farmers are still dependent on broken bullock carts; synthetic chemists work towards new molecules for the cosmetics industry while the toilets in their own labs stink for want of a proper cleaning agent.

Scientists do have a key role to play in India. The country needs, for instance, low-cost tools and equipment useful for agriculture. What India needs at this moment is an honest re-evaluation of our R&D priorities. Should scientific priorities in India continue to emulate the West, or should the country reconstruct the infrastructure and select specific areas of research set by Indian priorities? If this issue is addressed along with other essential aspects like building a better infrastructure and increasing the accountability of our scientists, we will be able to make Indian research profitable, useful and productive.