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Science education and research in 21st century India

L S Shashidhara

As the Indian society is reinventing itself, it is going through a massive change. To ensure sustainable growth, we need to move from service economy to knowledge economy. In this context, we are ushering a new education system in science and technology to bring Indian intelligentsia into knowledge production. 

Indian education system, like in many other spheres of our society, is at the cross-roads trying to find a way to enhance the number and quality of future academic as well as industrial researchers of the country, while still maintaining a socialist approach to educate large masses of relatively underprivileged people. 

According to the modern source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, education is the process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills and values from one generation to another. India is one of those rare civilizations, which had formal education since time immemorial. Indian education was founded with strong emphasis on logic and mathematics. British brought the Greco-Roman system of knowledge to India in early 19th century, which is the foundation for modern science. India quickly picked this up and many Indians significantly contributed to science and mathematics. When India became independent, in 1947, the literacy was as low as 12% and may be lower. Absolutely there was no scope of any foreign investment to a country that people like Winston Churchill thought would survive only for few weeks. The need was to educate masses to build the nation and to build the infrastructure to stimulate further growth in the economy. The emphasis naturally was on technical education, which very quickly (50 years is very small time in the life of any nation, more so of one with a billion people) made India one of the largest economies in the world. Much of the new wealth is from providing services to the world. However, to ensure sustainable growth, we need to move from service-economy to knowledge economy.

While there is no doubt that there never had been better time than today in the recorded history to pursue science in India, the challenge is to secure the future. Planning for future is more challenging now than in 1950s. At that time, the options were limited due to scarcity of resources. Very small number of trained manpower was available to steer the country’s education initiatives. Now, very large number of accomplished scientists and technocrats are available to pursue a number of options to meet the aspirations of the people. It may sound cliché. India is a country of enormous diversity. No single model of science education and research would cater to the needs and aspirations of the entire nation. Still, a consensus seems to have emerged on the need to integrate high quality research with undergraduate teaching to improve science education in India and to enhance the number and quality of future academic as well as industrial researchers in the country. By dedicating certain amount of time for teaching, faculty is also expected to improve the quality of their research. 

Since the beginning of this century, several new initiatives are being explored such as,

(i)Establishment of large number of broad education centers: Central Universities, IISERs, NISER, IITs, NIPERs

(ii)Establishment of specialized centers of research and education in space technology, defense technology, translational research, biotechnology and stem cell biology

(iii) Expansion of existing institutes such as IITs, IISc and TIFR. The latter two would soon be initiating undergraduate education programs.

Only time will tell what would be the outcome of these initiatives. Most decisions in historical contexts would look either very good or bad, but at the time of making the decisions, we would be dabbling with only hypothetical situations. Any decision would be based on some logical thinking that suggests that a particular hypothetical scenario would be better than the other hypothetical one. Here, we could learn something from evolution. More the genetic diversity better the chances that a species survives and proliferates. This is because we could always find few individuals carrying genetic variants that would help them to adapt (better than their ancestral population) to a new environment. This is precisely what we need to do. Wiser the nation if it invests on a broad-based education system, which nurtures both curiosity and creativity amongst its citizens. Such education system would create amongst the people the skills and competence in diverse fields and thereby improves the overall preparedness of the country in the long run.

Irrespective of diversity in the opinion on what and how to research and teach, there is no argument that on the three conceptual foundations, on which any scientific enterprise should be built.

(i) Strong emphasis on basic science: When it comes to science, no national scientific enterprise can be sustainable in the long term if it does not contain generous room for curiosity-driven research. While the technological outcomes and social benefits of basic science are almost always long-term and rarely predictable, such science creates and consolidates overall competence and intellectual diversity” (from: http://​insain​dia​.org/​p​d​f​/​I​N​S​A​_​V​i​s​i​o​n​_​2​0​1​0.pdf).

(ii) Excellent academic ambiance: Success of any creative endeavor is dependent on large number of excellent people working in the same organization. This creates a threshold level of academic excellence and provides necessary forum for cross-fertilization of ideas, internal collaborations and unbiased internal criticism. A critical level of academic excellence is also necessary to pursue bigger questions in science, most of which would require interdisciplinary efforts. If we read the history of most academic places in India and other countries, an ambiance described above has been the foundation for success. Only way to create such an ambiance is by carefully choosing faculty for their research accomplishments, promise, teaching proficiency and mentoring abilities. Ideally, faculty should have the ability and courage to challenge dogmas, inculcate concepts of scientific and mathematical inquiry in their research and teaching and promote critical thinking and reasoning amongst their students. Equally important is to ensure that our faculty upholds highest standards of integrity and ethics in their professional and personal life.

(iii) Free and fair organizational system: Academic freedom, a democratic and consultative administrative set up, unbiased periodic review of performance and strict accountability to the support provided are equally important for maintaining highest standards of academic excellence.