Thursday, March 23, 2006

Education in India: Light after the tunnel or tunneling away from the light?

Chemical and Engineering News (C & EN) is the science and technology masthead for the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. In the wake of president Bush's trip to the Taj (the hotel I mean), it has published a special issue about science in India on March 20. Much of the debate centered on points that I have perused once too often. However, I believe they did miss a key point, overlooked perhaps because it is relatively mundane, but in my opinion, of equal or more importance than the ones cited. That point goes much beyond 'mere' science education in our country. But first, let's take a look at what they did say about the state (or the lack thereof) of science, scientific education, and research in India:

1. Sprinting before standing: A few years ago, the eminent scientist and now director of IISc., Prof. P. Balaram, published a perceptive and telling editorial for the magazine Current Science. I always remember the title of that editorial: It was "Sprinting before standing". What Prof. Balaram was saying was that in the Indian scientific community, there is an increasing tendency to leap for high-profile, ambitious goals, without having any firm ground to first stand on. Ambition is one thing. Building colourful castles in the air is another. C & EN describes this situation by enumerating one particular feature of our science universities and especially national laboratories- the big disconnect between the state of the art instrumentation in these institutions, and the relatively sordid state of the most basic infrastructure. For example, national labs in our country today boast of NMR spectrometers, high throughput screening equipment (used to screen potential medicinal compounds), and mass spectrometers worth crores of rupees. Yet, one look at the labs where the students work would send the US Environmental Protection Agency scurrying to get a petition to immediately shut down every lab they can lay their hands on. Many labs, even in our esteemed national institutes, are safety officers' nightmares. I remember the lab in Fergusson College and can vouch for Chemistry, an instructive example since the discipline probably involves handling the most contaminating materials in science. A certain procedure called 'phosphate removal' used to leave the lab enveloped in a thick fog of noxious gas fumes. The same goes for some other supposedly high profile labs. The simple contraption called the 'fume hood' is there for a reason: to carry away noxious elements of a reaction and to spare the health of the experimentalist, the lab, and the environment. In the US, working away from a fume hood is a federal violation. In the lab at Emory University, every undergraduate student had his own hood. In our lab at Ferguson, there was one common hood for about sixty students, a bonafide environmental and health disaster. And note that this has nothing to do with money; how much does it take to construct a couple of hoods? Surely the college can muster up funds for such a basic long-term investment. Anyway, as Balaram says, our problem is that we are reaching for the sun without having a solid earth to stand on. That won't work. No amount of sophisticated instrumentation is going to lead to overall breakthroughs and progress, if the most basic of infrastructure is not in place. It's always going to be a problem if a student records an NMR spectrum on the latest equipment...and then spends a day trying to convince the glassblower to fix his beaker because there's not enough stock of beakers. Before we strive for lofty ends, let us undertake to clean our backyard. Let's not aim to create rocket scientists and not have enough screwdrivers. Let's not expect sophisticated instrumentation to make up for human creativity, creativity that can be engendered only through basic education and infrastructure. We must learn to stand, before we aspire to sprint.

2. The sad story of the post-doc: Excellent point. The efficiency and rate of research primarily depends on post-docs, already well-trained personnel who can (hopefully) churn out publications and results. In India, post-docs are such a neglected breed, that the whole of our scientific productivity depends on PhD. students. But, being one of the oppressed community, I understand that this is unrealistic. PhD. students like me are still learning the ropes, and they cannot be expected to publish high-quality, professional research during their career. But who am I blaming? Even in the US, the state of post-docs is a sorry one, with most of them, no matter how promising, being paid less than even an average professional. In any case, the Indian post-doc scenario leads to almost every above average PhD. student from a good institution to flock to the US for a post-doc. Even if he then comes home, it is the US who ends up marshalling his talents and resources during his time as a post-doc. Unless we provide better facilities and incentives for post-doc, it's really hard for us to be scientifically productive in a progressive manner.

3. The woes of undergraduate research: In India, undergraduate research is virtually non-existent. Already irritated scientists and faculty members have their hands full with their PhD. students, and the last thing they want is an undergraduate meddling in their lab. But this attitude has fostered a complete lack of appreciation of scientific research in science undergraduates, many of whom are not motivated in the first place. In the US, the picture is strikingly different. Undergraduate research is vigorously promoted at most universities, with students regularly doing 'internships' and projects in summer. One can only wonder why in spite of this exposure, very few of them go on to do PhDs. In India, undergraduate research is largely an unknown phenomenon, and unless this changes, not many aspiring youngsters are going to become researchers of any kind.

*The missing point: The point which I found significantly missing in C & ENs exposition is a discussion of the lack of respect for science and humanities in our society, and indeed almost anything that does not involve a professional career. No matter what changes, unless people's mindsets change, nothing will finally ever change. I personally find this to be the single most important lacuna in our lack of progress. Not just science, but the humanities and arts are relegated to inferior levels. In India the traditional view that always prevailed, still largely prevails. Unless your son or daughter is doing engineering/medicine/business, he or she is probably not doing anything worthwhile. Frankly, this single aspect is the one that most draws me to American culture- their respect for every aspect of human intellect, at least by and large. I keep getting appalled by the immense peer and parental pressure that students in school and college face in India, to get into the rat race and get admitted into a professional course. The lack of respect for science, the humanities, and the arts is depressing to say the least and it eventually can forestall the maturation and intellectual development of any state or civilization. Any glance at the history of modern civilization, Eastern or Western, should convince us of the importance of writers, historians, philosophers, scientists, and poets. We tout the virtues of these men and women in textbooks, and yet don't want ones from our own ranks to be among them? It's interesting that in India, every effort to master science and mathematics is made by the young school student, and his parents and teachers are generously encouraging in making him do this. Yet, these subjects are always seen as conduits to a professional career, and never as careers in themselves. Every parent teaches their protege about Newton, Pythagoras, and Darwin, and yet most of them don't want their child to choose a path that would enable him or her to become one of these people. In fact, they actively resist efforts and aspirations on the part of their children to become one of these. Peer pressure and the entire's system's constraints more or less force students to flow with the current. Every facet of of the system contrives to simply not give the chance to a student to leisurely pursue his or her interests. Within the strict boundaries of the syllabus, the excessively deferential attitude engendered towards teachers, and the conformity of peers, many students inevitably become core conformists. The result is a large group of 'professionals' who may not be doing what their heart really wants to. And a nation whose intellectual development is significantly skewed. A few of them do break out, silently endure the system for what it is, and finally cast the system's cobwebs from their mind, pursuing their own path. But that number is truly less. The few of the other kind, who do study science or the humanities, see themselves more as maverick non-conformists who laugh at the system and be their own man or woman. But there exists no nourishing culture, no avuncular fraternity of teachers, parents, and peers, to draw and bind a student to alternative careers. Science, art, and the humanities are social enterprises. Without support, they will wither away like other lone enterprises.
The question is not one of facilities, funding, or even quotas. It is one of respect. On an overall basis, I believe that our country does not respect the arts, humanities, and sciences, as endeavors which can lead to distinguished careers, at least on a professional basis. Compare the general differences in attitude when someone is told that their friend's son or daughter got admitted in a 'famous' college to study computer engineering, as against their attitude when they are told that someone enrolled to do a BA in history out of specific interest. Why should some professions be considered distinguished and others trivial, when humanity as a whole needs every type of intellectual artisan? I have to say that this is an attitude which is largely absent in the US. Even the proverbial dumb blondes, inevitably majoring in Art History, are not despised. Among undergraduates, you find a wide swathe of students majoring in every possible discipline, from history and psychology to international relations and sociology. Harvard and Yale may have their own aura, but as fields of study, none of the above are considered inferior. The US may not be the top producer of indigenous science graduates today, but it definitely leads the world in respecting diversity of careers. I am not being an apologist for the US. After all, many excuses can be made, especially of large populations and money. But changing attitudes doesn't need money, and in any case, we find that in India, money is emphatically not the problem for many of the above scenarios. Mindsets are a problem. We have to understand the miasma of tunnel vision that we are inevitably caught in, and make deliberate efforts to come out of it.
Unless we cast aside stereotypes and recognize the worth of a variety of fountains of knowledge, I don't believe that India will produce a significant number of well-rounded citizens with the sense and sensibilities to make choices and contribute to the fabric of civilization.

C & EN probably did not belabour this point because its editors did not look at the mundane, because it was mundane and uninteresting. But it is precisely the mundane that is the most widespread and significant, in terms of both hope and despair. The silent undercurrent that runs through Indian education will finally determine India's performance at the highest levels. Unless there is a conscious revival of values of respect, I don't believe Indian scientific education can expect great leaps and bounds. Half of India's 1.1 billion are below 25. If things stay the same, it won't be surprising if C & EN finds no reason twenty years down the line to tout the promises and virtues of a smidgeon among those half.


Anonymous Anirudh said...

"No matter what changes, unless people's mindsets change, nothing will finally ever change. I personally find this to be the single most important lacuna in our lack of progress." I would have agreed that this was the most important thing a few days back. But now I think we need to look at all of education in a different way. Deschool society, so to speak. At least to an extent. The way it's going even in the US is very, very far from ideal.

9:54 AM  
Anonymous Chetan said...

I am optimistic that things would change in future, especially regarding mindsets. This is not relatively a very old mindset at such. Professional courses became glamourous only in the late seventies and eighties when the economy stagnated. So I don't think there is something in the Indian mindset itself which has a bias against liberal arts and pure sciences. In fact the same person who would goad his/her son/daughter to join professional courses would be the first to attend a public lecture by say Prof. Narlikar or attend Vasant Vyakhyanmala lectures by eminent political science professor Mr.Palshikar. So in terms of respect I would tend to think that people in general have an immense respect for the academic community. Its just that they don't find any pragmatic reasons why their sons and daughters should accept lower pay given their intellectual capabilities. It is for pure economic considerations and the natural expectation for their kids to be well-off that makes parents take the stance. This is not to say that there isn't a bias in our society equating success with a professional degree. But I think it came later. It was a consequence of the economic factors rather than an inherent bias which shaped this thinking.

The reason why I said I am optimistic that this will change is because of the money flowing in the hands of urban Indians currently. The next generation wont be faced with this choice at all. Their parents (who are now computer professionals or engineers or MBAs) having curbed their own passions wouldn't favour their kids doing the same. Since money wont be the prime consideration in making the choice of career, they may be more accomodative of other choices. If you look at Indian Americans, many of them have no problems with their kids studying liberal arts or music or doing PhDs in pure sciences. If there was a strong bias then they would have forced their kids into professional courses as well.

Having been through a similar professional/academic predicament myself I am not too certain about this argument of mine. But I fervently hope this reasoning will prevail in future.

On an aside, this post reminded me of the days at Fergusson. Professors like Vankutte and their insistance on stupid things balanced by wonderful professors like Bhatawdekar madam (not sure that was her name. She taught biochemistry and was insistant that we use very little chemicals as possible)and how after the first year most students used to drop chemistry like a hot brick in spite of scoring good marks because they couldn't tolerate the smells. Let alone safety inspectors, no American student would stand one 3 hour undergraduate lab session.

9:55 PM  
Blogger Hirak said...

Thought I would just leave a comment and it became a whole post . Very illuminating link and excellent points.

10:52 PM  
Anonymous anya said...

Very well written - as usual.
I dont fully subscribe to the view stated. Mainly that "it is the perspective of the common indian that the arts and science are inferior to engineering careers" which leads to stunted growth of the said fields. A major part is also played by the lack of opportunities to pursue a career in the arts and science which would at the end provide adeqate reward that leads to society preferring fields of implementation more.

I do fully agree that this lack of opportunity is from appalling infrastructure for the same and a general lack of R&D among Indian private enterprises. Also because for many .. these fields not being a choice but rather a choice by exclusion .. the candidates are not motivated enough. Not to lean on science - lets consider teaching. A hot discussion going among a group of friends is that how our school teachers are being paid a pittance and thus we are not really getting the best teachers and what we can do to change that. However the main concern is that it seems even if we pool together a certain amount which would say - ensure a pay hike of a specific percentage - there seems to be a general lack of good candidates to fill the positions.

As more money begins to trickle through the system as a result of the current boom things will hopefully take a turn for the better.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Mridula said...

"A few of them do break out, silently endure the system for what it is, and finally cast the system's cobwebs from their mind, pursuing their own path. But that number is truly less. The few of the other kind, who do study science or the humanities, see themselves more as maverick non-conformists who laugh at the system and be their own man or woman."

Wonderfully said. I was aming for a comment till I saw this. Very well written piece, kept nodding my head most of the time.

3:36 AM  
Blogger ankan said...

In ANY society, people gravitate towards the career that is rewarded by the society. This reward has to be not only monetary but also a respect from the society as a whole.

Unfortunately, this is not true about science careers in India. For example, a PhD in the US is compensated almost as well as an MBA; in India a PhD is generally looked upon as a loser. Until a decade ago, IAS et. al. used to be a coveted career because of the perks that came with it and the best people gravitated towards it. Today, it is MBA and tomorrow it can be something else.

There is something more to it though. Dramatic advances in quality of life can be made only through research and innovation; increase in efficiency can help only so much. India will have to invest heavily in research in a couple of years if we have any notions to continue growing. If american universities keep innovating and we keep implementing, we are always going to be on the lower end.

8:03 AM  
Blogger Sue said...

I grew up in Andhra Pradesh, a land that doesn't recognise anybody except doctors, engineers and software professionals as human beings.

Studied a combo of Maths-Physics-Chem-Bio for class XII and consequently my father's friends went about proclaiming my virtues. When I chose to study Eng. Hons. for my graduate degree, they were convinced it was because I had done badly in my science papers and couldn't join a medical/engineering course. It just didn't make sense to them that I enjoy English, or that my father encouraged it since he (B.Sc, M.Sc, MBA!) had once wanted to study it himself but not been allowed to.

So I for one can personally vouch for just how foolishly biased the mindset is.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Hirak said...

If it was not for people like Sue and Ashutosh we would be stuck as a country of simply wannabe engineers-doctors and recently software professionals.
I also find it distressing that there is in fact more pressure for people like you to do well in Class XII, simply to justify the choice of humanities or science. I bet you guys are tired of stating you took what you did not because you did badly in Class XII, but because you really like English or Chemistry.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Ram said...

Hi Ashutosh,

Pleasure to read your post, and could not agree more. I have had similar thoughts here .

I think a multitude of factors have contributed to this issue, and a lack of respect is definitely one among them. Our society has traditionally pushed us towards the seemingly high value professions of engineering and medicine. But with India transitioning, the chances for the arts and humanities are better now than they were at any other point in the past.

Ironically enough, I'm thinking that it will be the necessities of an IT economy that end up pushing us more towards the arts, humanities and the sciences. I say this because the arts are the key to innovation. Without innovation, we will not be able to sustain our technical edge in this truly global industry (lack of quality labor, perhaps due to our fanantical obsession with the engineers is another issue here ). It is reasonable, therefore, to anticipate a significant support for these fields, which in turn will lead to more respectability and acceptance. Is this the right way to proceed? The ends or the means I guess...


1:25 PM  
Anonymous numbellix skuller said...

you can also talk about scientists at the helm of affairs in india refusing enthusiastic students projects because the student also happened to talk to someone in the opposite camp about a project.

6:53 AM  

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