Tuesday, August 08, 2006


I am always a little chagrined when people consider China and India as models of future economic superpowers in the same breath. From what I know, differences between these two countries are still massive when it comes to many fundamental matters. Especially when it comes to science, I don't think India is on the same page as China. Basic infrastructure in China is superior to us, and it's with the basic infrastructure that students are going to get trained at an early level. Bureaucracy and red-tape still riddle many levels of operations in our scientific institutions, which can lead even a promising young scientist to throw in the towel. More importantly, reservation and regionalism, formally and informally instituted, threaten to always pull us back by a hundred years, no matter what the sphere of progress that we are talking about.

Peer review is lax or largely absent in India. Academic promotion is largely on the basis of seniority and not on the basis of achievements. A young scientist's career in an Indian academic institution could well be chock full of bureaucratic complications, informal regional favouritism, and plain jealousy. These problems turn into real problems then, even when there is no lack of funding. Science in China has been shown to be largely relatively unfettered by such red-tape. Maybe it's because of the 'whip culture'. But the results speak for themselves.

We have the proverbial potential. But what about its translation into solid achievement? We had the potential and certainly the manpower. Yet we missed the Human Genome Project bus. How many more such endeavors are we going to find ourselves sliding out of, not because we lack advanced instrumentation or foreign educated scientists, but because we don't have a base to stand on? How many treks to Mount Everest will we miss not because we lack the stamina or strength or will power, but because we don't know how to tie our shoelaces to begin with? Of what use is the most lavishly constructed roof, if the foundation does not exist? In an earlier post, I talked about aspiring to sprint before we even stand. China seems to be building a much better base to stand upon. And they also have the infrastructure for sprinting.

Our basic economic problems are already well-documented. Unfortunately I cannot find the article by a BBC journalist who bemoaned this comparison between China and India, after seeing the stark contrast in basic living conditions and infrastructure when he travelled to India from China. And this is really basic; food, shelter and clothing. No matter how resplendent the branches and fruits may be, their growth and prosperity are limited by the roots that hold them down. They cannot soar even when they want to.

Of course, we can complain about human rights and rigid controls in China. But I am talking about the end results. Human rights problems are real problems without a doubt, but when Chinese laureates are sitting at the Nobel prize ceremony a few years from now, they would have been lauded for their discoveries, not for the fact that they made those discoveries under threat of torture. And it does not have to be that bad in the first place.

So no, when it comes to matters of scientific and for that matter, economic progress (because many of these factors apply to economic advance too), I cringe when people take China and India's name in the same breath. So, echoing the Khan and leaving my grudges about him aside for once, let me say that I think that our country is not as progressive as China when it comes to technological and economic matters. Yes, it certainly has the potential, but right now, it's not. Simple. And because it has the potential does not mean it will automatically live up to that potential.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I do disagree with Ashutosh's comment that our foundation is not strong - in fact we started building the foundation only in 1991 (sadly, before that before that we merely wasted two generations after independence) and we have been growing strong both in exports, IT and GDP all that while being the world's biggest democracy."


10:12 PM  
Anonymous BongoPondit said...


On what basis do you conclude that China has much better scientific merit and potential than India ? How exactly are you asserting that there will be a Chinese Nobel laureate in a few years and not an Indian one (I am talking about indigenous research, of course). Do you have facts and figures to back this up ?

I agree with you about the problems in Indian academia and research centers. Also, in terms of Science Citation Index, the numbers for China has gone up while India has stagnated or gone down. But remember that part of this spurt in China was due to inclusion of Hong Kong, which has always had a thriving scientific culture. But to conclude that China is way ahead of us on that account doesnt make sense.

Additionally, why does it not matter if the science is conducted under a free environment or under duress from higher powers ? Much of Germany's scientific brain-power left the country druing Hitler's rule because they did not want to be forced into certain types of research. If being under the whip was good for productivity, scientists under Saddam Hussein should have won a few Nobels by now.

Now these are anecdotal evidence - so take it for what its worth. In my field of biophysics/biochemistry/cell biology, I have noticed consistently more papers from India than China. In fact IISc's Molecular Biophysics Unit is well respected in the world with scientists such as Varadrajan, Balaram etc. I am yet to hear of any Chinese scientist being accorded the same respect.
Same is true for many branches of theoretical physics.

Yes, we missed the genome bus - but the wet-chemistry part of the genome project was beyond the hardware and infrastructural capabilities of most nations in the world - even Europe. We should, and as a friend tells me, efforts are underway to bag the data-mining part of the genome project which requires man-power rather and nothing more sophisticated than fast computers.

Finally, I dont mean to say that we are way ahead of China in science - and I would also stress the significant potential for China to overtake us. India absolutely needs to pay attention to infrastructure in scientific education and research. I just wanted to point out that things are not as bleak and as alarming as you are making it out to be. And yes, it is important to do so in a free and democratic environment.

Take care,

5:44 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Bongopundit, the total number of quality papers in science has increased in China compared to India. The citation index shows this quite clearly. You cite people like Varadharajan and Balaram who are without a doubt world-class researchers. But how many such people are there? More importantly, how many such young people are there who could propel us into the front ranks of research in ten or twenty years? There are very few to my knowledge, even in biochemistry and cell biology. We do produce high quality science, but quantity also matters for overall progress, and we cannot be sustained on the basis of one or two, or even twenty, Balarams in the future. Better have two hundred 'half-Balaram's' than twenty Balarams, to foster development throughout the country. The main reason is that although breakthroughs are important for science, the overall scientific development of a nation or of global science for that matter takes place because of many gradual incremental developments. At some point, breakthroughs can come through these developments because of their sheer number. I can see the total research output in China exponentially and consistently increasing, which I think will make a big difference in the future. Also, one of our main laments is that young people simply don't find science to be an attractive career anymore. Many more students study science in China to my knowledge. Most top researchers in India right now in all fields are age 50 and beyond. Are they going to be replaced by equavalent young people, both in quality and quantity?
This leads to the other point about luring indigenous researchers back home. Again to my knowledge, China has taken many steps in building high quality institutes to lure back Chinese nationals working in Europe and the US. Except for the proposed new three science institutes, what are we doing to get them back? How many young researchers working at top universities do you think will be ready to come back to IISc. or the IITs. For some, their specialty could be sustained even in India, but for most, these won't be very big incentives. Private companies in India on the other hand, have now started successfully luring back equivalent researchers in the US. I don't doubt that money is an important factor in the context.
I am not saying that we don't have the potential. But I see Chinese potential being translated much more into concrete results and high productivity compared to Indian potential in the future. I will be more than happy to see a change in India otherwise.
And the examples of Hitler and Saddam are extreme examples as you can understand which I did not imply. Also, scientists did not leave Germany because they were forced into research. They left because they would have been killed if they had stayed there. If China slides into such a state, I am sure that productivity will diminish. I am not saying we need to be a dictatorship, but instituting constant peer review, getting rid of reservations, and getting rid of red tape does not need a dictatorship, only some more stringent working and transperancy on the part of the administration. And can we keep on patting ourselves on the back by saying, "Look, we have achieved the minimum standards in spite of being a lax-minded democracy".?

10:00 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Anonymous: I agree. But the question is about the future. Can our foundation be strong enough if it keeps on nurturing red tape, reservations, and regionalism and favouritism? We are talking about India being an economic and world leader, not just progressing to a level that is satisfactory for old timers. Can we reach the pinncale inspite of these very basic problems, I think that's the question.

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Z said...

Got here via DesiPundit-

the NYT ran a brilliant story (which was on the top of the most emailed list for close to a week) about the way the Chinese were fostering research and how they were attracting the top scholars from the big scientific research labs in the U.S. The high point being the visit of Stephen Hawking. Its obvious that the country is taking the pains to move up the value chain from being just a low cost manufacturer. Some of the research my company does is in collaboration with Chinese scientists.

Somehow in India, we just don't seem to pay attention to research. I am not saying we don't have the mentality but the fact that education in this country is largely subsidized. Professors don't get great salaries which means that they don't get the best talent. I don't think ONE IISc is going to help. The country needs atleast 10 more. Well funded (both private and public) and with the best infrastructure possible.

Obviously, thats not going to be the solution (but atleast it could be a start).

1:04 PM  
Blogger Sunil said...

some disagreement here. The state of science research in China is not that much better than India's. Their volume of research (in terms of papers) have gone up, but their impact remains as abysmally low as papers from India. And they are tied down by bureaucracy as much as India is. It's highly unlikely that a Nobel prize will be awarded to a Chinese researcher working in China for the next 10 years.....there are no areas where there are concrete efforts being made to establish a lead.

If you have any tangible data (from publications, with citations) suggesting the situation in China is that much better than India's, i'd love to see it. I haven't seen any yet.

The bottom line is that the overall conditions and incentive for research in both countries is rather pathetic (anecdotal, but many of my Chinese friends agree strongly to this, and will not consider going back to China). If comparisons have to be made, and if we have to emulate another country (as far as science goes), China is hardly the model to follow.

1:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

AS a researcher,i find people defining some local scientists like "nalaram" etc.sworld class as funny..we indians rarely do any pathbreaking novel works. either we try to improve the existing process/phenomenon or perform some extra experiemnets to prove the already proved/investigated phenomenon.The quoted scientists from iisc/iit..how many of them have "many" publications in top journals..mind u..i was from iit and i know the situatin there...

10:40 PM  

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