Thursday, May 17, 2007


Chemical and Engineering News has an editorial this week about the editor's visit to China, in which he was impressed with the great strides in innovation and the building of infrastructure that China is making. He visited Shanghai, and marveled at the transformation that is overtaking the city's roads, buildings, and technological labs, including pharmaceutical ones. When roads are supposed to be built in China, no morchas or hunger strikes thwart them. Make of that what you will. But it seems to be engendering massive development.

Again, I cannot help but make a comparison. While basic infrastructure is thriving in China's industrial and academic laboratories, it is still pretty much in a sorry state in India. While thousands of young Chinese are increasingly studying science in China, the situation remains woeful in our country. While masters degree students routinely do solid and meaningful research in Chinese academic laboratories, getting a masters degree in science in India still seems to be almost entirely about classroom studies, with one semester of some research project thrown in mainly for image cultivation. While reservation policies are sucking India into a vortex of even lower standards for education and research, nothing like this seems to be a major issue in China.

By various standards of measurement, China is charging ahead in many aspects of research including applied science. In 2006, the Shanghai Institute of Education conducted their annual survey of measuring the academic standards of institutions classified by country. They chose several parameters to assess this measure. Some of them, such as the number of Fields or Nobel prize gathering alumni, can be quite inadequate. Others, such as citation measures, are better. The report ranks the top 500 world universities. Not a single university from India is among the top 100. Neither is any from China. But in the top 200, 1.8% are from China while 0.4% are from India.
Apart from the Shanghai analysis, another notable report was published in 2004 by David King, the British government's chief scientific advisor, titled 'The Scientific Impact of Nations'. King chose many other variables, including number of PhDs awarded for example. In his list, India comes in at 22 while China at 19.

These studies indicate that if China is not ahead of India already, it's quite difficult to argue that it is at least as good, and probably at least a bit better.

But academic rankings constitute one of the aspects. I can speak for my subject, chemistry. However, since chemistry is inherently an interdisciplinary science, the conclusions also spill over into other fields, such as polymer science or biochemistry. In case of chemistry, I find Chinese researchers in China consistently publishing good papers in chemistry journals. Not all of these are in the highest impact journals, but the point is that there are very many from China in the top 25%, if not the top 1%. In practical terms, such advances which are lesser than great but still good can also greatly contribute to the development of the field. The contribution of Indian chemists working in India is distinctly lesser. I was saddened to see a pretty serious rebuttal of a paper by a very well known and highly respected Indian chemist, which indicated some simple lack of attention to essential details. Among pharmaceutical chemists, the image of Indian scientists in the US is decent, but I don't see a comparable image at all for chemists working in India. One especially sees some very good articles published in the field of organic chemistry by Chinese chemists. I am not saying that all these articles constitute highly creative academic research, but since organic chemistry is really the backbone of much of our material comforts, they indicate the potential and real proliferation of Chinese researchers in many different fields, most notably the pharmaceutical industry. This will give Chinese industry, manufacturing and trade a considerable advantage. Also, fundamental research in medicine is virtually non-existent in India. So it might be in China. But strides in organic chemistry will contribute partly to generation of funds for new clinical research with new drugs.

China is also making things quite attractive for "returnees", Chinese students who are currently studying in the US. From just my department, three students have decided to go back to China right after their PhD., two directly to academic positions, and one to the Novartis unit in China, the first of its kind outside Europe and the US. All three are going to have access to decent salaries and excellent facilities. In contrast, I haven't met Indians until now who are especially enthusiastic about going into academic research back to India. I greatly admire those who do, but the percentage surely is dwindling.
On the other hand, the opportunities for expatriate Indians to return to India and work in industry are consistenty growing. They will serve as a respectable sink for Indians, provided the private sector does not institute a reservation policy, and the communists don't start flapping their wings too much. Both these possibilities are very much tangible, given the current state of affairs. Also, to be honest, India is not seen as a very favourable location for new pharmaceutical R & D units by many foreign companies, because of our generous production of and investment into generic drugs. If foreign pharmaceutical companies see their IP regime threatened by lax Indian patent laws, they will be loathe to initiate R & D in India. Of course, the lure of recruiting skilled graduates in large numbers (not to mention relatively benign environmental laws) is going to stoke their interest, but the point is that the end decision will by no means be a done deal. We will have to wait and see how India holds up to their expectations and aspirations as a whole.

However, the generation of all these scientists, whether they stay in India, stay abroad, or come back, depends on a focus on scientific excellence. In this respect, I see almost no indicator that our country is alive and well. Undergraduate research is still non-existent, the lament of basic infrastructure being especially prominent there, and as they say, if you don't catch them young, you may not catch them at all. I have written about this before. And the so-called heroes of Indian science to whom optimists point are almost without exception more than fifty years old. New blood arises only from constant nurture, and we seem to have surely lost our way there. From what I hear from many Chinese students in contrast (not all of who are biased...), the Chinese government is making science attractive for young students by implementing excellent infrastructure in many universities. Undergraduates and especially masters students in China are doing concrete research, and many of them come to the US armed with a publication or two. The fact that Chinese students are usually highly motivated workhorses is a trivial and well-known point.

On the flip side, China is increasingly criticised for its lack of pollution control and wanton exploitation of natural resources. Companies seem to be sometimes less eager to set up units in China, one of the reasons apparently being the relative difficulty of doing market surveys and studies in China compared to India.

Of course, the biggest problem with China is its authoritarian regime and human rights problems. We in India pride ourselves on the fact that we are a democracy. But there are two important questions; first of all, given the events of the last many years (including even the recent mundane events in Baroda), it is not a foregone question to ask whether we really value and cherish democractic ideals and preservation of individual freedom; it seems that we are more in love with the ideal of democracy than with practising it. And the second related more important point is, what's the use of all that democracy if it does not produce results. Taken at face value, it may seem that democracy nurtures creativity and totalitarianism hampers it, and that's absolutely true. But our kind of democracy does not seem to be nurturing too much creativity and at least as far as practical success in science and technology is concerned, China's kind of totalitarianism does not seem to be creating great barriers for its citizens to aspire to scientific knowledge and success. That of course does not mean that that kind of totalitarianism is better than democracy. But we are looking at a particular context here, and as far as serving that context is concerned, our democracy does not seem to be doing us great good, and perhaps we need to turn away a bit from touting its virtues, and actually think of how we can succeed in its framework, perhaps even by modifying its specific details. I don't think we are doing that.

Also, a truism is that money still rules, and science and technology in China seem to be increasingly targeted towards revenue generation, a fact whose lure would likely overrun other concerns and ideological premises. Pharmaceutical research in China especially seems to be charging ahead, but what is more important and frankly admirable, is the Chinese government's realisation that good drugs and the consequent revenue will come not only from enticing foreign companies to set up camp in China, but more importantly in nurturing and preparing a new breed of young students who will take the reins of China's R & D, and thereby China's economy, in their own hands. For doing this, the Chinese also seem to understand that its really the basics such as science education and basic infrastructure which sow the seeds of excellence, not just high-tech facilities. Also, once there is an atmosphere of technological and scientific innovation, one would not be surprised if China surges ahead in the most fundamental research too.

Unless we get over our internal disputes, lack of attention to basic facilities, and most importantly, a mentality that places other things above the entire country's eventual success in science and technology, we will eternally be the potential would-bes. Whether China will be the "is" remains to be seen and to be frank, both China and India's future is a wait-and-see proposition right now, but many as of now would place their bets on China rather than India. As I have quoted Prof. Balaram's words in a past post, we need to stand, before we can aim to sprint. Our peacock seems to be content on displaying its colours, while China's dragon wants to take to the air.

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Blogger Saket said...

Excellent article as usual. Somehow the government doesn't seem interested in improving the state of science in India. I used to love going to IUCAA, where there were pretty smart people, although I don't know if anyone apart from Professor Narlikar did any worthwhile research. Suvid's dad who was a PhD from University of Delaware used to work at NCL. I think he did a lot of good work in polymers although I am not sure how much at NCL, given its problems. I also loved going to the Exploratory in 10th and meeting VG Bhide and others... somehow I think I am cut out for pure science more than applied sciences myself. Unfortunately even relatives of mine working at some of the top research institutes in the country didnt recommend taking up Physics. And I shall never know what that might have been like...

It is good to aim high. If the government invests in some high quality institutes, attracts Indians abroad with good salaries and facilities, produces some good research... maybe a positive spiral could emerge.

9:16 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

From what I know of you, I am pretty sure you would have been very good with physics/the sciences...well, you are in the US, so there's always a chance! Saying the word "Exploratory" brings find memories for me of course...

I guess NCL is one of the better places in India. But there too, the problem is that most well-known scientists are >50, and there's nobody to replace them. And with reservations, this will be guaranteed. I hear that at NCL, the top tier positions are still filled up based on merit. But you know our government...

12:45 PM  

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