Wednesday, October 03, 2007


On his blog, Abi pens an excellent post analysing the incentives that should be offered to lure faculty to Indian academic institutions. While some of these sound utopian to me, we can all ardently hope that at least some of them will be put into practice. In addition to these points, I would like to point out two additional points which others have raised before:

1. The burgeoning Indian Scientocracy: I don't know who originally coined this word- scientocracy, but I read it first in an editorial in Current Science by Prof. P. Balaram, a very distinguished Indian scientist and now director of IISc. Balaram was referring to the grand old esteemed men and women of Indian science, who now occupy very important scientific and administrative posts. Balaram noted that these men constitute some kind of meritocracy of science (hence scientocracy) in which only a select few are welcome, and which is more or less treated like any other class system with bottom feeders having to wait for favours until eternity, and frequently having to become sycophants of these granddaddies of the establishment. If you are not in their "in"circle- a position that often is claimed by years of dedicated worship at their feet- you may not have access to the most important posts, decisions, and most importantly the biggest funds. I have heard this complaint from some very good scientists, who say that these big shots control the funding and don't make it unambiguously and objectively available to those who deserve it across the country.

This scientocracy riddles the Indian research and educational scenario at every level, not just the national level. The worst of this group are nothing more than languorous walruses, sapping away valuable air in the department, expanding their girth on creaky comfortable chairs, directing their minions in undergraduate labs with totalitarian splendour, doing no research, and terrorising students in their classes. Years of therapy may not be enough to ameliorate the harm that these evil old men have done to young minds.

Membership in the scientocracy is largely a function of "contacts", but sadly and surprisingly, it can also sometimes be a function of other factors such as "family contacts", regionalism, and the ability to suck up. Most sadly, this also happens more often than it should inspite of the candidate being scientifically competent. In the Indian scienticracy in a nutshell, there is scarce room, if any for young, upstart, brilliant Turks who challenge the heirarchy. I have talked to many students, and for some reason, I find this problem to be a common factor in their disdain of wanting to get a faculty position in India. There is a scientocracy in the US too, but its influence seems to be radically less compared to India. Naturally, the Indian scientocracy has spread its tentacles wider in certain fields compared to others, but in any case, unless the influence of this class heirarchy is vastly bridled or abolished, wanting to be a faculty member in India seems to be largely an unplesant thought for apiring would-bes.

2. Fly high and then sigh: A point, interestingly again enunciated by Balaram a few years ago, which I have often belaboured before. Let's not aim to sprint before we can even stand. I won't reiterate the points, but would just stress that in the absence of basic, red tape-free and efficient infrastructure, no amount of advanced million dollar instrumentation is going to foster the growth of Indian science. If anything indeed, it may and does conjure false dreams for many.

3. Watch your temper: Always a grudge in my opinion. Science is not about principles learned in textbooks and laboratories, but a way of thinking. The age of reason is being eroded not just in India but throughout the world, and we need to rejuvenate such enlightened thinking in our country. Foster this basic culture of scientific temper, critical thinking and questioning, and you will go far. This again is related to the Indian Scientocracy, members of which can quickly muzzle such questioning if it comes from novice greens who may be considered a threat to the establishment. Also, lack of scientific temper directly impacts bright students who gravitate away from the sciences and to other disciplines. This, as Abi states, directly affects the will of potential faculty members whose publications are directly a result of motivated and sincere graduate students. Constantly being looked down upon during their college years does not help these students.
Consider what happened in the US after the launch of Sputnik in 1957. The next decade may have been probably the most exciting time to be a science student in the country. Not only did the government pour money into school and college science, but there was this sizzling scientific atmosphere all around (if only for the sake of beating the Soviets) that propelled young minds into plumbing the depths of science and fundamental engineering. The glorious space age in the US was a direct result of this boost. I cannot help thinking that perhaps we need some such uncomfortable impetus to encourage such an atmosphere in our country too.

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