Tuesday, December 11, 2007

C N R RAO, IT AND THE WANING OF YOUNG INTELLECT

Prof. C N R Rao, the doyen of Indian science, seems to have ruffled a few feathers over at The Acorn with his labeling of IT workers in an Outlook piece as ones who are akin to "coolies who are working for wages and not producing great intellectual material". Rao's thrust was at what he sees as a worsening intellectual milieu in Bangalore because of this drain of bright minds towards "lesser" tasks. Naturally people are galled at his unkind words and wonder what he wants to say.

I think there are several points that need to be addressed in his piece. Some of his points seem justified to me, others are not. In general, it seems like he starts off on the right foot and ends up on the wrong one. The right one pertains to lamenting the siphoning off of young, bright people to the IT sector, possibly at a loss to pure scientific research. There is more than a modicum of truth in this fact. In the 1960s, when private engineering and management colleges were very few, bright students chose to study science if only because there were few other options. If you were lucky, you would get admitted into COEP in Pune or VJIT in Bombay, but what other options were there for an aspiring engineer? Many of these aspiring engineers then chose to study science and get into industry or academia. This led to a constant supply of bright, intellectual minds in universities and colleges as well as a constant turnover of talented professionals in R & D and teaching, and I can empathize if someone misses this atmosphere and its benefits. I myself would have loved to have some of my friends who studied engineering study the sciences with me. I would have greatly benefited from their intellectual abilities, and ultimately the whole field would have done so. I am sure the intellectual atmosphere in colleges and universities in the 60s was much more vibrant especially in the sciences than it is now. These days, many students who study science only want to do it as a doorstep degree to get into other fields like management. Naturally their heart is not in the discipline unlike that of many of those in the 60s or 70s.

The result of this is that there is a steadily weakening trickle of highly intelligent and intellectual people who are studying science and the humanities. IT workers are many, gifted young scientists are few in our country. Many of those who would have studied science 25 years ago have been "lost" to IT, there's no doubt about this fact in my mind. And in saying that Rao is absolutely right.

Rao is also not the first or only scientist who laments this decline of young people in basic R & D. Many senior scientists say the same thing, that there were many more talented people in the sciences before than there seem to be now. They bemoan the fact that the generation of Vikram Sarabhai, C. R. Rao, Jayant Narlikar, M S Swaminathan and and in fact C N R Rao himself might have been permanently lost to history. P. Balaram, the present director of IISc. and also one among these stalwarts, also mused over similar matters in many of his fine editorials for the magazine Current Science. The reasons for this decline are also acknowledged and manyfold. The simple financial criterion that attracts people towards fields like IT is a true fact. Add to that declining government salaries, nepotism in science, reservations and the problems therein and a lack of scientific temper among young people and their parents, and it is not surprising that there are few students opting to study the sciences or humanities.

Perhaps most importantly, Rao and others are also right in saying that this negligence of basic scientific research will have serious consequences that may not be visible now. All the applied technology that we take for granted currently, including the foundation of IT, has had its origins in basic scientific research. The development of quantum theory for example was key to the development of electronics. In the past, many private companies like Bell Labs and IBM have been pioneers in this kind of research. But whether funded by private or public funds, the point is that it's only basic research that can sustain technological productivity in the long term. While IT generates jobs, ideas, connectivity and economic benefits, it cannot directly bring about the kind of research that led to the invention of the transistor, the integrated chip, superconductors and Giant Magnetoresistance (GMR) which won a Nobel Prize this year. All these inventions were made possible by basic science. All of them constitute the backbone of the information age. Without such basic scientific research, we are steadily going to lose the raw material of ideas that lead to future technological advances.

To be fair, this problem does not exist only in India. Scientists and policy makers in the US have also lamented for a while now the decline in basic research in private corporations like IBM which in the 80s was a focal point of such research and a nurturing home for Nobel Prize winners. However, it should also be understood that with the growing focus on product development and pleasing investors, companies are going to be increasingly hard-pressed to come up with research pipelines that have a low risk to returns ratio. Basic research by definition does not fit into this category; it is highly risky, promises no immediate returns, and can go on for protracted periods of time before any breakthrough is possible. And yet history has shown that it is the only way to generate ideas and intellectual capital for long-term, path-breaking technological development. For this reason too, it is only the government that will have to increasingly fund such research, even though private corporations will continue to play an occasional pivotal role.

But back to Prof. Rao. Until now, he has gotten it right. A lack of attention to basic research and to scientists who do it will have serious repercussions. It is true that many promising students are pursuing IT, students whose intellectual skills could be valuable in basic R & D. But when Rao blames the IT sector for this, there are some problems with his argument. Some of them have been noted at The Acorn. Clearly, blaming the IT sector is like cursing the darkness. It is better to light a candle. In this case, the only way would be to revamp the scientific curriculum, ramp up salaries and financial incentives for aspiring scientists, improve the teaching of science in school including better communication of popular science, make science attractive for young people by removing prejudices, regionalism and mediocrity in it and in general improve the image of science as an attractive career option. The private sector can also significantly contribute to this awareness with their increasing focus on some university-like research. Pharmaceutical companies for example can fund basic biomedical research in universities. I was disappointed that while Rao criticises the IT sector, he says nothing about how to galvanize his own sector. I share his disappointment with the decline in the intellectual milieu of research and science, but lamenting the virtues of this milieu says nothing about how to reform it.

But one of Prof. Rao's statement which I think galled many was his perceived denouncing of IT workers as everyday Joes who don't do anything creative. Let us put this in perspective. His statements made it sound like he was somehow judging routine work to be inferior compared to intellectual work. First of all, criticising IT work as being routine is not necessarily an insult. Many IT workers I know have acknowledged that much of their work is routine. There is much virtue in doing an honest job, no matter how routine it is, if you do it well. In addition, even routine jobs can benefit from flashes of creativity. We have to realise that human growth and national development needs every kind of individual input; from the matchmaker's to the poet's. In my opinion, one needs a critical mass of every kind of worker to sustain a healthy economy, vibrant intellectual culture and prosperous technological growth. Clearly we need more clerks than poets, we need more gardeners than fiction writers, and so we also need more IT workers than pure scientists. There is nothing wrong with that. What I would agree with Prof. Rao about is that we have more than the critical mass of IT workers in India right now, while the mass of scientists is dwindling. Whether the current scientific mass is critical or not I cannot say; I often get the feeling it is not. But what I think is certain is that compared to the mass of IT workers, the mass of new scientific talents is not increasing. If this mass becomes less than a certain value, we will face serious long-term effects which won't be ameliorated fast. And it is in recognising this fact that I fully share Prof. Rao's concern. We definitely need more young scientists. While historically the IT sector may have siphoned them off from science, it leads to nothing of value to curse the IT sector to justify the problems in pure science. However, while IT workers are not obliged to fund basic science, there is no doubt that scientific development will get a great boost if they do. So many such cases abound in universities in the US, where wealthy entrepreneurs including IT entrepreneurs have funded highly successful institutes, departments and centers of basic research. These centers have been very productive and contributed immensely in some cases to the science and technology of this country. Clearly it is not too much to ask like Prof. Rao does that such wealthy entrepreneurs in our country too fund some of our science.

But finally, I need to say a word about Prof. Rao's article. Amidst the reaction to his criticism flows the painful nostalgia he feels for his beloved Bangalore. As someone who has been born and been there all his life, we should empathize with the change he disappointedly documents. I can imagine that any senior distinguished citizen of that beautiful city would have felt this change and felt saddened. To blame this change on IT is too narrow-minded a view. But the fact that this change includes some bad aspects inherent in it cannot be doubted. We need more intellectuals and more scientists irrespective of IT or anything else. We need more poetry and music. Anything that treads on these deeply ingrained and important human values needs to be examined. We should not look for a way that would stifle it. But we do have to find a way around it.

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10 Comments:

Blogger Manasi said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Manasi said...

Just wanted to express my solidarity to your arguments. And would like to add that the social sciences need young minds too. We are a unique society in ourselves, and there is a lot worth researching about. The dramatic changes in our society can have significant implications for the study of sociology, political science, public policy, philosophy...everything. The curriculum could do with a real upgrade that generates interest to pursue these subjects. Not just the college/university level ones, but for the schools too. We still teach civics as a 25/50marks supplement to history, that you can easily mug up and score in. It hardly generates any interest or curiosity to learn further.

Anyways. I can go for too long with all the emotions it generates. Talk to you sometime later maybe.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

I agree with your arguments. Blaming IT for Indian science's woes is childish. Policymakers and scientists have to put in the right infrastructure and incentives to make science an attractive career choice for youngsters. I don't agree with your assertion however that we have more than enough IT workers; if that were the case, IT companies would not have been hiring at the speed at which they actually are. I am not even sure that IT work is even lesser intellectually. Doesn't science involve a lot of donkey work as well? (and pays a lot less I may add). There is enough creativity going on in the 'drab' world of Information Technology. Just look at the cool software and websites which folks at Google, Microsoft and counteless other companies have come up with, some indian firms included as well. I have worked in both Industry and academia, and frankly I find the work in the industry more stimulating if nothing then just for the fact that there is a lot at stake in the industry for a given project then there is in academia.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Manasi: I completely understand your emotions. However, and this is something we might discuss sometime, isn't the scenario better for at least some fields in the humanities? I absolutely agree that we need better people there too, but I always used to think in Fergusson that people (like you) who were studying fields like economics and psychology were much more intellectually vibrant and immersed in a stimulating milieu compared to us in the sciences.
As you said, these changes are going to have a long-term impact on our society. I especially feel sad that it is happening to us, a country which more than many other countries has had a strong intellectual, artistic and scientific tradition.

Vivek: You are right. I wasn't arguing in terms of strict demand and supply in jobs, but mainly with respect to the number of graduates that are being produced every year. Also, I agree that IT is not necessarily intellectually less stimulating than doing science. I think you will agree that there are many IT jobs which are quite routine, but it's quite true that the actual development of information technology in places like Google can be as intellectually stimulating as anything else. However, since all technology is ultimately based on the basic laws of science, stalling of basic scientific development will ultimately hamper the development of all such technology. Consider electricity. The basic roots of electrical technology are in physics, and electricity could really start flowing only after its basic physics was understood. Now, after this initial development had taken place, electrical engineers who were involved in practical electrical R & D could largely for many years have a scant understanding of physics. But the development of electronics again took an understanding of basic physics; an "electronics: textbook in the 1940s written by Shockley and others would have been unrecognisable to the modern electronics engineer with its heavy focus on physics and quantum theory. But later, when the technology became standardised, electronics engineers could get away with knowing little core physics. Maybe we are again in an age when the groundwork has been laid and so a lack of basic physics understanding does not necessarily hamper the practical work of engineers. But as history shows, something else, most certainly Murphy's Law, will again take us to a stage where we need to invest heavily in basic science for further technological development. The way I see it, if our schools produce 10% less IT workers than they are producing currently, there will be no long-term harm. But it will be an enormous long-term gain in my opinion if these indulge in basic R & D.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

"The way I see it, if our schools produce 10% less IT workers than they are producing currently, there will be no long-term harm. But it will be an enormous long-term gain in my opinion if these indulge in basic R & D."

That is debatable. If we produce less IT workers (and there is evidence that we are not producing enough) at the cost(benefit?)of say more theoretical physicists, then the cost to hire an IT worker in India will increase which will make India uncompetitive and consequently, IT work will shift to other low wage countries sinking India's services-driven economy. Will there be no 'long-term' impact in this scenario? I disagree.

At a big picture level, do you think that a country such as India can afford to spend a considerable sum of money into basic science? Basic scientific research does not necessarily yield genuine breakthroughs (think String Theory) and even if it does that may not always translate into 'practical' discoveries (Think General Relativity or Fermat's last Theorem). I completely agree that science and arts provide enormous sublime intellectual benefits. In my personal opinion, life really is not worth living if those pleasures are taken away but it is just that- a personal opinion, the bigger question is an economic one. In a developing country such as India where resources are limited and vast majority poor, we need to get our priorities right. Our rupees have to go to those projects that promise to improve our economic well-being in the shortest possible time. Right now, IT promises to be that project, and hence our resources-both intellectual and physical-are justified to be spent in that direction. Basic science and high arts is the domain of intellectual and monetary elite. We can not afford to send too many of our rupees or best brains into those fields, at least not yet.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Do you really think that we have such a deficit of IT workers that producing a little less and diverting them to basic R & D will make things so expensive that IT work will shift to other countries in reasonable amounts? (And I wonder which countries it could shift to...given India's predominance in low-wage IT work)

About funding basic research, there needs to be prioritization as you noted. String Theory may be a little too abstract even if we do need some people there. But consider organic chemistry, a basic science that is of immediate and very significant application in the betterment of our lives. I consistently have started hearing that Indian researchers working in India publish substandard organic chemistry research that is hard to duplicate, a fact that makes me feel ashamed. It seems we are not diverting enough people and funds even to such disciplines.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Saket said...

Here is how I see it. With the flat world, instead of doing only India's IT jobs, Indians are now doing the whole world's IT jobs. Admittedly these youngsters are making way more money than their parents did.

I agree with Professor Rao about the lack of complexity in most of these jobs and how these are so mundane. I think most people wouldn't do these jobs for as long as they do, because they don't truly enjoy them. This also means that most companies have productivity issues, and then we have management fixes like unrealistic deadlines and such, but that is another topic on it's own.

I disagree with Vivek about science only being about long-term projects and work that may not lead to practical benefits.

For instance if the Indian Government invested in becoming leaders in photovoltaic cell research, where India decides to become the leader in high-efficiency photovoltaics, maybe in 10 years we will have an industry which doesn't perform back-office operations for the world, but rather be the front-office that sends all it's monotonous work to another country.

In the longer term economics is a big equalizer and sooner than later, the costs of doing business in India are going to be higher than another country. The people with an aptitude for science but training in engineering, may find it hard to adjust in such a scenario, because they made a quick buck for a few years, doesn't imply that those jobs are here to stay.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

I agree with you. Many jobs in the IT sector are relatively mundane. The 10 or 20% of jobs which really generate the technology require extremely creative thinking and research-type mentality, and there are people doing them and there always should be. In any case, unfortunately Prof. Rao focused on IT which in some ways is a red herring. It distracts from the more important point, which is that basic sciences in India need to be enormously shored up, and private enterprises need to fund some of these sciences.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Nithyanand said...

Relevant comments there.You might want to read what I've written too at:
http://n-square-r.blogspot.com/

2:37 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Thanks for the link. I will comment on your post later.

7:44 AM  

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