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.
Labels: Bangalore, Indian Science, science