Reimagining science, redux

This article on Founding Fuel has some great suggestions I thought, but it merits sharing with a couple caveats.

First, in narratives about making science “easier to do”, commentators give science-industry linkages more play than science-society ones. This has been true in the past and continues to be. We remember and periodically celebrate the work of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar and M. Visveshwaraya, but not with nearly equal fanfare that of, say, Yash Pal or the members of the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme.

In public dialogues about making the work of scientists more relevant, writers and TV panellists often touch on spending more money to setup larger, better supplied labs and improving ties between the labs and industry, where research is translated into product or service. Spending more on science is necessary, as is the need to support collaborations, regularise funding and grant-giving, improve working conditions for teachers, etc.

More broadly, I acknowledge that the problem is that there isn’t enough good science happening in the country, that the author is recommending various ways in which science-industry linkages and tweaks within the science ecosystem can both change this for the better, and that science-society linkages are unlikely to be of help on this front. However, could this be because we’re asking the wrong question?

That is, what science and industry can do for each other becomes relevant if what we’re seeking is the growth of science, as defined by some parameters (number of citations, number of patents, etc.), as an enterprise in and of itself – as if its fortunes and outcomes weren’t already yoked to other societal endeavours. Growth for growth’s sake. Science-society linkages become relevant on the other hand when the parameters are, say, research and academic liberties, extent of public participation, distribution of opportunities, freedom from government interference, etc. – when quantitative growth is both difficult and more aligned with nation-building.

Ultimately, we don’t need a science that becomes easier to do at the expense of not thinking about whether it needs to be done, or done differently. This is not a veiled comment against ‘blue sky’ research, which must continue, but is directed against ‘black sky’ research – which goes on to pollute our air and water, drills forestland for oil, dams rivers and destabilises ecosystems without thought for the consequences.

Nevertheless, in a system designed increasingly to incentivise working with the private sector, to self-finance one’s work through patents and other licenses, and to translate research into arbitrarily defined “useful” things, such thinking can only become more penalised, more unfavourable. And the science that is rolled into technologies will only be industry friendly, which in the current political climate means Ambani- and/or Adani-friendly, to the detriment of everyone else, especially those on the bottom rungs of society.

Second, the article’s author uses Nobel Prize-winning work to describe presumably the extent of what is possible when faculty members at an institute work together or when researchers collaborate with their younger peers. But in the process he frames ‘collaborations that produce Nobel Prizes’ as desirable. This is a problem because doing so overlooks collaborations that didn’t win Nobel Prizes, because laureates are often white men (non-white, non-cis-men may not be able to ‘breach’ such ‘in-groups’ because of structural factors even as solutions to break these barriers are ignored in favour of a flatter ‘prize-winning’ one), and because “Nobel-Prize-winning collaborations” is an oxymoron.

The last is easiest to see: the prizes are awarded only to three people at a time whereas the author himself quotes a study that found that the number of authors per scientific paper increased from 3.2 to 4.4 in 1996-2015.

As a corrective of sorts, to infuse deliberations prompted by the Founding Fuel article with what a focus on industry-oriented development leaves out, let me quote at length from an essay Mukund Thattai published with The Wire three years ago, exploring the existence of “an Indian way of doing science” (emphases mine):

There is a strong case to fund science for the same reason we fund the arts or sport. Science is a cultural activity: it reveals unexpected beauty in the everyday; it captures the imagination of children; it attempts to answer some of humanity’s biggest questions about where we came from. Moreover, scientific ideas can be a potent component of the process by which society arrives at collective decisions about the future. Among the strongest reasons a resource-limited country such as India should fund curiosity-driven science is that the nature of future crises cannot be predicted.

It is impossible to micromanage the long-term research agenda, so the only hope is to cast a wide net. A broad and deep scientific community is a valuable resource that can be called upon to give its inputs on a variety of issues. They cannot be expected to always deliver a solution but can be expected to provide the best possible information available at any time. In this consultative process, it is crucially important to not privilege scientific experts over other participants in the discussion.

… Science thrives within a diversity of questions and methods, a diversity of institutional environments, and a diversity of personal experiences of individual scientists. In the modern era, the practice of science has moved to a more democratic mode, away from the idea of lone geniuses and towards a collective effort of creating hypotheses and sharing results. Any tendency toward uniformity and career professionalisation dilutes and ultimately destroys this diversity. As historian of science Dhruv Raina describes it, a science that is vulnerable to the “pressures of government” is “no longer an open frontier of critical activity”. Instead, science must become “social and reflexive”.

Ideas and themes must bubble up from the broadest possible community. In India, access to such a process is limited by the accident of one’s mother tongue and social class, and this must change. Anyone who wants to should have the opportunity to understand what scientists are doing. Ultimately, this must involve not only scientists but also social scientists, historians, philosophers, artists and communicators – and the public at large.

… Is there such a thing as an “Indian way” of doing science? Science in the abstract is said to transcend national boundaries. In practice it is strongly influenced by local experiences and local history. Unfortunately, even as national missions have faded to the background, they have been replaced by an imitation of Western fashions. It has become common to look to high-profile journals and conferences as arbiters of questions worth asking. This must stop. The key to revitalising Indian science is the careful choice of rich questions. These questions could be driven by new national missions that bring the excitement of a collective effort. Or they could be inspired by observing the complex interactions of the world immediately around us.

There is a great deal of scholarship and scientific inquiry that can arise from the study of India’s traditional knowledge systems. The country’s enormous biodiversity and human genetic diversity are an exciting and bottomless source of scientific puzzles and important secrets. Such questions would allow for a deeper two-way engagement with India’s people. This is not to say Indian scientists cannot work on internationally important problems – quite the opposite. The scientific community in India, working within their own unique contexts, could become the source of important problems that anyone in the world would be excited to work on.

… The internationalisation of science is an important goal in and of itself. While it stimulates cross-fertilisation of ideas and pushes up standards within science, it also creates opportunities for broader global discussions and engagements. The unfortunate hurdles which curtail the ability of Indian academics and students to travel abroad, and the enormous difficulty foreign academics face in obtaining necessary permissions to visit their colleagues in India, serve no purpose. In spite of all this, there is a healthy trend towards stronger international links.

Academic scientists have long played dual roles as teachers and researchers. Within India, science has a remarkably broad appeal. Public science talks are standing-room-only affairs, and famous scientists receive the kind of adulation typically reserved for movie stars. Students across the country are excited about science. Many aspire to become scientists themselves.

Historically, engineering and medical colleges have attracted scientifically-minded students, but this is changing. The Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research have now been running undergraduate programs for over a decade in cities across India. These institutions are to science what the IITs are to engineering, attracting some of the brightest students each year. Science programs within public universities have not fared as well, and must seize every opportunity to reinvent themselves. A science curriculum based not on dry facts but on the history and process of discovery can form the base of a broad education, in conjunction with the humanities and the arts.