Spotting scientists, lazy scientists

Calling scientists as a community ‘lazy’ is to abdicate the responsibility to make it easier for them to enjoy the fruits of their labours.

Indian scientists are lazy, says CNR Rao:

Bharat Ratna Prof CNR Rao on Wednesday said Indian scientists are “lazy” compared to those in countries like Japan, South Korea and China. “We are generally a lazy lot. If a person is angered by his superiors or something like that happened in Japan, he tends to work for an additional two hours. But in India, we stop working,” he said at a ceremony organized by the Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology, and the department of Information Technology, Biotechnology and Science & Technology to honour scientists and engineers.

Aside from my general displeasure about this man being accorded the prefix ‘Bharat Ratna’ at every mention, Rao has been coming across as a superficial commentator of late. Recently, while speaking at some event, he said that given as large a population as India’s, and making the safe assumption that a fixed fraction of it would have be significantly smarter than the rest, it was a tragedy that we still hadn’t spotted the country’s brightest scientists yet. This might make logical sense to many people but it absolutely should not to educators like Rao. He heads JNCASR and served as the prime minister chief scientific advisor in 2004-2014. To make India’s research excellence a matter of spotting is to abdicate the responsibility of nurturing these scientists. Who will you spot if you aren’t thinking about the best ways to create them?

And then this example of Japanese scientists working longer hours because they’re pissed with their bosses. What’s wrong with the Japanese? At least that was my first thought before I realised I couldn’t disparage Japan. It could be possible that they have a system that rewards hard work without bureaucracy getting in the way. We clearly don’t. I can work 10-times as hard as others in some Indian government offices but I sure as hell won’t receive proportionate appreciation for it. Similarly, I can’t expect people to work harder in any other setting if they think they aren’t going to get their dues, and I’d actively discourage them from doing so if it impacted their personal lives. So like in the previous instance, Rao sounds like he’s simply not thinking things through: calling scientists as a community ‘lazy’ is to abdicate the responsibility to make it easier for them to enjoy the fruits of their labours.

Also, let’s try to stop importing cross-border solutions for good governance?

Why India's rabies problem is especially bad

India bears the world’s heaviest rabies burden, according to a new study from the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, accounting for 35% of all deaths due to the disease. Here’s why you shouldn’t be surprised (data from GARC).

1. Vaccination coverage of dogs

Vaccination coverage of dogs in BRICS nations.
Vaccination coverage of dogs in BRICS nations.

Among the BRICS nations, India has the highest population of dogs and one of the lowest rates of vaccination.

2. Chances of receiving care

Chances of receiving prophylactic care after a rabid animal bite, in BRICS countries.
Chances of receiving prophylactic care after a rabid animal bite, in BRICS countries.

If you were bitten by an animal, in India the animal could be rabid 54% of time, and in China, 55%. But of every thousand people bitten by rabid animals, 24 don’t receive palliative care in India, while only 4 people don’t receive it in China.

3. Access to post-exposure care

Years of life lost due to rabies, in BRICS countries.
Years of life lost due to rabies, in BRICS countries.

Despite China being more populous than India and having a greater bite-incidence (1,107 vs. 691, per 100,000 people), the years of life lost due to rabies is higher in India. The GARC report uses multiple studies to come up with different estimates of that number, but India’s lower limit is comfortably higher than other BRICS countries’ upper limits. This is about there being more people in India exposed to dog-bites – as well as about the physical access to, the quality of and the affordability of care.

The result…

Types of losses incurred due to the burden of rabies, in BRICS countries.
Types of losses incurred due to the burden of rabies, in BRICS countries.

Why India’s rabies problem is especially bad

India bears the world’s heaviest rabies burden, according to a new study from the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, accounting for 35% of all deaths due to the disease. Here’s why you shouldn’t be surprised (data from GARC).

1. Vaccination coverage of dogs

Vaccination coverage of dogs in BRICS nations.
Vaccination coverage of dogs in BRICS nations.

Among the BRICS nations, India has the highest population of dogs and one of the lowest rates of vaccination.

2. Chances of receiving care

Chances of receiving prophylactic care after a rabid animal bite, in BRICS countries.
Chances of receiving prophylactic care after a rabid animal bite, in BRICS countries.

If you were bitten by an animal, in India the animal could be rabid 54% of time, and in China, 55%. But of every thousand people bitten by rabid animals, 24 don’t receive palliative care in India, while only 4 people don’t receive it in China.

3. Access to post-exposure care

Years of life lost due to rabies, in BRICS countries.
Years of life lost due to rabies, in BRICS countries.

Despite China being more populous than India and having a greater bite-incidence (1,107 vs. 691, per 100,000 people), the years of life lost due to rabies is higher in India. The GARC report uses multiple studies to come up with different estimates of that number, but India’s lower limit is comfortably higher than other BRICS countries’ upper limits. This is about there being more people in India exposed to dog-bites – as well as about the physical access to, the quality of and the affordability of care.

The result…

Types of losses incurred due to the burden of rabies, in BRICS countries.
Types of losses incurred due to the burden of rabies, in BRICS countries.

Alibaba IPO – A vindication of China’s Internet?

If China wants Alibaba to go international, it will find it tough to take refuge behind its current Internet governance policies. Anuj Srivas explains.

This is a guest post contributed by Anuj Srivas, tech. journalist and blogger, until recently the author of Hypertext, The Hindu.

The differences between Jack Ma – the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba – and an average Silicon Valley CEO are numerous and far-reaching. Mr. Ma’s knowledge of mathematics, for instance, was once so poor that it almost prevented him from attending college. Contrast this to the technological genius of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak or the academic-based origins of Google’s search algorithm.

His background as an English teacher, who dabbled in a number of different sectors before being fascinated by the Internet industry, is more characteristic of the average American investor that was duped by the dot-com bubble than it is of a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg.

And yet, today, Alibaba stands shoulder-to-shoulder with much of Silicon Valley. Its recently launched initial public offering (IPO) raked in a little over $20 billion, turning it into the world’s biggest technology flotation.

Is this event an inflection point? To some, it may seem to be a natural course of affairs after Yahoo! threw Alibaba a lifeline back in 2005. But is there something else to take away from it other than the obvious comparisons with India’s fledgling Internet industry?

Foremost, it is enormously pleasing to see Jack Ma, like Lenovo’s YY, clearly avoid subscribing to the Silicon Valley ideology of ‘transparency through opacity’. The CEOs of Google, Yahoo!, Facebook and Microsoft paint a picture of openness, sharing, and transparency wherever they go. The world of the cloud seems to make life easier (“look, no wires!”) but in fact wraps its users in an opaque black box. We have no tools that allow us to track our information and data, let alone allow us to take charge.

Of course, Mr. Ma (who sticks to doling out life and management tips in his speeches) is clearly constrained by the circumstances that allowed Alibaba to become what it is today: namely, the way China views, approaches and governs its Internet. This brings us to one of the more interesting implications of Alibaba’s IPO.

For decades now, China has been the poster-boy for how the Internet would look if we stopped fighting for a transparent, open and censorship-free system. The Great Firewall of China has continued to stand, quite proudly, in the face of international criticism.

The country itself has managed to make more than one U.S technology company come around to its way of thinking. As US government official Tom Lantos commented after Yahoo actively helped China in its censorship efforts, “While technologically and financially you [Yahoo!] are giants, morally you are pygmies.”

What are we to take away from the fact that China is in the process of undergoing one of its harshest ever Internet censorship/crackdown periods since 2003 (when it started construction of its Firewall) while Alibaba may yet go down in history as the biggest technology IPO ever? China’s approach to the Internet is a deadly mixture of censorship, propaganda and protectionism. The victory of Alibaba at the New York Stock Exchange will prove to be fodder for three takeaways.

First, that China’s protectionism-censorship stance (there cannot be one without the other) works. Despite years of criticism and threatened sanctions, China currently houses three of the world’s ten most valuable technology companies. After Alibaba’s IPO, how can Beijing look at its Internet governance approach with anything but approval? This is a moment of triumph for the country’s Internet regulators.

Second, that investors do not, and will not ever, care about censorship.

Third: will other countries, already outraged by the NSA and the Snowden incident, be emboldened to take China-like steps when it comes to governing their local Internet industries? There is little doubt that most countries that need to be build their own digital infrastructure, but China and Russia have shown us that their version of digital sovereignty comes with a lack of privacy and the introduction of a censorship regime. Asian, African and Latin American countries will have to escape this trap; the success of Alibaba does not help this.

On the other hand, this will also prove to be the biggest challenge for China’s Internet. If the country wants its Internet firms to go international, it will find it tough to take refuge behind its current Internet governance policies. Companies like Huawei and ZTE, which are in the telecommunication business, have to constantly defend themselves every time they enter a new country. Alibaba, which of course will not be plagued with national security issues, will have to consciously and unconsciously defend the Chinese Internet wherever it goes.

It would be instructive to monitor Mr. Ma and whichever ideology he chooses to adopt and market in the near future. I have a feeling it will tell us quite a bit about the fate of China’s Internet.

More by Anuj Srivas:

And now, a tweet from our sponsor

R&D in China and India

“A great deal of the debate over globalization of knowledge economies has focused on China and India. One reason has been their rapid, sustained economic growth. The Chinese economy has averaged a growth rate of 9-10 percent for nearly two decades, and now ranks among the world’s largest economies. India, too, has grown steadily. After years of plodding along at an average annual increase in its gross domestic product (GDP) of 3.5 percent, India has expanded by 6 percent per annum since 1980, and more than 7 percent since 1994 (Wilson and Purushothaman, 2003). Both countries are expected to maintain their dynamism, at least for the near future.”

– Gereffi et al, ‘Getting the Numbers Right: International Engineering Education in the United States, China and India’, Journal of Engineering Education, January 2008

A June 16 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, titled ‘China’s Rise as a Major Contributor to Science and Technology’, analyses the academic and research environment in China over the last decade or so, and discusses the factors involved in the country’s increasing fecundity in recent years. It concludes that four factors have played an important role in this process:

  1. Large human capital base
  2. A labor market favoring academic meritocracy
  3. A large diaspora of Chinese-origin scientists
  4. A centralized government willing to invest in science

A simple metric they cite to make their point is the publication trends by country. Between 2000 and 2010, for example, the number of science and engineering papers published by China has increased by 470%. The next highest climb was for India, by 234%.

Click on the image for an interactive chart.
Click on the image for an interactive chart.

“The cheaters don’t have to worry they will someday be caught and punished.”

This is a quantitative result. A common criticism of the rising volume of Chinese scientific literature in the last three decades is the quality of research coming out of it. Dramatic increases in research output are often accompanied by a publish-or-perish mindset that fosters a desperation among scientists to get published, leading to padded CVs, falsified data and plagiarism. Moreover, it’s plausible that since R&D funding in China is still controlled by a highly centralized government, flow of money is restricted and access to it is highly competitive. And when it is government officials that are evaluating science, quantitative results are favored over qualitative ones, reliance on misleading performance metrics increases, and funds are often awarded for areas of research that favor political agendas.

The PNAS paper cites the work of Shi-min Fang, a science writer who won the inaugural John Maddox prize in 2012 for exposing scientific fraud in Chinese research circles, for this. In an interview to NewScientist in November of that year, he explains the source of widespread misconduct:

It is the result of interactions between totalitarianism, the lack of freedom of speech, press and academic research, extreme capitalism that tries to commercialise everything including science and education, traditional culture, the lack of scientific spirit, the culture of saving face and so on. It’s also because there is not a credible official channel to report, investigate and punish academic misconduct. The cheaters don’t have to worry they will someday be caught and punished.

At this point, it’s tempting to draw parallels with India. While China has seen increased funding for R&D…

Click on the chart for an interactive view.
Click on the chart for an interactive view.

… India has been less fortunate.

Click on the chart for an interactive view.
Click on the chart for an interactive view.

The issue of funding is slightly different in India, in fact. While Chinese science is obstinately centralized and publicly funded, India is centralized in some parts and decentralized in others, public funding is not high enough because presumably we lack the meritocratic academic environment, and private funding is not as high as it needs to be.

Click on the image for an interactive chart.
Click on the image for an interactive chart.

Even though the PNAS paper’s authors say their breakdown of what has driven scientific output from China could inspire changes in other countries, India is faced with different issues as the charts above have shown. Indeed, the very first chart shows how, despite the number of published papers having double in the last decade, we have only jumped from one small number to another small number.

“Scientific research in India has become the handmaiden of defense technology.”

There is also a definite lack of visibility: when little scientific output of any kind is accessible to 1) the common man, and 2) the world outside. Apart from minimal media coverage, there is a paucity of scientific journals, or they exist but are not well known, accessible or both. This Jamia Milia collection lists a paltry 226 journals – including those in regional languages – but it’s likelier that there are hundreds more, both credible and dubious. A journal serves as an aggregation of reliable scientific knowledge not just for scientists but also for journalists and other reliant decision-makers. It is one place to find the latest developments.

In this context, Current Science appears to be the most favored in the country, not to mention the loneliest. Then again, a couple fingers can be pointed at years of reliance on quantitative performance metrics, which drives many Indian researchers to publish in journals with very high impact factors such as Nature or Science, which are often based outside the country.

In the absence of lists of Indian and Chinese journals, let’s turn to a table used in the PNAS paper showing average number of citations per article compared with the USA, in percent. It shows both India and China close to 40% in 2010-2011.

The poor showing may not be a direct consequence of low quality. For example, a paper may have detailed research conducted to resolve a niche issue in Indian defense technology. In such a case, the quality of the article may be high but the citability of the research itself will be low. Don’t be surprised if this is common in India given our devotion to the space and nuclear sciences. And perhaps this is what a friend of mine referred to when he said “Scientific research in India has become the handmaiden of defense technology”.

To sum up, although India and China both lag the USA and the EU for productivity and value of research (albeit through quantitative metrics), China is facing problems associated with the maturity of a voluminous scientific workforce, whereas India is quite far from that maturity. The PNAS paper is available here. If you’re interested in an analysis of engineering education in the two countries, see this paper (from which the opening lines of this post were borrowed).

R&D in China and India

“A great deal of the debate over globalization of knowledge economies has focused on China and India. One reason has been their rapid, sustained economic growth. The Chinese economy has averaged a growth rate of 9-10 percent for nearly two decades, and now ranks among the world’s largest economies. India, too, has grown steadily. After years of plodding along at an average annual increase in its gross domestic product (GDP) of 3.5 percent, India has expanded by 6 percent per annum since 1980, and more than 7 percent since 1994 (Wilson and Purushothaman, 2003). Both countries are expected to maintain their dynamism, at least for the near future.”

– Gereffi et al, ‘Getting the Numbers Right: International Engineering Education in the United States, China and India’, Journal of Engineering Education, January 2008

A June 16 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, titled ‘China’s Rise as a Major Contributor to Science and Technology’, analyses the academic and research environment in China over the last decade or so, and discusses the factors involved in the country’s increasing fecundity in recent years. It concludes that four factors have played an important role in this process:

  1. Large human capital base
  2. A labor market favoring academic meritocracy
  3. A large diaspora of Chinese-origin scientists
  4. A centralized government willing to invest in science

A simple metric they cite to make their point is the publication trends by country. Between 2000 and 2010, for example, the number of science and engineering papers published by China has increased by 470%. The next highest climb was for India, by 234%.

Click on the image for an interactive chart.
Click on the image for an interactive chart.

“The cheaters don’t have to worry they will someday be caught and punished.”

This is a quantitative result. A common criticism of the rising volume of Chinese scientific literature in the last three decades is the quality of research coming out of it. Dramatic increases in research output are often accompanied by a publish-or-perish mindset that fosters a desperation among scientists to get published, leading to padded CVs, falsified data and plagiarism. Moreover, it’s plausible that since R&D funding in China is still controlled by a highly centralized government, flow of money is restricted and access to it is highly competitive. And when it is government officials that are evaluating science, quantitative results are favored over qualitative ones, reliance on misleading performance metrics increases, and funds are often awarded for areas of research that favor political agendas.

The PNAS paper cites the work of Shi-min Fang, a science writer who won the inaugural John Maddox prize in 2012 for exposing scientific fraud in Chinese research circles, for this. In an interview to NewScientist in November of that year, he explains the source of widespread misconduct:

It is the result of interactions between totalitarianism, the lack of freedom of speech, press and academic research, extreme capitalism that tries to commercialise everything including science and education, traditional culture, the lack of scientific spirit, the culture of saving face and so on. It’s also because there is not a credible official channel to report, investigate and punish academic misconduct. The cheaters don’t have to worry they will someday be caught and punished.

At this point, it’s tempting to draw parallels with India. While China has seen increased funding for R&D…

Click on the chart for an interactive view.
Click on the chart for an interactive view.

… India has been less fortunate.

Click on the chart for an interactive view.
Click on the chart for an interactive view.

The issue of funding is slightly different in India, in fact. While Chinese science is obstinately centralized and publicly funded, India is centralized in some parts and decentralized in others, public funding is not high enough because presumably we lack the meritocratic academic environment, and private funding is not as high as it needs to be.

Click on the image for an interactive chart.
Click on the image for an interactive chart.

Even though the PNAS paper’s authors say their breakdown of what has driven scientific output from China could inspire changes in other countries, India is faced with different issues as the charts above have shown. Indeed, the very first chart shows how, despite the number of published papers having double in the last decade, we have only jumped from one small number to another small number.

“Scientific research in India has become the handmaiden of defense technology.”

There is also a definite lack of visibility: when little scientific output of any kind is accessible to 1) the common man, and 2) the world outside. Apart from minimal media coverage, there is a paucity of scientific journals, or they exist but are not well known, accessible or both. This Jamia Milia collection lists a paltry 226 journals – including those in regional languages – but it’s likelier that there are hundreds more, both credible and dubious. A journal serves as an aggregation of reliable scientific knowledge not just for scientists but also for journalists and other reliant decision-makers. It is one place to find the latest developments.

In this context, Current Science appears to be the most favored in the country, not to mention the loneliest. Then again, a couple fingers can be pointed at years of reliance on quantitative performance metrics, which drives many Indian researchers to publish in journals with very high impact factors such as Nature or Science, which are often based outside the country.

In the absence of lists of Indian and Chinese journals, let’s turn to a table used in the PNAS paper showing average number of citations per article compared with the USA, in percent. It shows both India and China close to 40% in 2010-2011.

The poor showing may not be a direct consequence of low quality. For example, a paper may have detailed research conducted to resolve a niche issue in Indian defense technology. In such a case, the quality of the article may be high but the citability of the research itself will be low. Don’t be surprised if this is common in India given our devotion to the space and nuclear sciences. And perhaps this is what a friend of mine referred to when he said “Scientific research in India has become the handmaiden of defense technology”.

To sum up, although India and China both lag the USA and the EU for productivity and value of research (albeit through quantitative metrics), China is facing problems associated with the maturity of a voluminous scientific workforce, whereas India is quite far from that maturity. The PNAS paper is available here. If you’re interested in an analysis of engineering education in the two countries, see this paper (from which the opening lines of this post were borrowed).