Overview of science journalism in India, for WiD

Wissenschaft im Dialog is hosting “a special series about the role of science communication and science journalism in various countries”. At their request, and thrilled for the opportunity, I wrote the India edition, available to read here. The initial limit was 1,000 words but the version that got published has around 1,400 words. For allowing this spillover – i.e. letting me go on and on – but more so for helping me compose and edit the thing, I owe thanks to Esther Kähler and Arwen Cross.

Excerpt:

There are many reasons for [science stories of a certain type being popular today] – but two of them in particular dominate. The first is that, like everywhere else in the world, Indian journalism outlets are making a painful transition from print to the web. However, the business of journalism is tougher in India because the purchasing power is lower while the costs remain high. As a result, tested models of money-making such as online subscriptions and paywalls developed for the West can’t be adopted in India. Second – and again, like everywhere else in the world – political nationalism is on the rise. (Even if Emmanuel Macron received 65% of the French vote, it is startling that Marine Le Pen secured 35%.) One consequence of this has been that right-wing ideologues, politicians and supporters are becoming less tolerant towards journalism that criticises homegrown innovations. Instead they want stories that amplify national pride by glorifying ’successes‘ that, in most contexts, would simply be seen as low-hanging fruit.

Keep reading.

Featured image credit: mdhondt/pixabay.

Curious Bends – commoner panthers, space diplomacy, big data sells big cars and more

Curious Bends is a weekly newsletter about science, tech., data and India. Akshat Rathi and I curate it. You can subscribe to it here. If have feedback, suggestions, or would just generally like to get in touch, just email us.

1. Why the GM debate in India won’t abate

It is a sign of its inadequacy that the debate on genetically modified crops in India is still on, with no end in sight. Although public consensus is largely polarised, the government has done its bit to postpone resolution. For one, decisions on GM crops are made as if they were “technical answers to technical questions”. For another, no formal arena of debate exists that also addresses social anxieties. (8 min read)

2. One foot on Earth and another in the heavens

Camera traps installed by the Wildlife Conservation Society of India have shown that about one in ten of all leopard images belong to black leopards (that is, black panthers). These melanistic big cats have been spotted in wildlife reserves in Kerala and Karnataka, and seem commoner in the wetter forests of the Western Ghats. In fact, written records of sightings in these parts date from 1879, and could aid conservation efforts in a country that lost its cheetahs in 1960. (2 min read)

3. One foot on Earth and another in the heavens

For smaller and middle income nations, strengthening institutional and technical capacity on the ground might be a better option than to launch satellites because more than vanity, the choice makes them better positioned to gather useful data. And if such a nation is in South Asia, then India’s planned SAARC satellite could make that choice easier, providing a finer balance between “orbital dreams and ground realities”. (5 min read)

+ The author, Nalaka Gunawardene, is a journalist and science writer from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

4. Do big car-makers know their way around big data?

When sales slumped, Mahindra & Mahindra, an Indian car-maker, used data gleaned from the social media to strip its former best-selling XUV500 model of some features and sell it cheaper. The company declined to give further details. This isn’t unique—big car-makers around the world are turning to big data to widen margins. But do they know how best to use the data or is it just that putting the squeeze on this lemon is a fad? (6 min read)

5. A geothermal bounty in the Himalayas

As the developing world edges toward an energy sufficiency crisis, scientists, environmental conservationists and governments get closer to a Mexican standoff. This is no better highlighted than with the gigawatts of geothermal energy locked up in the Himalayas. A 20-MW plant could “save three million litres of diesel”, $2 million and 28,000 tons of carbon dioxide in northern India per year. Why isn’t it being used? (2 min read)

Chart of the week

“Both [female genital mutilation and child marriage] stem from deeply rooted social norms which can only be changed by educating parents about the harm they cause. Making foreign aid conditional on results gives governments an extra incentive not just to pass laws, but to enforce them. Police and women’s activists in some countries have set up phone hotlines and safe houses for victims or girls at risk. Most important … is to make sure that girls go to school and finish their studies.” The Economist has more.

20140726_IRC374

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Hearing test, radiation-resistant cells, sign language and more

Curious Bends is a weekly newsletter about science, tech., data and India. Akshat Rathi and I curate it. You can subscribe to it here. If have feedback, suggestions, or would just generally like to get in touch, just email us.

1. Poor children deserve better hearing tests; an Indian entrepreneur may have the solution

An estimated 63 million people in India suffer from hearing problems. But children are not tested for such impairment at a young age because of the costs of testing. Early detection and intervention is crucial for improving the difficulties with cognition and language skills. Now, a Bangalore-based inventor has come up with a solution that sharply lowers the cost of testing if a newborn can hear properly. (3 min read)

2. What makes cells resistant to radiation?

Radiation can damage cell’s DNA, and sometimes make them cancerous. But not all cells are affected by such radiation. Previously, it was thought that such ability was down to the DNA repair mechanisms in place in every one of them, but a new study shows that cells have more weapons to fight this invisible attack. (2 min read)

3. What sign language teaches us about the brain

As she took a course to learn sign language, a question kept nagging this neurobiologist: does the brain treat the visual language differently from spoken languages? Turns out, for the most part, they don’t. And yet brain studies of deaf people who use sign language helps bust a few myths about how our brains work. (5 min read)

+ The author of this piece, Sana Suri, is a neurobiologist at the University of Oxford.

4. Another biotech startup accelerator opens up in Bangalore. Can it deliver?

India’s biotech industry is supposed to be undergoing a boom. It was projected that revenues would reach $5 billion by 2009, but that hasn’t happened yet. Industry watchers remain optimistic, claiming that revenues will reach $100 billion by 2020. Can a startup accelerator help achieve this dream? (5 min read)

5. BRICS can boost their research by setting up collaborations, but there seems to be no will

The recent BRICS summit in Brazil saw the launch of the New Development Bank, which has been setup to rival the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But there was little progress on setting aside joint funds to boost scientific collaboration. There is a huge potential here but no one is interested in tapping it. (2 min read)

Chart of the week

It has been a terrible week for the civilian aviation industry with Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shot down over Ukraine and an ongoing investigation of Air Algerie Flight 5017 that crashed in Mali. Vasudevan Mukunth (one of the curators of Curious Bends; a.k.a. me) has collected the data of all such past events in one interactive chart.

screen-shot-2014-07-26-at-11-35-28-e1406399183451

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No country for new journalism

(Formatting issues fixed.)

TwitterNgoodThrough an oped in Nieman Lab, Ken Doctor makes a timely case for explanatory – or explainer – journalism being far from a passing fad. Across the many factors that he argues contribute to its rise and persistence in western markets, there is evidence that he believes explainer journalism’s historical basis is more relevant than its technological one, most simply by virtue of having been necessitated by traditional journalism no longer connecting the dots well enough.

Second, his argument that explainer journalism is helped by the success of digital journalism takes for granted the resources that have helped it succeed in the west and not so much in countries like India.

So these points make me wonder if explainer journalism can expect to be adopted with similar enthusiasm here – where, unsurprisingly, it is most relevant. Thinking of journalism as an “imported” enterprise in the country, differences both cultural and historical become apparent between mainstream English-language journalism and regional local-language journalism. They cater to different interests and are shaped by different forces. For example, English-language establishments cater to an audience whose news sources are worldwide, who can always switch channels or newspapers and not be worried about running out of options. For such establishments, How/Why journalism is a way to differentiate itself.

Local v. regional

On the other hand, local-language establishments cater to an audience that is not spoiled for options and that is dependent profoundly on Who/What/When/Where journalism no matter where its ‘reading diaspora’. For them, How/Why journalism is an add-on. In this sense, the localism that Ken Doctor probes in his piece has no counterpart. It is substituted with a more fragmented regionalism whose players are interested in an expanding readership over that of their own scope. In this context, let’s revisit one of his statements:

Local daily newspapers have traditionally been disproportionately in the Who/What/When/Where column, but some of that now-lost local knowledge edged its ways into How/Why stories, or at least How/Why explanations within stories. Understanding of local policy and local news players has been lost; lots of local b.s. detection has vanished almost overnight.

Because of explainer journalism’s reliance on digital and digital’s compliance with the economics of scale (especially in a market where purchasing power is low), what Doctor calls small, local players are not in a position to adopt explainer journalism as an exclusive storytelling mode. As a result of this exclusion, Doctor argues that what digital makes accessible – i.e. what is found online – often lacks the local angle. But it remains to be seen if this issue’s Indian counterpart – digital vs. the unique regional as opposed to digital vs. the small local – is even likely to be relevant. In other words, do smaller regional players see the need to take the explainer route?

Local-level journalism (not to be confused with what is practiced by local establishments) in India is bifocal. On the one hand, there are regional players who cover the Who/What/When/Where thoroughly. On the other, there are the bigger English-language mainstreamers who don’t each have enough reporters to cover a region like India thanks, of course, to its profuse fragmentation, compensating instead by covering local stories in two distinct ways:

as single-column 150-word pieces that report a minor story (Who/What/When/Where) or

as six-column 1,500-word pieces where the regional story informs a national plot (How/Why),

—as if regional connect-the-dots journalism surfaces as a result of mainstream failures to bridge an acknowledged gap between conventional and contextualizing journalism. Where academicians, scholars and other experts do what journalists should have done – rather, in fact, they help journalists do what they must do. Therefore, readers of the mainstream publications have access to How/Why journalism because, counter-intuitively, it is made available in order to repair its unavailability. This is an unavailability that many mainstreamers believe they have license to further because they think the ‘profuse fragmentation’ is an insurmountable barrier.

There’s no history

The Hindu and The Indian Express are two Indian newspapers that have carved a space for themselves by being outstanding purveyors of such How/Why journalism, and in the same vein can’t be thought of as having succumbed to the historical basis that makes the case for its revival—“Why fix something that ain’t broken?”. And the “top-drawer” publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post that Doctor mentions that find a need to conspicuously assert this renewal are doing so on the back of the technology that they think has finally made the renewal economically feasible. And that the Times stands to be able to charge a premium for packaging Upshot and its other offerings together is not something Hindu or Express can also do now because, for the latter couple, How/Why isn’t new, hasn’t been for some time.

Therefore, whereupon the time has come in the western mainstream media to “readopt” explainer journalism, its Indian counterpart can’t claim to do that any time soon because it has neither the west’s historical nor technological bases. Our motivation has to come from elsewhere.

Finding quake shelters, breaking bad in Punjab, rice-wheat divide & more

Curious Bends is a weekly newsletter about science, tech., data and India. Akshat Rathi and I curate it. You can subscribe to it here. If have feedback, suggestions, or would just generally like to get in touch, just email us.

1. Pesticides may be to blame for some cancers among India’s farmers

The green revolution in India increased food production but the agrochemicals it used could also have set off a “cancer epidemic”. A three-year study by Punjabi University, Patiala, revealed no confounding factors across demographics except pesticides. Many patients, some of whom travel thousands of kilometers for affordable care, are from the revolution’s belt. (3 min read)

2. A socially cognizant tool to identify quake shelters

Nepali and German scientists have devised a method called Open Space Suitability Index to rank the suitability of public shelters that could be used as quake shelters. Uniquely for it, it assesses both physical and social vulnerability (that is, the risks people, businesses and governments face). (2 min read)

3. Spare the mafia, spoil the smuggler, dealer and consumer

Punjab has a drug problem. Despite widespread efforts by the state to blow it off, then blow it away, its Walter Whites and Jesse Pinkmans persist. One is a cop, the other might be a BSF jawan. Effectively, the Narcotics Control Bureau is lost for ideas, and it might be because the state is targeting the victims instead of the drug mafia. (29 min read)

+ The author of this piece, Ushinor Majumdar, is an ex-lawyer and a journalist with Tehelka.

4. Delayed survey derails health monitoring

As it is India lacks key data to better govern its people. Now, its main source of health statistics, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), has been delayed. The NFHS is a large-scale household sample survey and produces internationally accepted estimates of fertility, mortality, contraceptive use, violence against women and, crucially, malnutrition. The latest survey should have been held in 2010, and it means for the last four years health workers have been blindsided. (2 min read)

5. Forget your 15 minutes of fame, think about your 15% chance of depression

Clinical depression has the dubious distinction of being the second most common cause of suffering in terms of burden of illness. The WHO has predicted it will become the leading cause of death by 2020. If this isn’t alarming, then sample this: new research says that every person in the world has a 15% chance of experiencing their first episode between the ages of 25 and 35. (4 min read)

Chart of the week

According to the 68th National Sample Survey (2011-2012), the consumption of rice has fallen marginally in a seven-year period while that of wheat is on the rise. There is a perceivable split between the Hindi heartland and the southern and eastern states which prefer wheat and rice, respectively. There is also an urban-rural and, intriguingly, a Jammu-Kashmir divide. Read more about it on Scroll.in.

1405378358-1351_Monthly-pc-qt-consumption-rice-urban

If you’re curious for more, follow Akshat and me on Twitter. Enjoy your week!

Finding quake shelters, breaking bad in Punjab, rice-wheat divide & more

Curious Bends is a weekly newsletter about science, tech., data and India. Akshat Rathi and I curate it. You can subscribe to it here. If have feedback, suggestions, or would just generally like to get in touch, just email us.

1. Pesticides may be to blame for some cancers among India’s farmers

The green revolution in India increased food production but the agrochemicals it used could also have set off a “cancer epidemic”. A three-year study by Punjabi University, Patiala, revealed no confounding factors across demographics except pesticides. Many patients, some of whom travel thousands of kilometers for affordable care, are from the revolution’s belt. (3 min read)

2. A socially cognizant tool to identify quake shelters

Nepali and German scientists have devised a method called Open Space Suitability Index to rank the suitability of public shelters that could be used as quake shelters. Uniquely for it, it assesses both physical and social vulnerability (that is, the risks people, businesses and governments face). (2 min read)

3. Spare the mafia, spoil the smuggler, dealer and consumer

Punjab has a drug problem. Despite widespread efforts by the state to blow it off, then blow it away, its Walter Whites and Jesse Pinkmans persist. One is a cop, the other might be a BSF jawan. Effectively, the Narcotics Control Bureau is lost for ideas, and it might be because the state is targeting the victims instead of the drug mafia. (29 min read)

+ The author of this piece, Ushinor Majumdar, is an ex-lawyer and a journalist with Tehelka.

4. Delayed survey derails health monitoring

As it is India lacks key data to better govern its people. Now, its main source of health statistics, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), has been delayed. The NFHS is a large-scale household sample survey and produces internationally accepted estimates of fertility, mortality, contraceptive use, violence against women and, crucially, malnutrition. The latest survey should have been held in 2010, and it means for the last four years health workers have been blindsided. (2 min read)

5. Forget your 15 minutes of fame, think about your 15% chance of depression

Clinical depression has the dubious distinction of being the second most common cause of suffering in terms of burden of illness. The WHO has predicted it will become the leading cause of death by 2020. If this isn’t alarming, then sample this: new research says that every person in the world has a 15% chance of experiencing their first episode between the ages of 25 and 35. (4 min read)

Chart of the week

According to the 68th National Sample Survey (2011-2012), the consumption of rice has fallen marginally in a seven-year period while that of wheat is on the rise. There is a perceivable split between the Hindi heartland and the southern and eastern states which prefer wheat and rice, respectively. There is also an urban-rural and, intriguingly, a Jammu-Kashmir divide. Read more about it on Scroll.in.

1405378358-1351_Monthly-pc-qt-consumption-rice-urban

If you’re curious for more, follow Akshat and me on Twitter. Enjoy your week!

Delhi’s pollution, faked data, AIDS epidemic and more

Curious Bends is a weekly newsletter about science, tech., data and India. Akshat Rathi and I curate it. You can subscribe to it here. If have feedback, suggestions, or would just generally like to get in touch, just email us.

1. The puzzle of Delhi’s air pollution

Delhi has the world’s worst ambient air quality. In the decade since a chunk of its public transport moved to using compressed natural gas from petroleum, the problem has devolved into other socioeconomic issues. People whose power needs the city can’t meet use diesel generators. The number of cars on the road have shot up. Even though industries have been moved outside city limits, their smoke hangs like a pall together with that from burning post-harvest rice stalks from neighboring states. And a comparison with Beijing, where the civilian outcry against worsening pollution was pronounced, shows how much worse Delhi has it. (8 min read)

2. Indian scientist fakes data, but institute’s response is commendable

A scientist at the Institute of Microbial Technology in Chandigarh has been found to have fabricated data for seven papers published in the last year, all of which are now being retracted. The fabrication was brought to the attention of the director of the institute by a past supervisor of the scientist, and, instead of pushing it under the rug, the director followed the right procedures to start an investigation this January. Many Indian researchers both in India and abroad have had their work retracted, but as long as institutional provisions to deal with such misconduct are strong, it should help to curtail ills. (4 min read)

3. Clever experiment with mice reveals ovarian cancer’s secrets

Ovarian cancer starts spreading much earlier than other cancers do, and the first tissue that is its victim tends to be belly fat. It was previously thought this happens because of the physical proximity, but new research shows that the spread occurs through the blood. This matters because the proteins revealed to be involved in the process are targets of drugs meant for other types of cancers, and they could now be used to curtail the spread of ovarian cancer. (3 min read)

  • The author, Anwesha Ghosh, is a PhD student at the University of Rochester.

4. Give back to the locals if you profit from their knowledge

Fifty-one countries from around the world have ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, which from October will give more legal backing to providers and users of genetic resources. These are commonly used to create better performing crop varieties. “Now, if a company or a person is accessing genetic resources or traditional knowledge for commercial purpose, they would be bound to share a part of their earning and profits with the community which has been conserving it.” (2 min read)

5. No one is tracking the lead that tyres leak

Lead is a neurotoxin that causes brain damage, and is most harmful to pregnant women and children. It has also been found that lead poisoning can be the cause of violent crime. Global campaigns to reduce the amount of lead in products such as fuel and paints have been going on for many decades with good success. However, in India, it seems that the campaign hasn’t been effective against lead’s use in tyres, where it is used to balance weights in the wheel. (3 min read)

Chart of the week

This week the annual international AIDS conference begins in Melbourne (despite the loss of researchers who were onboard MH17 that was shot down in Ukraine). The global fight against AIDS is being won, but some numbers, such as those below, are worrying. Pakistan has a population that is about one-sixth that of India, but the AIDS-related mortality is much lower in the neighboring country. More form UNAIDS here.

If you enjoyed this edition, please ask your friends to subscribe to Curious Bends.

Delhi's pollution, faked data, AIDS epidemic and more

Curious Bends is a weekly newsletter about science, tech., data and India. Akshat Rathi and I curate it. You can subscribe to it here. If have feedback, suggestions, or would just generally like to get in touch, just email us.

1. The puzzle of Delhi’s air pollution

Delhi has the world’s worst ambient air quality. In the decade since a chunk of its public transport moved to using compressed natural gas from petroleum, the problem has devolved into other socioeconomic issues. People whose power needs the city can’t meet use diesel generators. The number of cars on the road have shot up. Even though industries have been moved outside city limits, their smoke hangs like a pall together with that from burning post-harvest rice stalks from neighboring states. And a comparison with Beijing, where the civilian outcry against worsening pollution was pronounced, shows how much worse Delhi has it. (8 min read)

2. Indian scientist fakes data, but institute’s response is commendable

A scientist at the Institute of Microbial Technology in Chandigarh has been found to have fabricated data for seven papers published in the last year, all of which are now being retracted. The fabrication was brought to the attention of the director of the institute by a past supervisor of the scientist, and, instead of pushing it under the rug, the director followed the right procedures to start an investigation this January. Many Indian researchers both in India and abroad have had their work retracted, but as long as institutional provisions to deal with such misconduct are strong, it should help to curtail ills. (4 min read)

3. Clever experiment with mice reveals ovarian cancer’s secrets

Ovarian cancer starts spreading much earlier than other cancers do, and the first tissue that is its victim tends to be belly fat. It was previously thought this happens because of the physical proximity, but new research shows that the spread occurs through the blood. This matters because the proteins revealed to be involved in the process are targets of drugs meant for other types of cancers, and they could now be used to curtail the spread of ovarian cancer. (3 min read)

  • The author, Anwesha Ghosh, is a PhD student at the University of Rochester.

4. Give back to the locals if you profit from their knowledge

Fifty-one countries from around the world have ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, which from October will give more legal backing to providers and users of genetic resources. These are commonly used to create better performing crop varieties. “Now, if a company or a person is accessing genetic resources or traditional knowledge for commercial purpose, they would be bound to share a part of their earning and profits with the community which has been conserving it.” (2 min read)

5. No one is tracking the lead that tyres leak

Lead is a neurotoxin that causes brain damage, and is most harmful to pregnant women and children. It has also been found that lead poisoning can be the cause of violent crime. Global campaigns to reduce the amount of lead in products such as fuel and paints have been going on for many decades with good success. However, in India, it seems that the campaign hasn’t been effective against lead’s use in tyres, where it is used to balance weights in the wheel. (3 min read)

Chart of the week

This week the annual international AIDS conference begins in Melbourne (despite the loss of researchers who were onboard MH17 that was shot down in Ukraine). The global fight against AIDS is being won, but some numbers, such as those below, are worrying. Pakistan has a population that is about one-sixth that of India, but the AIDS-related mortality is much lower in the neighboring country. More form UNAIDS here.

If you enjoyed this edition, please ask your friends to subscribe to Curious Bends.

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).

An Indian supercomputer by 2017. Umm…

This is a tricky question. And for background, here’s the tweet from IBN Live that caught my eye.

(If you didn’t read the IBN piece, this is the gist. India, rather Kapil Sibal, our present telecom minister, will have a state-of-the-art supercomputer, 61 times faster than current-leader Sequoia, built indigenously by 2017 at a cost of Rs. 4,700 crore across 5 years.)

Kapil Sibal

India already has many supercomputers: NAL’s Flosolver, C-DAC’s PARAM, DRDO’s PACE/ANURAG, BARC’s Anupam, IMS’s Kabru-Linux cluster and CRL’s Eka (both versions of PARAM), and ISRO’s Saga 220.

The most-powerful among them, PARAM (through its latest version), is ranked 58th in the world. It was designed and deployed by the Pune-based Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) and the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DEITY – how apt) in 1991. Its first version, PARAM 8000, used 8,000 Inmos transputers (a microprocessor architecture built with parallel-processing in mind); subsequent versions include PARAM 10000, Padma, and the latest Yuva. Yuva came into operation in November 2008 and boasts a peak speed of 54 teraflops (1 teraflops = 1 trillion floating point operations per second; floating point is a data type that stores numbers as {significant digits * base^exponent}).

Interestingly, in July 2009, C-DAC had announced that a new version of PARAM was in the works and that it would be deployed in 2012 with a computing power of more than 1 petaflops (1 petalfops = 1,000 teraflops) at a cost of Rs. 500 crore. Where is it?

Then, in May, 2011, it was announced that India would spend Rs. 10,000 crore in building a 132.8-exaflops supercomputer by 2017. Does that make today’s announcement an effective reduction in budget as well as diminishing of ambitions? If so, then why? If not, then are we going to have two high-power supercomputers?!

Such high-power supercomputers that the proposed 2017-supercomputer will compete with usually find use in computational fluid dynamics simulations, weather forecasting, finite element analysis, seismic modelling, e-governance, telemedicine, and administering high-speed network activities. Obviously, these are tasks that operate with a lot of probabilities thrown into the simulation and calculation mix, and require hundreds of millions of operation per second to be solved within an “acceptable” chance of the answer being right. As a result, and because of the broad scale of these applications, such supercomputers are built only when the need for the answers is already present. They are not installed to create needs but only to satisfy them.

So, that said, why does India need such a high-power supercomputer? Deploying a supercomputer is no easy task, and deploying one that’s so far ahead of the field also involves an overhaul of the existing system and network architectures. What needs is the government creating that might require so much power? Will we be able to afford it?

In fact, I worry that Mr. Kapil Sibal has announced the decision to build such a device simply because India doesn’t feature in the list of top 10 countries that have high-power supercomputers. Because, beyond being able to predict weather patterns and further extend the country’s space-faring capabilities, what will the device be used for? Are there records that the ones already in place are being used effectively?

Fizzed-out futures

Initiatives are arising to plug holes in the Indian education system, or so they claim. Many are ambitious, some even overreaching, but they also exist in the company of those that are honest. However, the cause for concern is that such projects are being viewed as extracurricular to the prevailing education system-even by those who have founded the initiatives. Thoughtful engagement is sought after, an awareness of the “outside world”–a summation of the realities extraneous to the student’s chosen field–is deemed lacking and designated a goal.

Most such initiatives are by students, or recent graduates, and with them, they carry fresh memories of incomplete lessons and half-mentored theses. As their activities grow in scope–which they surely do–there is an attrition between a tendency to remain experimentalist and the certainty provided by going commercial through installing a secure source of support and a fundamental incentive. The last is necessary even though many students remain in denial of it: one man’s idea cannot be shared with the same intensity throughout unless there is a need to depend on it. Money, many fail to realize, maintains currency, too.

The prevalent belief is that the Indian way of learning sidelines the humanities: if a job doesn’t fetch a fat cheque, it concludes there is no point in studying for it. Unfortunately, however, such a view also degrades the pros of technical learning. Subsequently, the responses are disappointingly reactionary. If a student has found it difficult to inculcate a skill, he simply participates in the overarching institution of frustration and dissatisfaction, and assumes the problem is faced by everyone. That is never true, has never been. However, it finds enough purchase to surface as fixes.

In many parts of the country, young graduates and final-year students gather in small rooms on terraces and in garages. For the most part, they discuss the different activities they could perform to compensate for what they think they ought to have learned in the classroom but didn’t. They quickly conclude that original thought is missing-which is very true-and proceed to talk about what they’d need to inculcate it. These are, obviously, surface-level problems. As time passes, the incentive to meet each subsequent week and debate and act or whatever peters out. Essentially, such students’ and graduates’ concerns have been for the short-term.

The long-term concern, it seems, can be addressed more effectively at the individual level than at the systemic level. The institution can encourage extracurricular tasks, point at the dearth of invention and abundance of innovation, and build up an army of youngsters to fix the nation’s most pressing problems. However, the only solution that can pluck India out of this moshpit of unoriginality is to do what is required of all youngsters no matter where they are these days: ideate. Ideas, whether original or otherwise, are necessary; even better when they are distilled out from a knowledge pool that is vast.

Whatever the most dollar-guzzling problems are, the ones that are solved by continuous ideation are what will keep the machine from descending into a standstill. May the humanities be sidelined, may the rote-learner be celebrated, may technical learning signify the staple diet that deprives most Indian students’ of the indulgence of the arts-we are not in need of a paradigm shift to rectify matters. What we need most is to build ourselves to achieve even in the absence of expectations. What we need most is to transcend our cubicles and classrooms and disintegrate the institutionalized frustration. By not doing so, we are letting our communal objectives be defined by a chance mistake.