Monday, September 11, 2006

The Indian Science Catastrophe

Every child has a dream. A dream of making it big, to become something, maybe a pilot, maybe a doctor, maybe even a bus driver. One way of defining success is to gauge how much an individual works out his/her life to bring to reality the dream, he or she had as a child.

As a child, I too dreamed of becoming a great scientist, making revolutionary inventions to save the world and was truly inspired by the likes of Thomas Alva Edison, Albert Einstein or Sir Isaac Newton. I did my bachelors in Applied Sciences, and thought I might become successful, but fate had other plans for me, and in the long run, I ended up doing my masters in Computer Applications, and eventually became a Software Engineer. I might not have been successful therefore but the way my career went I have gained a number of acquaintances who are still following their dreams to become scientists. I have high regard for them and their work, and in this post, it is their sad story, that I wish to relate, a story completely interlinked with our country on the whole.

Recently we witnessed the twin failures of the GSLV satellite launch and the Agni – III missile. The scientific organizations behind these efforts reported that these were minor glitches and it would be an action of pessimism, if we were to read too much between the lines from these minor glitches and make conclusions about their work. They may be quite true, but still apprehensions are not cast away easily

My friends in several research organizations across the country have shared with me several experiences about how research in India is functioning and they are all passionate about their work, but all of them, I’m not generalizing here, but the discovery of a common pattern was too easy to be ignored, all of them have shared with me how difficult it is to work in an Indian Research organization, which is doing government funded scientific work. Their problems lie not in the lack of facilities, not in the lack of equipment, not in the lack of commendable salaries, but in the lack of a good workplace culture, a lack of teamwork, a lack of values at the workplace, a total neglect for teamwork towards a common objective and any key values and priorities to hold together these organizations.

The internal politics which is very explicit has scarred the image of a good career and achievement for many of them. One of my friends who works at a research establishment in Chennai tells me of how there, different people at different levels in the hierarchy used to assign him work and later used to admonish him for working for the other person. He used to lament about how he could not complain to anyone because he never used to know, when and how his words would get misinterpreted and used against him in a different situation elsewhere. How does one work like that?

Healthy competition is always a good thing and it may be argued that these things happen everywhere, but the main problem is that unlike other business organizations, where there is a definite business objective at the end and work has to get done ultimately and it therefore never goes unrecognized at least at the end of the day, it gets confusing, in a research organization, the outcome is not definite and depends a lot upon the dedication, commitment and the intellectual input of the people who work. There lies the biggest problem, because the workplace is not conducive to that effect.

Another of my friends who works in a research organization in Hyderabad tells me how she has to work a lot of times in projects for which she knows there will be no credit for her in the end. She worked on a project which was in existence for two years in a dormant state before she started working on it. She put in some real heart into the project and made it ready for publication. When the time came for submitting the paper, she found herself in the middle of a big controversy and was discredited from any work in the project. She tells me how she will have to take it silently, bear the brunt, the only consolation being that she learnt a good deal from the project. She laments about how she was in a situation of total helplessness, no one to complain to, no one who could be trusted.

If politics is one thing, sexual harassment is another. There have been instances of seniors in research organizations, making lewd gestures, asking for sexual favours and the like. The victims on the other hand take it silently knowing well that their work could very well be tampered with. I understand I may be guilty of painting a very vile picture of Indian research organizations, I understand that I may be knowingly or unknowingly bringing across a bad reputation for those few research organizations, where this is not the case, but this is not a mere personal rant. It is in consideration of improving the scientific contribution of India to the global society.

What these places need is a proper performance based culture, methodical approach to human resource management, proper values to go along with the work done. An open door policy, where no one has to be feared and people get the fruits they deserve for their hard work. A proper emphasis needs to be laid on teamwork and common objectives. A proper guidance structure needs to be framed to evaluate the team’s and the individual’s concerns and a stable human resource management structure put in place to build a professional working environment.

Though history is proof to the fact that India has made a lot of contributions to the scientific community, from the earlier vedas, the invention of zero etc., the fact remains that after Sir C.V.Raman, there has not been any Indian who has won the Nobel prize for any outstanding contribution to Science. I may have not got my facts right here, but at least as far as I know, it has not happened.

There are however many Indians who work abroad and gain recognition there. As my few friends also prepare to leave India to work in universities abroad, in Europe mostly, I feel happy for them, but also feel sorrier for my country because it is a national loss. This situation can obviously be remedied and is not a bottleneck scenario. Let us hope that the government brings across some stringent reforms to this sector. This has been a long post, but I hope that sometime, somehow it will help to spread awareness and bring across a much needed change. This is but a small warning bell to signal the need for a remedy.

Update : Prof. Subramanyam Chandrashekar won the nobel prize for Physics in the year 1983, fifty three years after Sir C.V.Raman. Two is still less a number I guess. My thanks to Rashmi for correcting me.


priya said...

That was an awesome post Sri. Not many ppl' are given an ooportunity abroad when you landup as a scientist. You may have the reconition in writing papers, but physucally not much. Being aggressive and competitive does not help in coming forward to be on top, but you need to know how to tame when you need your work to be better and popular. Only very few are lucky to be in fame when in abroad.

Ullas said...

Interesting post!

I have no experience of how stuff happens in government research labs, but looking from outside in, I have to say the results dont speak volumes.
Even in US, good research is done by govt funded, but privately run research labs. A move towards such a model would be benefitial for scientific research in the long run.

Hip Grandma said...

I agree with you hundred percent.You talk of research in National level laboratories.I know of lesser kinow labs with NO research funding and students spend their own money.Even here dirty politics plays a part.A friend known to me was allowed to do inter disciplinary work in Industrial Pollution.When she wanted to submit her thesis she was not allowed to do so for 5 long years.Reason? The University authorities did not know whether the thesis belonged to the Botany,Chemistry or Anthropolgy Depts.Her work was good but who cares?I couldn't help that outburst.Sorry.

passerby55 said...

I don't have much knowledge about this field . though i have seen the same things happening in many other fields and other sectors of india.....its pathetic.

Srijith, i humbly wish this post is read by someone who is either Himself ABdul Kalam or any of his subordinates...

lets not only get to hear INDIA is progressing, developing, the figures are going up. economy is growing.

AN AWAKENED INDIA.... should be each and every one's goal.

all great achievements began with one small step...THIS POSt is a step towards an Awakened INDia....

This is one post i will always this blogwriter for.

passerby55 said...

this is one post i will always remember this blogwriter for.

Srijith Unni said...

@Priya : Thanks a lot for your appreciation and support. Also being aggresive and competitive alone does not get us to the top, you have to know how to survive in such situations, but the fact remains that a professional working environment does not exist in India`s research labs.

@Ullas : Hi Ullas, Nice to see your comment, couldn`t access your profile however. :( Yes we need a proper working model, something like corporatisation of Research labs.

@Hip Grandma : I would only entertain outbursts, Hip Grandma :)
Yes I needed to know whether I am correct and whether I can be proved wrong.. Your outburst sure helps.. Thank You.!

@Passerby55 : You named it! Yes we need an awakened India, and we should work that, but I am seriously worried how a post on a blog alone will help. Perhaps I need to tell somebody..? Who ? How ? I dont know..

RandomThoughts said...

True Srijith! That is one of the many reasons research is not a favoured subject in India! But a cousin of mine went to do environmetal research in Australia & faced similar problems with his guide that he had to leave midway! Sad but true!

BTW didn't Prof.Chandrashekar win a Nobel prize in Science?



Srijith Unni said...

@Rashmi : Yes such things could happen elsewhere too, as you have now shared, but the amount of incidents reported in India, with it`s limited research positions is alarmingly higher, I believe. And Rashmi, thanks a lot for that correction, Shall make an update right away.

Kakshi said...

Nice post..
Was never aware of such things..

starry nights said...

Beautiful, interesting write up.You are right only a few ever get recognised.

Gaurav Jain said...

thanks for sharing this info. I've heard about this in the news, too, recently, and was pretty shocked at all the situation of Indian research organizations. It's a pity that a country of a billion plus cannot maintain a good cultural image in its premier research institutes. And the biggest pity is that the country is loosing its knowledged scientists to other developed nations.

Thanks for this insightful post, and hopefully it will spread awareness among the people who have the power to do something about this.


Srijith Unni said...

@Kakshi : Thanks Shwetha. I`m happy that you came to know.

@Starry Nights : Thanks for your support :) Out of the few who get recognized abroad, they also wouldn`t come back because they know how it is to work here.

@Gaurav : Hi, Yeah we have to definitely see to it that we do not lose talent, also we must ensure that we have a good professional working environment in research labs. I really do not know how and when this will happen.


Srijith: This has definitely given me a deep insight...Many of the negative workculture seem to be present in many organisations in different levels....In some its hidden in some its not..Politcs always makes so many bear the brunt...I was really angry at wht your friend had to go through and the discrediting angers me to high depths and I would always fight n take them to task...Anyways, work towards your dream as you may be surprised!! :) :)

Srijith Unni said...

@Scribblez : Thanks Scribblez, nice to see you back in here after quite a long time. Yes ANGER!, that was the very feeling I had when she told me too. In fact i got even more angrier upon her because she did not do anything about it.

Velu Nair said...

If u remember right, anything that even remotely has the word science on it, draws an ultimate response from me - SILENCE!!


Srijith Unni said...

@Velu : :) Velu, of course I remember from Sreejith`s blog that you had commented how you and Science have a lot in between, but Velu basically I am not stating a scientific theory here, rather an universal problem of not having a good work culture and professional setup in Indian Research organizations.

Ram said...

Very insightful post Srijith. I've heard of verfy similar stories from a few of my friends in such organizations. The examples I know involve people in forward castes recruiting and promoting people only within their castes. I'm sure it is still prevalent a lot, and its really unfortunate to have such bias in something so pure as academic research.

While this kind of discrimination is probably present in other countries too, it is a crucial issue for India as we are starting to emerge in the forefront of the world's economy.

I do hope that proper work cultures, ethical frameworks and performance improvement initiatives are established quickly. We need this more than ever before, and I can see that awareness is starting to grow in this previously ignored area...let's bring more such issues to the front.


Sreejith Kumar said...

Well articulated points. Good! But the better thing is that you have been tagged.... see my post on six things..... :-)

Srijith Unni said...

@Ram : Yes it is more important that we bring such issues to the forefront and spread awareness about these concerns which can readily be addressed in simple steps. I was not aware of the caste based discrimination. If it really does exist then it is a shame.!

@Sreejith : Thanks for the appreciation, Sreejith. Yes shall take up this tag soon.

With Best Regards,
Srijith Unni.

Maya Cassis said...

You have brought a lot to light with this post,Sri.
We all know how the system works in our country but I was flabbergasted that it was the same in the scientific research organization too.
We keep talking about a land with cultures, nation etc and it has been going on since a while but somehow the very same differentiation has created so many categories and sub categories in the minds of our people that even when we want to think alike,we all think in our self interest first and that hampers the way to the progress of our country and people.

iamvisheshur said...

i agree with u our country's science has hit an alltime low...and that to when our prisident is a scientist himself....the major problem is that everything in our country depends on politics....i think ppl affected and caught in all this should poenly write it is obvious that they r many...
the reason 4 our countrys 'brain drain'asthey call it in text books is also quite obvious..sumthing needs to be done..orour country will lose its identity...y not ppl start a blog and put all this and make it completely public..after all fruits of hard work need reward

Srijith Unni said...

@Maya : Very true.. We talk a lot about the culture in our country, but such things never come to light. I might have also touched only upon a part of the pie.

@Vishesh : A blog is powerful, but not powerful enough to steer the entire nation in a short period. However if some one has an idea as to how it can be done, My co-operation is assured.