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October 20, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/ Dr Goverdhan Mehta

'Subject science to reform without delay or it will die'

Scientists agree that Indian students are creative, innovative and scientifically inclined. In schools they start ahead of their counterparts in developed countries like the United States in mathematics and the physical and biological sciences. Thousands of them participate in the hundreds of science exhibitions in cities and towns across the country.

But after schooling and collegiate education, when it comes to choosing a career in science, Indian students avoid science like the plague. Why are there no takers for the scientific studies? Is Indian scientific research, which was all set to grow leaps and bounds by the end of this century, in a state of decline?

Indian scientists who chose careers in science soon after Independence now claim the government and the students have sidelined science. The reasons that they cite for this include inadequate budgetary allocation for scientific research, stifling bureaucratic delays and a lack of a reform process for higher education in Indian universities.

The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, India's apex science research organization and the country's top science institute, the Indian Institute of Science, are concerned about the falling standards of scientific research.

In an interview with George Iype, IIS Director Dr Goverdhan Mehta laments how science has got short shrift from the government and provides some suggestions how things can be changed. Excerpts:

Do you think that most Indian students are no longer interested in taking up a career in science and research?

I think there is less interest in science as a career option. The perception about science and a scientific career is not all that good these days.

Why is that so?

The main problem is that government support for science hovers around just one per cent of the Gross Domestic Product every year. This is pitiably low for a country of our size. In a developing country like India, aspiring to be competitive in all fields in the next millennium, the scientific field also aspires to be competitive in technology, research and development. Sadly, interest in science has been declining in the government as well as among students.

And why is interest declining in science?

There are many factors. A career in science is not considered attractive in terms of material gain. Science is not a very paying career like, for instance, information technology. Secondly, young people are not excited and motivated by science.

Many of us who jumped to take up a career in science years ago were thrilled by its research potential. We enjoyed the excitement science offered. You cannot buy interest in science with money or publicity. Most people in this information era are guided by the possibilities that other fields offer, not science. The students's perception is simple: 'When there are well-paying career opportunities galore in the market, why should I go in for a career in science and research?'

You can be a software engineer, an MBA, a marketing person, but not a scientist. You're assured of a job, you can go abroad, you can make money and live happily. 'When so many such attractive propositions are available, why should I go for science,' a youngster asks.

You mean it is a matter of money guided by the market mania?

Yes. Education, by and large, is decided by the avenues that various fields offer. Market forces largely decide what career a student should pursue. There is nothing wrong in pursuing a career for money. But, you know, we need scholars who genuinely want to be scholars, scientists who want to be scientists. But that perception no longer exists in the Indian education scene. Young people are lured by the opportunities and the prosperity that various fields offer.

Is it true that our colleges and universities no longer motivate youngsters to take up careers in science?

Our mainline universities and colleges are no longer exciting, attractive places. Students find more excitement and interest when people go, say, to professional colleges -- the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes Management, regional engineering colleges etc.

These days nobody is excited by a Ph D or an M Sc in chemistry, physics, botany or biology. Nobody is bothered about becoming a good scientist and serving the country. One reason for this is our obsolete university system where all one can do is to somehow complete a masters or a degree.

There is nothing interesting for the youngsters to be in a college these days. Generally, people now go for a B Sc or an M Sc when they don't have other options. Science is the last resort of students.

One reason why universities are no longer happening places for students is our declining system of education and the terrible condition of the undergraduate teaching system. The only remedy is to make our colleges and universities much more attractive and exciting.

Pitiable, terrible conditions exist there. Young people should be exposed to excellent experimental modes of studies, environment, excellent equipment instead of dilapidated class rooms, dysfunctional machines.

Who should take the initiative to remedy the situation?

Obviously, in our country, the initiative should come from the government. Education in our country is largely with the government. Particularly, higher education is largely and exclusively in the government sector and supported by the government. Therefore, the initiative should come from the government.

The most important remedy is to make massive investment in education. It has been suggested for many years now that the government should allocate at least six per cent of the GDP for education. But in our country the money spent on total education is around three per cent.

Education doesn't come for free. We must understand that if we want quality, we must invest. If you want to give quality education to future generations, you should invest huge amounts. India is a large country. More than 10 million students attend colleges and universities here. We have 250 universities and 10,000 colleges. But the budgetary allocation to educate these students is very, very low.

Can we arrest the declining interest in education, particularly in science?

We must have radical reforms in our education, particularly in higher education. Just as we launched economic reforms in our country a few years ago, reforms of similar magnitude should be launched to modernise and qualitatively improve our education sector.

The problems of our education are entirely different from that nagging our economy. So the parameters of reform should be different. Major changes in all fields of education are needed. Sadly, nobody is talking about reforming education. In fact, there has been no reform in our education for many years now.

More seriously, we are faced with a terrible problem of a lack of talent in science and technology. It bothers us scientists when you know that the average age of scientists in an apex research body like the CSIR is 51. Nobody is bothered by the seriousness of the matter.

Do you think the government's slackness in launching reform in education has made the atmosphere in colleges and universities oppressive?

I don't want to use those words. I don't want to term the inactivity in education oppressive. I would say that the science support system should be made more flexible. It should become less bureaucratic and quicker with regards to funds and related areas. The normal government method for roads, bridges and other utility services should not be applied to science.

There should be less and less of bureaucracy in education because timeliness is the essence of any scientific and educational project. Major reform is needed in science and scientific research. The present system, mechanism and delivery of funding has to be radically changed. All scientific departments must be liberated from archaic rules. It should be given autonomy and no longer be at the mercy of the government.

The government has to do to scientific institutes what it is doing to the public sector.

It is now dismantling the public sector and divesting the government equity. Since Independence, PSUs held very important roles. But the government realised the time has come for the PSUs to be dismantled and restructured.

A similar restructuring and dismantling has to take place in science. You have to subject science to reform without any delay or it will die.


No demand for science in India

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