Whodunit-Pathology of Modern Indian Science: Objective look at the dismal state of science in India

Updated: July 19, 2020 12:24 PM

A keenly researched and objective look at the dismal state of science in India, the problems and solutions.

The students of Signal School, Thane trying out new electronic devices (Express Photo by Deepak Joshi)

By Amitabha Bhattacharya

The surge of scientific creativity in India around the 1920s with Saha Ionisation Equation (1920), Bose-Einstein Statistics (1924-25) and Raman Effect (1928) by Meghnad Saha, Satyendra Nath Bose and CV Raman, respectively, together with the work of their compatriots, has not been witnessed thereafter. Indeed, much of their work was spurred by nationalistic aspirations. The scenario, however, changed after independence. Despite impressive achievements on the application of science in fields such as atomic energy, space research, agricultural development and others, except Ashoke Sen at Harish-Chandra Research Institute at Allahabad, there is hardly an Indian scientist working in basic sciences today with similar international stature.

Why is this so? Jawaharlal Nehru was trained in science and is rightly credited to have developed the scientific backbone of modern India. Yet questions arise as to whether the approach of Nehru and of the scientists on whom he primarily depended—HJ Bhabha and SS Bhatnagar in particular—has been adequate to steer the country to be a scientific powerhouse. What were the limitations of their vision? The creation of the Atomic Energy Commission, the defence research organisations and the chain of laboratories under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have, indeed, helped create a sound infrastructure and a large pool of scientific manpower, but why is it that the number of research publications in prestigious journals like Nature and Science is so abysmally low? Has the conscious shift of epicentre of research from the universities to government establishments been the major reason for the present state of affairs? Have the centralisation and government control of science and other socio-religious-cultural factors led to such pervasive mediocrity, exceptions notwithstanding? Where do we stand in terms of innovation? Where is the public accountability of scientists and their research bodies?

These and other related issues have been probed into and analysed in a well-researched, but hard-hitting book by Rajiva Bhatnagar. A physicist who has spent his career in the Department of Atomic Energy researching on laser technology, Bhatnagar has intimate knowledge of how science is handled in a hierarchical and rule-bound government organisation. What is more important is the way he has contextualised the problem, having reflected on how science has been evolving at different spaces in different times of history, and on the reasons thereof. He has framed many pertinent questions with an attitude that is rational but irreverent, quoted extensively from established sources, critiqued conventional wisdom and arrived at conclusions that are insightful.

Of course, the discussion centres around physical sciences only, especially physics. Bhatnagar alludes to Abdus Salam characterising certain major scientists as ‘tribal leaders’, and advocating that institutions should be built around such towering figures. A Raman or a Saha shone in his individual brilliance, created and groomed a group of bright and loyal students, often looked after their career interests and sought to create their own legacy. The bitterness between Raman and Saha, or the way Raman deprived his fellow scientist KS Krishnan of due credit in the discovery named after him, has been widely documented. How nepotism and sycophancy, regional pride and linguistic chauvinism vitiated the scientific climate those days and what levels personal acrimony could descend to, have been narrated in detail.

Evidently, many of our celebrated institution builders were men with feet of clay, power loving and egoistic, often authoritarian and ruthless in pushing their agenda while undermining others. Many instances have been quoted in this respect, such as Bhatnagar (then director of CSIR) touching the feet of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (then Congress president) in 1942 in full public gaze; Raman’s inclusion of his wife, brother and other loyalists in the committee of management of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS), Calcutta, and lobbying by noted scientists with AV Hill and PMS Blackett (British Nobel Laureates who advised our government) for their personal benefits. Azad as education minister ensured Bhatnagar becoming a powerful secretary in two departments, bypassing the established procedure. Raman had to resign from IACS, Calcutta, because of a manoeuvre apparently supported by Syama Prasad Mukharjee and others. Even C Rajagopalachari’s plea to unify the three science bodies at Allahabad, Delhi and Bangalore fell onto deaf ears. How Bhabha emerged as the uncrowned king of Indian science, especially after  the demise of Bhatnagar and Krishnan, primarily because of his direct access to Nehru and backing by the Tata scions— and how unfairly he had treated men  of high caliber like DD Kosambi, PS Gill and others—have also been chronicled with objectivity.

How Saha’s attitude towards symbols like charkha and khadi apparently deprived him of a membership of the Constituent Assembly, how his advice on the way the atomic energy establishment should be organised was totally ignored, and how his relentless, sometime acerbic, criticism of Nehru’s policies distanced him from the Congress leadership are quite well known. More striking, when CV Raman, SN Bose, KS Krishnan, JC Ghosh and HJ Bhabha were all awarded with high national honours, Saha was the only one to be left out. Who says intolerance of dissent is a present-day phenomenon? Importantly, what are the lessons learnt from such instances by the future generations of truth-seekers?

The book, however, is much more than a dissection of personalities, their limitations and idiosyncracies. It concentrates on the systemic problems, many of which had earlier been dealt with by historians of science like RS Anderson, Deepak Kumar, Pratik Chakrabarti, A Rahman, Rajinder Singh, Suprakash C Roy and others. The intention has not been to slight the mighty achievements of our institution builders, distinguished as they all were in their respective fields. Examples of men fully dedicated to science and indifferent to positions of authority, such as Jagadish Chandra Bose, PC Ray, Satyendranath Bose, TR Seshadri, NR Dhar and GN Ramachandran have also been cited with warmth.

The author examines the interface between scientists and institutions before and after our independence, seeks to problematise the issues in a candid but balanced manner, and offers his views on what went wrong and where, and what the way forward should be. He goes into the root causes of why many bright young minds do not feel motivated to pursue science as a career. What are the ethical standards in scientific research today? With every conceivable support, why is it that the TIFR or the atomic energy establishment could not produce another Bhabha? As the author observes, “The desire for an administrative position and the lure of power… kills the creative urge of a scientist.”

Bold and provocative, engrossing and free from jargon, this book should engage the attention of those who care for science in India. For example, the reader would be left pondering if it is about time to make course correction and empower our university system to re-emerge as the fountainhead of scientific innovation and creativity. It may be worthwhile for an Indian publisher to print it after some editing, and price it more reasonably for wider dissemination.

Amitabha Bhattacharya is a former IAS officer who has also worked in the private sector and with the UNDP.

Book details

Whodunit-Pathology of Modern Indian Science: Genesis of Its Eco-System
Rajiva Bhatnagar
Kindle Direct Publishing Amazon
Pp 234, Rs 1,209

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