Indian science, scientists and China

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The questions that have arise out of PM Manmohan Singh’s recent statement that China is ahead of India in science are more than political. China is a country of 5 plus trillion dollar economy with policy instruments focused on numbers and figures and it has certainly done more to stay ahead in science. But scientific achievements are not about numbers alone. Deciding scientific superiority on the basis of no. of PhD, research papers published and patents registered can be very superficial. There should be no doubt that high end research requires funds and facilities no less than open culture which stimulates thought.

So, how important can such numbers be to the favour of China? How ahead India is, if at all in quality terms? How long will it take for China to get a quality parity with India? And how significant would be the gap once China addresses them?

Those who have studied in China would tell you that even an average college’s infrastructure in China is far better than our best institutions. In any case, China is determined to not only pile up numbers. If China’s achievements in space science, building big dams and manufacturing sectors is an indicator, India would do well to put its house in order before it is too late.

The Hindu wrote today citing a study done by Elsevier, a world-leader in medical and scientific publications that India is ahead of China in terms of quality of papers. The study says, “The quality of papers is determined by the number of citations per article, and this has gone by 2 to 2.7 over the past five years for papers from Indian scientists.” The articles from Chinese scientists are found to have a citation factor of 2.2.

The study further says that India has been steadily gaining global leadership in different research areas. From 2006 to 2010 India was a global leader in 159 research areas, against 130 for the previous five years. According to Dr. Kolman India is a science powerhouse in the making.

Now, how real is the scientific gap between the two emerging giants?

Tradition of individual accomplishments in science in India is thousands of years old. Minds like the great mathematician astronomer Aryabhatta in the 5th century AD and even since long before that and after, India has been the germinator of knowledge. The entire world including China have learnt from India not only Buddhism but science as well. And unlike Greek and many other civilisations who lost their existence to the onslaughts of time, India built on its knowledge. India remained a pioneer, a hub of wisdom and scientific invention until the 15th Century. Thereafter the leadership gradually slipped into the hands of Europeans beginning Renaissance and Industrial Revolution. But India very much remained in hunt till much later.

During the era of colonialism when the entire world was witnessing the onslaught of one or the other form of colonialism, India and China were both under colonial domination. However, even during those years Indians not only learnt from the British but also contributed to their knowledge. Individuals scientists like Jagdish Chandra Bose, Saha, C. V. Raman and S. Ramanujam got international respect and attention. Inventions such as Raman Effect, the ionisation theory, the Bose-Einstein Statistics, the Boson particles all happened during British rule. Modern India’s most respected science award Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Award is named after a British era scientis.

The track record of India’s scientific achievements in Independent era is no mean either. Names like Vikram Sarabhai, Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha, Dr. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Dr. H. Khorana, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam are envied across the world. The number of Indian scientist who became fellows of the Royal Society of London and similar reputed institutions is growing more spectacularly than ever. Most of these achievements, however, have come in collaboration with foreign scientists.

Institutionalisation of Indian science’s best minds has met limited success. The reasons again are not economical alone. A life of dignity and respect is valued by all, including scientists. India might not be able to match the purse strings of a China or an America in near future but it can ensure that its best minds including scientists get their due. Problem of Indian science is not funding per se, which indeed is a factor to a great extent, but the misuse of it. We need scientists of the stature of Bhabha and Sarabhai to take centre stage. That alone can save science. Numbers, then, would be just what they are; a number.



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