Irreverence & Indian Science

The Nobel laureate Richard Feynman had famously said, ‘the difficulty with science is often not with the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones. A certain amount of irreverence is essential for creative pursuit in science.’

Irreverence is sadly missing from Indian science today. The ability to question the present in science to create the future science is the key to advancing scientific knowledge. But that  questioning attitude that is present in the “argumentative India”, as the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen puts it, is missing when it comes to  Indian science. Fundamentally, may be it arises from the Indian culture and tradition. The ancient  saying ‘Babavakyam pramanam’ means ‘the words of the elders are the ultimate truth’. It advocates total intolerance against irreverence! The Indian educational system, which is text book centered rather than child centered, begins killing the questioning attitude at an early age. The rigid unimaginative curricula and examinations based on single correct answers cement this further. Bureaucracy inherited from the time of British rule still continues. It ensures that paper becomes more important than people.

On 3rd of January every year, thousands of Indian scientists witness the inauguration of the Indian Science Congress by successive Prime Ministers of India. In 2001, Prime Minister Vajpayee said, “for Indian science to flourish, the administration and government officials should serve as facilitators of science and not as masters of scientists.” In 2010, Prime Minister Singh lamented “it is unfortunately true that red tape, political interference and lack of proper recognition of good work have all contributed to a regression in Indian science.” The Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (SAC-PM) has brought out a vision document in 2010, which addresses the challenge of  Indian science in our future and the future of Indian science. And again the de-bureaucratization of Indian science features prominently in its proposed path forward. So Indian Science is crying out for de-bureaucratization so that the spirit of risk taking and adventure can be fostered.

How does one bring the spirit of adventurism in Indian science?  I tried some experiments to trigger the spirit of irreverence by innovative funding mechanisms.  As the Director of the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), I created “kite flying fund”, where audacious ideas would be supported. I set aside only one percent of my research budget for supporting any idea, which had a chance of success that was one in thousand. The signal that was sent across the laboratory was that dreaming and failure was not a crime. And I remember the enthusiasm with which this fund was received. I cannot say that the world was set on fire by NCL creating breakthrough ideas, but it helped the scientists break the shackles in which they had closeted themselves. Some excellent papers in top journals, including in Science, followed.

As Director General of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which comprised 40 national laboratories, I created a “New Idea Fund” with a similar objective. Again, many good ideas started flowing in but not enough. It turned out that it was not the lack of funding but lack of disruptive ideas with a rebellion spirit that was the bottleneck!

Then I tried this on a nationwide scale. In the year 2000, the equivalent of ‘’Kite Flying Fund’ in NCL and ‘New Idea Fund’ in CSIR was conceptualized for the nation as a whole. It was called New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI). The key word was leadership. The initiative was to make Indian technology lead and not follow. It was recognizing the fact that India was busy in creating products that were first to India but not first to the world. But creating ideas that were first to the world meant creating ideas that were never tried before. This meant that there was always a big chance of a failure. So this possibility of potential failure was built into the funding mechanism for NMITLI. Some grand challenges were posed and proposals invited from across the country. 10,000 evocative pamphlets were circulated challenging the genius of India. Around 1000 ideas were received. Out of these only 7 were supported in the first year. The fund was supporting unique public-private partnerships. Even private sector was getting government funds as a very soft loan. This was an inducement for the Indian industry to take risks. When I left as the Director General of CSIR, there were over 100 industry players partnering with over 250 institutions. This was the biggest public- private partnership in post independent India.

And there were interesting  ideas that were funded. If successful, some of them would make a big impact. These are in the areas of drug discovery, ultra-low cost treatments of some difficult diseases by following reverse pharmacology approach bioinformatics, low cost computer, biofuels, etc. It is too early to judge the ultimate success, of course.

However, having created these platforms, which allowed risk taking at the level of a local laboratory at the CSIR level and then at a national level, involving not only the research institutions but also the Indian industry, a legitimate question that anyone should ask me is the following. You tried very hard to evoke the rebellion spirit in Indian science and technology. Did you find the rebellion ideas? Did you find the rebels? My simple answer is no. I did not find them. And why is it so? At this old age, one tends to be a  bit philosophical on these issues by looking back in a contemplative mood.

Speaking about rebellions, did not Indian science have great rebels at any time? Freeman Dyson in his book ‘The Scientist as a Rebel’ says, ‘for the great Indian physicists of the last century, Raman, Bose and Saha, science was double rebellion, first against English domination and second against the fatalistic ethic of Hinduism’.

One can go even further back into our past. A question that is often raised is if the Indians had the questioning attitude and made such major contributions to science and technology, especially up to about 1200 AD, then why did they fail to build on these further? Various sociopolitical and historical circumstances would have been responsible for India’s failure to build on this base. Opinions differ and they could be debated, but the factors that are often discussed include the Indian culture perceiving the world as “Maya” or illusion and no interest in worldly pursuits, rigid cast system that led to the separation of the head and the heart (with Brahmins exclusively doing the theoretical studies and practical art & crafts left to other castes), suppression of the scientific spirit, conflict between science and religion, tendency to accommodate conflicting opposites, handicap of oral traditions, etc.

The real Indian awakening in modern science took place through the efforts of a large number of outstanding Indians, who worked over the three quarters of the century prior to Indian independence. C.V.Raman, J.C.Bose, S.N.Bose, P.Mahalanobis and so on turned out to be a spectacular array of thinkers. These were the products of the ferment in Indian society which motivated the freedom struggle. They were greatly influenced by interaction with western liberal thought, and through information on the great new developments in science that were taking place in Europe, following the scientific and industrial revolutions.

So how can India bring back this rebellion spirit? Environment does influence the genes. It is often lamented that Indian genes express in silicon valleys but not in the Indus valley! Scientists of Indian origin have won Nobel prizes, but excepting Raman, all did their work outside India. The challenge is to create this environment within India.

India is at a cusp today. Raman did his Nobel Prize winning work when even paper clips were not manufactured in India. Today, India dreams of becoming an affluent nation within a generation.  There is a massive expansion of higher educational system. Thirty new central universities are being created. Five new Indian Institutes of Science, Education and Research have been created.  It is up to them to design their future to become the next Harvard or Cambridge.

The Government is working hard to get the young minds back to science. Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE) is launched to draw millions of young bright children into science with super-attractive scholarships. 760 R&D centres set up by foreign companies employ 160,000 researchers, many of whom have returned to their motherland, thus reversing the brain drain. Even industrial enterprises are suddenly championing world class achievements in basic sciences. Infosys Foundation has launched five prizes for basic sciences, each equivalent to $ 100,000, the value being about half a million dollars, if one considers the purchasing power parity.

And what has made me even more enthusiastic about the future is the great initiative taken by the Tatas to create an environment in which risk taking will be encouraged. It is the ‘Dare to Try’ award that is given by a competition across the Tata group of companies. And I remember the genesis of this award.

I was invited by the Tata group to speak to the senior executives of the company during the breakout session in Goa a few years ago. Ratan Tata was in the audience. The title of my talk was ‘Innovation as a Way of Life.’ I talked about the importance of risk taking. I said a friend of mine from USA said ‘ in our company, we do not shoot people, who make mistakes. But we do shoot people, who take risks. What do you do in India?’ I said in India, we  shoot people, who take risks!

This triggered a conversation between me and Ratan Tata during the tea break on how one can institutionalize the spirit of risk taking. And the next thing that I saw was the creation of the “Daring to Try’ award. The idea is to look around the organization for the groups, who had attempted daring ideas but failed. The greatest daring tryers amongst them get the award. I was privileged to chair the jury for the first ever award in this category. And it was such a pleasure to see people diving boldly without the fear of getting hurt.

I wrote a brief piece on the theme of Irreverence and Indian Science’ as an invited editorial in the prestigious journal Science last year. The editorial team had to choose a picture to go along with the editorial, which reflected the theme of irreverence. And they chose the picture of Tata Nano!

And come to think of it, they were right. Tata Nano is the cheapest car in the world, priced at just around $ 2000! It was conceived by Ratan Tata. When the concept was announced it was considered an impossible feat to achieve. There were many skeptics around, one of them was the chairman of Suzuki itself. He had famously said, “may be it will be a three wheeler with the fourth wheel attached to it”. Well, he was proved wrong. Tata Nano is a reality now and it has proved to be game changing. There are several companies, who are entering the Nano segment. India has rarely done such game changing feats. As the twenty first century unfolds, may be this spirit of irreverence of Tata Nano will spread to Indian science.

If India leverages  this Nano spirit by creating new organizational values, creating tolerance for risk taking and failure, creating innovative funding mechanisms to support disruptive and game changing ideas, and above all, build that spirit of ‘irreverence’ that Feynman referred to, then surely Indian science will create the Ramans and Ramanujans of the twenty first century.