Do Indian scientists have a true scientific temper?
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 18 Jan 2014 8 Comments
A recent article by the writer on the drift in agricultural research in India elicited scores of positive responses from readers, but none from any agricultural scientist, barring a tame one from a Principal Scientist affiliated to the Planning Board, Government of Kerala, who was candid enough to say that he is working “just for his bread and butter”. While the congratulatory messages gladdened me, the Principal Scientist’s mail disturbed me. I had expected at least some agricultural scientists to question me, fault my article, or endorse it, and most importantly suggest what needs to be done to remedy the pathetic scientific environment in the agricultural front in the country. But none of it happened.  


I had concluded the article saying, “Unless fresh ideas and brilliant minds combine, Indian agricultural research will go down the drain”. It was a daring comment which I mentally debated a while before penning and finally deciding to stick my neck out. This takes me back almost three decades to mid 1970 when I was still working in Europe and was invited to participate in an important conference in Ranchi (Jharkhand), where I  questioned some of the established scientific methodology, including statistical procedures to gauge the success or failure of a field trial, and took the courage to make a bold statement that if Indian agricultural research establishment continued to take the road it was on, the so-called green revolution was bound to fall flat on its face in another decade.


I vividly recall the wrath, the disdain, and sheer “uncontaminated humiliatory and dismissive gestures” of the “big wigs” of Indian agricultural science, assembled in the audience. Some simply refused to talk to me during the coffee and lunch breaks, others made snide remarks within hearing distance, most simply dismissed my presence. Strangely, none confronted me with an argument to demolish my hypothesis. 


Indian agriculture was then basking under the “cascading success” of the so-called green revolution in Punjab, the “cradle” of the Indian green revolution. In 1986, when I chanced to run across a “very big wig” of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) in Hamburg, then The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG),  during the World Soil Science Congress to which I was invited to make a presentation on the revolutionary soil management technique I had developed (The Nutrient Buffer Power Concept). This gentleman was on a sort of “holiday” at the expense of the national exchequer, not having a research paper to present in the Congress, but to savour the German hospitality.  


By then I was already a Senior Fellow of the world renowned Alexander von Humboldt Foundation of the FRG, and was just named to the National Chair of the Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium. The “very big wig” who was present in the Ranchi conference in 1974, who had dismissed me then, veered towards me and graciously remarked, “Yes, Professor Nair, we have a very big environmental problem in India, especially soil related – a fallout of the green revolution, as rightly predicted by you”. In 1974, I had feared that he would confront and chastise me. But now he was on the way to retirement. My question is, what prevented him in telling this truth at the right time? Still, it was some vindication.  


I have always felt that Indians on the whole lack a true scientific temper. It certainly takes some cheekiness to be a brilliant scientist. I still remember the days when I had the opportunity to visit Cambridge when Francis Crick was there. he was one of the famous Watson-Crick duo who cracked the DNA code which revolutionised and brought to the forefront the “new” science of biotechnology, away from the general science of biology; he was always the “big mouth” who had the cheekiness to suggest that probably the amino acids were all coiled up like snakes on a ladder with such wonderful symmetry (God’s design perhaps?). Looking back it sounds so very simple, but then, almost a half century ago (the book on Double Helix was published in 1962), it took some great imagination and guts to suggest such a daring hypothesis.


I must digress a trifle on this. Centuries ago, when the Church held fast to the belief that the earth was flat, Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno had the cheek to suggest it was not so, and questioned the “Geo Centric” theory which said that Earth was at the centre of the universe as held by the Church. They contrarily suggested the “Helio Centric” theory and claimed the Sun as the centre of the universe. Both Copernicus and Galileo were lucky enough to escape the wrath of the Church, while Bruno was not. He was burnt alive at a stake on February 17 1600 CE for hearsay. This shows the level of intolerance to new ideas opposed to dogmas or beliefs.


In our own era, I must say bricks and buildings will never make Indian science, only brains will. Else, India should have produced at least some Nobel Laureates. Saha, Bose and Raman did very original work without such extravagant facilities. Please go round the country and see the ever so many “research” institutes, “centres of excellence’, so on and so forth, lavishly funded with huge buildings, instrumentation etc., but what is the scientific contribution of truly global significance? Hardly any.  


Another recent and worrying aspect is the widespread use of “copycat research” and plagiarism. And research paper “production”. One can write any number of inconsequential “research” papers and publish the same in totally unknown foreign journals and claim credit to have published in “international” journals. There are hundreds of such “international” journals of no scientific credit and credibility. They are merely printed overseas, that is all. I know of several such in all fields of science.


Then there are endless numbers of Directors of Institutes and Vice Chancellors of Universities who insist that every “research” paper published from the institute bears his or her name. In this manner, research “scientists” “produce” hundreds of papers which are at best good enough only to wrap vegetables.


A recent sting operation has exposed the fraud in scientific publishing globally, and India leads the pack. Do we really dream big or are we content with the dictum of “publish or perish”, no matter what we publish? When someone recently flatulently boasted that he published 1500 research papers, wrote 50 books, and guided more than 50 Ph.D students in a span of ten years (five per annum), something is worryingly wrong with Indian science and its quality.


Our scientific contributions must pass the rigorous test of world standards to be accepted as contributions of real substance globally. On a comparable time scale with the above mentioned “scientist”, I could publish just about 50 top class research papers in very highly reputed scientific journals, write only three books and guide merely five Ph.D students. Are these 1500 “research” papers of any substance? A European, Japanese or American counterpart cannot even dream of such a feat. And most ironically and distressingly, such persons manage to climb up the ladder to the top rung of “governmental recognition”.


The author is currently Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany           

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