Govt’s new principal scientific adviser tells SOWMIYA ASHOK about the importance of scientists staying true to their cultural moorings.
What is the role of the principal scientific adviser?
The principal scientific adviser to the government has roles which in some ways transcend mere advice. The role would be to communicate the demands and needs of the society to the government, and to the Prime Minister, and then implement the mandate of the government through interaction with other science agencies, central ministries, state governments, industries, people working in rural areas and NGOs. This office will work with other ministries for the democratisation of access to science. We must have science accessible to people in their native languages, and your ability to use your native language well should be an advantage in science and not a disadvantage. Science education at a college level is now in English, and that by definition excludes a large number of people to easily come into science. That makes it elite, sharpening the divide between those who are in science, in technology, and our people.
There is an increased focus on conducting research for the benefit of society.
Science in our environment is cultural entrepreneurship. It is cultural because like music, dance, art, it must be an integral part of our society. I am adding the term entrepreneurship to that because the kind of investment you need in this culture of science is huge compared to arts and music. Science needs to have substantial government investment. The moment you get that investment, the taxpayer will say, what are you doing with it? Then you get tied in the doing of it, which is a legitimate question. We must look at science and society as interacting with each other not as a pipeline but as a jalebi where you can’t make out which is the beginning and which is the end.
Scientific institutions have been complaining of a funds crunch.
Over the last four years, funding has not gone down, it has gone up. Secondly, our funds have not been cut mid-term over the last few years, we have got what we are told we are getting. Why then is there a perception of a fund crunch?
The fact is that our scientific enterprise has also increased hugely, costs have gone up, salaries have gone up. Even with an increase in budget, you can make a case that we need more resources. But you must articulate as scientists, and others in the science community, what you would like to do with that money.
Where is science headed in India? Is there a push to go back to traditional knowledge?
The simple aspect of science, no matter which school, which discipline, is curiosity, evidence and the willingness to change your hypothesis when confronted with facts contrary to that hypothesis. These three elements have not explored our ecosystem sufficiently. By and large, our best scientists, with some notable exceptions, have defined their areas of endeavour according to terms others in the West have defined… It can be inspired by your cultural and societal moorings, and indeed our mathematicians are unusual in showing those kinds of moorings. This is the kind of originality we must have in all areas of science. We must be in some way identified as rooted in our society. When we see a French mathematician or Russian, you can see their approach to the same maths question uniquely shaped by their culture, language, and their society. That is hugely missing in India. It is a basic respect for a curiosity our citizens have had for generations, and wisdom that comes from that, rather than deprecating that to be irrelevant to our quest. Unless our curiously extends to our environment… we are relegating ourselves to be intellectually subordinate to others’ thoughts, however great those thoughts are.
How do statements made by Union ministers Satyapal Singh [about Charles Darwin] and Harsh Vardhan [about Stephen Hawking] reflect on science in India?
I do not want to get into a discussion on specific statements made by anyone or what my interpretation of that is. As individuals, all of us deal with different kinds of spheres of thought. There are aspects which we have views about, and there are actions which we take which are distinct and practical. Now, sometimes these occupy distinct spaces so they don’t interfere with each other, and sometimes they overlap. It is this area of overlap, of practical activities, which stirs up interesting debates. I would view this as interesting creative tensions, which need to be discussed, we need to find some common ground to resolve them.
Your opinion about Darwin’s theory of evolution?
Two major revolutions in biology — the theory of evolution and the other is genetics… tell us what is the underlying mechanism of change in generating the diversity of life on the planet, variations from generation to generation in each organism, and how organisms interact with each other. These are deeply embedded practices that come from evidence in biology.
Is science and technology being used effectively to address the agricultural crisis in the country?
It is happening in a huge way. Amongst the first tasks as PSA, I am working with my colleagues in DBT. This involves collection analysis and feedback of data to farmers in a manner that combines artificial intelligence and machine learning with the best of biotechnology so that they can make informed decisions.
How do young science students view opportunities in India versus abroad?
There is no question that a large number of students go abroad and India is a huge country with a large population of young people. And a much larger population does not go abroad. We must ensure that they have quality opportunities. The important point is as we grow in science, we must be bilingual in science, in our native language and in English. There are going to be languages which are more widely spoken than others, but it is actually an oppressive disadvantage and elitism to say it is convenient to speak in English because of our diversity, and thereby exclude that diversity from science. We are touting the advantage of English but in fact that advantage puts us in a subordinate [postion] in science, in a call centre kind of mode. It facilitates our understanding of what is going on, and therefore facilitates our imitativeness. I am not excluding the importance of English, but we must be bilingual.