Despair is not an option....

This post, the title of which is taken from, among other places, the writings of William Coffin, is a follow up of two commentaries that have appeared in the last weeks on the state of disrepair of Indian Science.

There is much to agree with what is written in both the essays that Rahul Basu of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, in his blog As I Please links with in the post titled T(h)rashing Indian Science: Anita Mehta (of the SN Bose Center, Kolkata) writes in the Times of India, and Gautam Desiraju (of the University of Hyderabad) in Nature India.

This is not a rebuttal to any of the points made in these essays, though one can always pick a bone here or there. I think the problem is serious enough to warrant the attention- and the action- of any and all the people who are involved in science and science administration in the country. One of the distressing things about our problems is that these are, regrettably, self-evident. The solutions are not.

This is also not a Pollyanna-ish or a Mr Micawber-ish affirmation that something will turn up. Yet, I think that the proper reaction to the two essays that offer different degrees of insight into the problems that ail higher education- particularly that in science- in India is just this: Despair is not an option.

The opposite of despair is not---I see it---great hope, but guarded optimism. And I choose to draw my optimism from various sources. Let me, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning said for entirely different reasons, count the ways.

The base is, slowly but surely, increasing. Compared to even a decade ago, the background of people who come into higher education is much more diverse. I am not a demographer, but surely anyone who has seen Delhi University (or JNU, or Jamia) will be struck by the number of students from the more remote parts of India. Of course there is not much migration into Nagaland or Assam University, but I am hopeful that given interesting academic choices, this too will happen.

The net is making a difference. As more and more institutions in India put up more information about themselves and what they have to offer on the net, the increased availability and access to information has helped. Of course at Scholars we are partial to the net since this is our only way, but seeing the number of people who come to our site, and to see what they want has been seriously educational. There is material of great quality out there- produced by a largely unsung tribe of people- and the good news is that many many people want it. They want all that we can provide, and then some!

Science funding is increasing. In living memory, the average grant size has gone up. To be sure there are some under-deserving underperformers who get funded anyhow. But here, I stay with chaos theory and with Darwin. Was our ancestral Eve the most "deserving" of the hominids that graced the savannah? And yet, without her.... Eventual success is often unrelated to initial conditions. So let us keep funding some seemingly unworthy projects: some will bear unexpected fruit.


There is a limit to how much sycophancy we can tolerate. Be it politics, or be it science politics. Those who have risen to the top by this route are seriously compromised and they know it. And in the best traditions of game theory, they know that we know it. And that we know that they know that we know it, and so on. There simply isn't that degree of power in the upper positions anymore: the directors of any institution in the limelight knows that he or she is going to fail by very visible- and very international- yardsticks if his (or her) faculty do not perform. If the state of science reflects the state of the nation, then there is good news indeed. We are becoming less tolerant of dynastic politics, and this will translate into our demand for competent science managers.

IT doesn't get everyone's bells ringing. There is a burnout in the IT business, in part fuelled by the leaders of the industry who neither care about higher education, or even about lower education. Wanting bodies for a body shop is all very well, but I have heard it often enough from the very top echelons of the IT industry that they really don't give a damn to what their employees have learned elsewhere: they teach them what is necessary in situ. So if the education in the IITs or NITs or wherever is deemed inferior to that given by the NIITs, then the IT industry will have only itself to blame for the quality of the people it is able to eventually attract.

There is a brave new world out there... of scholarship, and of intellectual adventure. It may not be all there in the sciences, but our experience at Scholars has been an amazingly rewarding one- as we have learned slowly but surely, that there are truly many ways to intellectual leadership. All the cliche's are true in the end: with a billion people, even the tail of any distribution carries a lot of weight. Sheer intelligence, creativity, originality. Its all there, and there is no way out but patience. And repeated investment. This is the law of large numbers.

But this is not a plea for complacency either. There are real problems out there as both Anita Mehta and Gautam Desiraju have pointed out. The lack of quantity is distressing and to my mind, a bit more so than the lack of quality. (Both the writers are very well known for their scientific contributions. Anita Mehta for being among the first people to work on sand and granular materials and Gautam for having made fundamental and ground-breaking contributions to crystal engineering.)

Gautam Desiraju makes a very important point: For a country of our size, there simply isn't enough output. This is both at the collective level and at the individual level. The output from many scientists at Universities and colleges is low because their funding is low. But what is the excuse that our scientists at prestigious research institutes have? As Anita Mehta points out, they have enhanced funding, better toilets (although with the lack of water in most cities in India, I am not sure I want them en suite) and liberal leave policies that allow them to mix and mingle with scientists across the globe. And then to find that they produce one or two or maybe three research papers a year and mentor maybe a student or two every alternate year. Occasionally. Is this truly worth it? As an investment, the returns are way below market average...

In the end, we need more accountability. And this is not impossible to achieve, given the in-your-face nature of information today. Put it all on the web. We have a right to know, and the right to be judged. Funding agencies could- and should- be more open about their grants, who got them, how much, and what they delivered.

We also need more coherent plans than to create new institutes that will train fifty students apiece a year. How many do we need? How much money can be invested in higher education? What reservations are truly needed? How many jobs need to be created? In what areas of enquiry do we need people? Much of higher education is plagued by a poor understanding of what it is that we need and where. The creation of a Knowledge Commission was to have been a step in this direction, but that seems to have been seriously less than effective.

Of course the unexamined academic life is hardly worth living. Yet given that, to come back to the title of this post, despair is not an option. There is enough and more in the country by way of talent, by way of funding, and by way of effort. Like the best of our collective actions- the building of the Delhi Metro, say- I think that in the end, we can be amazed by the art of the possible.

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