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Keep the lamps burning

This year will be remembered in Calcutta’s scientific circles for a very disturbing development: for the first time in several decades, the pure science seats in most of the colleges, barring the prestigious Presidency College, could not be filled.

I have pointed out at various forums that the commonly held view that Bengal still roots for basic science, has its origin in the shortage of engineering and medical colleges in West Bengal. Only now are people willing to admit this; several new engineering and medical colleges were opened in the last couple of years.

The fact that inflow of students in basic sciences is decreasing is not a phenomenon specific to India. This is happening across the world. It is a pity that a society, which hungers for the benefits of science and technology, is so hesitant to send its children to basic research. The dreams that we are imparting to our children are those of business management and information technology, and not of basic research. This is not to say that business management and information technology are unimportant. But we need to realize that, without a strong base in basic research, we can only remain followers and service providers in these branches and not leaders.

This short-sighted approach is bound to lead to disaster as a day will come when we may have to hunt high and low for a science teacher.

Let us also recall that all the basic research done in the country before independence was university-based. After independence, when we tried to catch up with the rest of the world, a huge number of research institutions and national laboratories were opened across the country. The trend is continuing, and these institutions have an ever-growing need for good students. This necessarily takes a large number of bright students in permanent jobs outside the university system, where they are lost to the educational system.

Being a member of a scientific organization engaged in basic research, I have always asked my colleagues from across the world one question: Who or what aroused their interest in science'

The answer has invariably been — their science and mathematics teachers in high school and intermediate classes. I am almost convinced that if the fascination for the working of nature does not take root at this stage, it will get increasingly difficult, as the course material and required skills have to evolve rapidly after that, for the student to keep pace with the subject.

The enormous export potential of the Indian Institutes of Technology has spawned coaching centres across the country — the teachers there are paid up to two lakh rupees per month, compared to just a few thousand per month that teachers at schools and colleges get. The peer pressure on students to get into these institutes is enormous. I know a large number of university professors who teach at such centres. I do not know any teacher in any school who does not give private tuitions. I cannot possibly question their desire to earn a bit of extra money — the trouble is that the emphasis at these coaching centres is on solving guess-papers and expected problems in the examinations at a high speed and not on savouring the charms of science or mathematics.

I can only quote my mathematics teacher, at a small school in Allahabad, who used to tell us, “When you study mathematics, you will feel a sweetness and pleasure engulfing you. Aisa lagega ki laddoo kha rahe ho” (You will feel as if you are eating a laddoo).

The media has also had a role — and a negative one — to play in this sorry state of things. Science for them is limited to Einstein’s theory of relativity and nuclear weapons. While both these developments changed the world forever, they are just two scientific inventions. Science means years of painstaking work, which is not glamorous in the least and will not fetch the Nobel Prize or even a line in the newspapers. The edifice of science is built brick by brick over years.

There is also a socio-economic aspect to this. A career in basic science is not an easy one. Compare two scenarios: in the first, the student joins an engineering college after the ten-plus-two examination, while in the second, he joins a course for a BSc degree. By the end of four or five years, the engineering student would land a well-paying job on the basis of a campus interview. At the end of five years, the student doing the basic science course would complete MSc and appear in one or many of the several examinations, which can provide him with a scholarship to do a PhD in institutions with ill-equipped laboratories and inadequate libraries.

After a period of six years or so, he can expect to finish his PhD and look for a post-doctoral appointment or a job. By this time, he would be 28-30 years old with no promise of a permanent job on the horizon. The engineer would by then be perhaps thinking of changing the model of his car.

Parents always want to see their children settled by the time the parents retire. It is understandable that they feel uneasy at the prospect of their children not having settled even when they are nearing sixty. Also, in India, a large percentage of young men and women still take what is arguably the most important decision of their life — that is, about their marriage — according to the wishes of their elders. They surely cannot be expected to choose basic science instead of engineering or business management or a course in information technology, just because they happen to love science. There are, however, young men and women still who revolt against the wishes of their parents to realize their love for the basic sciences.

One of the most original thinkers of modern India, Rabindranath Tagore once said that “a teacher can never teach unless he is learning himself. A lamp can never light another lamp unless it continues to burn its own flame.” Only those who have felt the ecstasy which inventions and solutions in basic sciences provide can impart the message that scientific research is the highest form of intellectual activity and that it provides a satisfaction which cannot be matched by anything else.

By now the scientists employed in the national laboratories, which came into existence soon after independence, are nearing superannuation. The rapid advances in medicine and vast improvements in awareness about hygiene has pushed the average life-span of Indians from about 35 years to almost 65 years. This means that we have a vast pool of retired and highly competent scientists in all parts of the country (the national laboratories select candidates from nearly every part of the country).

This reservoir needs to be tapped to rejuvenate the study of basic sciences. I am quite sure that these people would be more than willing to impart their excitement to the younger generation. The president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is immensely popular among young students, and he has been instrumental behind many of them taking up basic sciences. He is just one example of what motivated and experienced scientists can achieve even after they have retired from professional service.

Associations of scientists, science congresses or similar organizations can play an important role in reviving science-learning in the country. They can do so by maintaining a database of superannuating scientists in different parts of the country who can be asked to meet students in high schools formally or informally and provide some orientation lectures. I know a large number of people in this category who will be quite willing to do it for free. Done with sincerity and dedication, this will pay rich dividends by way of removing the reservations in the minds of students and parents, and eventually create a pool of talent devoted to science.

This, we must realize once and for all, will make a difference in shaping India’s future and determining its place in the comity of nations.

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