Basic Sciences versus Applied Sciences
Undermining humanities studies in schools will lead to a large number of science graduates in the market. This is a boon for multinational companies as profits will escalate — the cost of labour being lower. However, the danger to profits persist from another aspect.
Students who study science out of their love for a subject are usually attracted to the pure sciences and prefer an academic career where there has been a substantial increase in salaries recently. These students tend to lure people away from insecure professions by their example. Witness the growing number of people leaving highly paid information technology jobs and opting for teaching jobs in private engineering colleges. This trend decreases the numbers in the labour market and salaries can consequently rise.
Ten years back there was a dearth of students in physics honours in many Calcutta colleges. This was because physics was not an IT job guarantor while engineering was. The IT industry was dominated by engineering graduates. Then came the global economic recession. Companies started cutting down on costs and many engineers began to lose their jobs. Their places were filled up by physics honours graduates whose salaries were much lower. In many Calcutta colleges there were campus recruitments even in the evening sections with 100 per cent selections. Within a year, the demand for physics honours courses skyrocketed. The entire phenomenon is a result of profit maximization by cutting down on salaries.
Dilution of the pure sciences courses has also begun. Subjects like ‘engineering physics’ have started cropping up in the Indian institutes of technology. In most cases, the parent physics department is renamed and faculty recruitment shut out for pure physics candidates. Universities came under pressure to orient pure science syllabi towards applied science goals. During this manipulation in academics it was forgotten that what is pure and basic science today is technology fifty years hence. Two examples should suffice. Faraday’s discovery of electricity was considered esoteric by the then queen of England. Today electricity drives our civilization. Light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation — Laser — was a complex quantum mechanical phenomenon when Einstein first theorized on it. Today all the remotes of multifarious gadgets implement this. But there is no immediate monetary benefit from pure science research; so corporate bodies motivated by profit rarely fund it. The bulk of pure science research is funded by the government in all countries. The economic benefits of applied sciences are immediate and lure MNCs to fund research in these.
In India the entire funding of scientific research (both pure and applied) is done by the government. There is very little funding by industrial houses. Indian corporate groups create educational organizations purely for profit. The collusion of business houses with corrupt bureacrats to harvest illegal profits in the arena of education has resulted in a number of scandals recently. For example, the University Grants Commission had to withdraw recognition to a number of deemed universities because none had the relevant credentials.
In many Central government-funded institutions, fundamental research is discouraged by marginalizing people associated with it — both theoretical and experimental. The madness is best symbolized by the reprimand a student faced after he dared to give more time to quantum mechanics: “Quantum mechanics is not physics. Calibrating machines is science.” Indian institutes of science education and research have been set up throughout India with fabulous amounts of tax payers’ money. The marginalization of the basic sciences was evident in the fact that the IISER, Calcutta, started without a mathematics department. It was introduced much later.
The bulk of pure science research was mainly concentrated in our universities even a decade ago. As the number of universities is about 300, the research output was substantial. To gain overall control of the universities — in particular their finances — the science establishment began its exercise in right earnest from the year 2000.
Universities versus Science Research Institutes
What started was the shameless slandering of Indian universities by powerful managers of the science establishment: “[N]othing is happening in the universities, there is no research or teaching... India is falling way behind China and other Asian countries” and so on. The truth of this allegation can be debated elsewhere. The question here is, who has given these advisors the audacity to decide whether universities are doing well or not? A university caters to education and not science. There are myriad subjects outside science that a university accounts for. So why should it be assessed by members of the science establishment alone?
Actual facts speak differently. Two organizations, Calcutta University and the IISc, Bangalore have repeatedly come up as educational hubs among 500 such places internationally. None of the IITs or Centrally funded research institutes have ever made it to the list. A considerable amount of high quality research in a wide variety of subjects has come out of our universities over the past 70-odd years. Moreover, our universities have produced world-class students consistently over a period of a 100 years in a wide variety of areas including science subjects. None of the science research centres come anywhere near this achievement although their budgets are astronomical.
Instead of improving the funding of the universities, new science universities, the IISERs, were created. There are no humanities streams in these universities. This, as already mentioned, is educational apartheid. A further marginalization of the traditional universities was carried out by granting deemed university status to certain Central government-funded research institutes. Other institutions were hurriedly advised to start Masters’ courses in the sciences. In order to attract students, monetary incentives were provided.The only heartening news is that monetary incentives failed to attract the brighter students. In Calcutta, the institute paying the maximum for studying MSc ended up attracting the worst students. The better students still prefer going to standard, non-paying universities for their Master’s.
Marginalizing education and research in basic and fundamental sciences and in the humanities and the arts seems to have been elevated to a policy by the ruling group in the science establishment. In the current five-year-plan the handful of government-funded science research institutions are set to get at least Rs 2,00,000 crore while more than 300 universities can only hope for a pittance. Recently, the prime minister, on a visit to the city, declared that the government is all set to invest still more in the pursuit of science.
Here an anecdote is relevant. Right upto the latter part of the 1980s, many Central government-funded research institutes funded by the department of atomic energy never admitted Council of Scientific and Industrial Research junior research fellowship holders. These institutes had their own admission tests and based on performance in this test selections were made and scholarships provided. One student failed in such a test and then obtained a CSIR junior fellowship in a different institution and moved over to the previous institution (where he had failed the selection test before) a couple of years later after convincing a particular senior professor at the said institution. There was much commotion regarding this as this was against the conventional and unwritten policy of the institute. What was this policy? It was that, by definition, a research institute has funds already available for research. Therefore CSIR fellowships should go to places where such funds are not so readily available, that is, universities. Such conventional wisdom was followed in most of the premier research institutions of the country in those days. The bulk of university research was carried out through CSIR fellowships. Other government agencies also funded universities but not to the extent that CSIR did. The UGC also funded research but the sheer number of universities implied that funds were limited.
A cursory examination of the money involved will reveal the game. There are about 300 universities in India and the overall budget for the UGC was approximately Rs 24,000 crore in 2007-2008. The department of science and technology has 18 autonomous research institutes under its wing. The DST budget in the 11th Plan was enhanced to Rs 75,000 crore as per the information provided by the then minister of science and technology. (http://dst.gov.in/admin_finance/ls_15/un_sq79.htm: the figure of Rs 25,301.35 crore is not the total for the 10th Plan; the total was about Rs 60,000 crore as obtained from answer given in parliament.) Together with the DAE, the CSIR, the department of bio-technology and others, the total money for education and research in the 11th Plan may be well over Rs 3 lakh crore for the science establishment. But how much of this will go to the universities? The bulk will go to a handful of research institutes. The science establishment, though, wants more money. That is why it wants to usurp the role of the universities.
What is the situation now? The science establishment has ensured that any research institute funded by a particular government department can still consume research funding from other departments. This has led to the CSIR fellowship holders making a beeline for the DST, DAE, and DBT research institutes while internationally respected scientists in universities run from pillar to post in search of funds. Students prefer research institutions because infrastructural facilities are far superior to those prevailing in universities. In this context it should be mentioned that (contrary to the view of science bureaucrats) outstanding research has been carried out in our universities in spite of many difficulties over the past 60 years. Some examples nearer home should suffice. Calcutta’s name occurs on the world maps of general relativity, particle physics, organic chemistry of alkaloids, botany, zoology and geology because of internationally acclaimed researchers who have worked in universities — not research institutes — in this city.
In the West universities are dominant — one has institutes within universities and university departments. This is true in all systems of society. In the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the European countries, this has always been manifest. In the erstwhile Soviet Union, Moscow State University, the University of St. Petersburg, Kiev University and their like determined to a great extent the focus of all non-military research in the country. The former Union of Soviet Socialist republics had a formidable conglomeration of gigantic research institutions but these never controlled education in the country. Rather, universities decided on the choice of research institutes for its brighter students and the institutes had to oblige very often.
The science mandarins have won the first round. Their policy will benefit only companies with an appetite for cheap labour in developing countries. It is not very clear whether the cabinet has full approval for such a policy. The advantage of the science establishment is that the Indian body politic has always been in awe of it and rarely questions all the machinations. In the last 60 years, only one person saw through the game and tried to improve matters. Being a formidable intellect and an educationist himself, the late professor, Nurul Hassan, may have found it simpler than others. Unfortunately, such personalities are rare.
Globalization has come to stay. But this does not mean that the traditional universities have to become subservient to lower grade research institutions. All sane people should think about the long-term effects of this self-destructive policy. In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, the Western countries went in for massive investment in education and built up a system of schools, colleges and universities that concentrated on fundamental subjects that take civilization forward. The system guaranteed that the knowledge acquired and subsequently generated would help the West remain in a superior economic position in the world for centuries thereafter. The basis of that education system comprised the fundamental sciences, medical sciences, philosophy, the arts and music, history, literature, linguistics, economics, sociological and political studies, anthropology, archaeology and the environment. The consolidation of knowledge in all these spheres has resulted in the Western civilization that we see today. We are nowhere near this knowledge-based society. If we now leave our education system to the wolves of the marketplace, India is permanently doomed. Students, citizens, teachers and sane individuals cutting across all political parties and vice-chancellors of all Indian universities should come forward to stop this menace from engulfing us.