Monday, 30th October 2017

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Footloose scientists

The next frontier of liberalization

By Writing on the wall: Ashok V. Desai
  • Published 20.12.16

India's rulers have always had high expectations from Indian science. Nehru said to Indian Science Congress in 1937, "It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people." Speaking to the same Congress 79 years later, Narendra Modi asked scientists to concentrate on his five Es: Economy, Environment, Energy, Empathy and Equity. His predecessor, Manmohan Singh, also religiously addressed scientists year in and year out and exhorted them to solve the country's problems.

If prime ministers' wishes were horses, Indian scientists would have won the global race long ago. It would be wrong to say that science has nothing to do with the considerable improvement of Indian standards of living: cell phones, for instance, have enabled a majority of Indians to keep in touch with their friends and relatives many miles away; and synthetic materials have made them much better clothed and shod. Once in a while, even an Indian innovation has made a difference - for instance, the autorickshaw, though it was followed very soon by better variants from eastern countries.

Politicians give high ratings to utility, especially social; scientists give importance to novelty. Nobel prizes are given to scientists who "advance" science - that is, make novel discoveries. But novelty is a matter of degree. From their first years, scientists learn science by studying what past scientists have done. When they begin to publish, their publications are supposed to add something new; but their papers are full of citations. Their contribution is often only marginal.

The cheapest and quickest way of learning from other scientists is to read their publications. But the quality of learning depends on whom one learns from; and the most effective way of learning is to meet, listen, and talk with bright scientists. Geniuses tend to congregate in great universities and research institutes; those who want to do great science must go and spend time with them.

These intellectual interactions have recently been subjected to statistical analysis, yielding interesting results. One of the leading analysts in this field is Chiara Franzoni of Milan Polytechnic. She and her colleagues asked a sample of scientists why they chose to go abroad. The answers they got were a combination: that the scientists thereby met prestigious scientists in famous institutions, and that they improved their career prospects.

Which were the countries whose scientists were most likely to leave and go abroad? The world champion was India; 39.8 per cent of its scientists in the sample were studying or working abroad in 2011. The second country, surprisingly, was Switzerland; a third of its scientists were abroad. British and Dutch scientists came next. I guess the presence of a better country to migrate to, particularly Germany and the US, made a difference. Japan had the lowest proportion abroad, followed by the United States of America (China was not in the sample).

The opposite question is, which countries have most foreign scientists? The top three countries are Switzerland (57 per cent), Canada (46 per cent) and Australia (44 per cent). The three least hospitable countries are India (1 per cent), Italy (3 per cent) and Japan (5 per cent). Italy, Japan and the US were the countries with the highest proportion of scientists who had never gone abroad; those with the lowest proportion were Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The countries with the highest proportion of scientists who had returned after a foreign stint were India, Spain and Brazil; those with the lowest proportion were the US, Italy and the Netherlands. So many Indians returned because so many went abroad; so few Americans returned because so few went abroad.

The scientists were asked how likely they were to return home. British, Italian, Danish and Belgian scientists were least likely to go back, followed closely by Indians; Swedes, Canadians, Swiss and Germans were the most likely to go back.

Did a stint abroad make a difference to scientists' performance? Migrant scientists outperformed immobile scientists. Franzoni and colleagues' explanation is that movement leads to new combinations of knowledge, and that scientists meet others who match their speciality. They found that migrant scientists had larger research networks. Those who moved after finishing study benefited more from collaboration.

Working abroad did not necessarily mean working with foreigners; migrant scientists often worked with fellow nationals abroad. Their networks stretched across country borders, but linguistic and cultural bonds survived international migration.

Where do migrant scientists go? The US dominates the destinations. The quality of its research institutions makes a crucial difference, but respondents also mentioned the American lifestyle; I guess the greater openness of American society also attracts bright people. But other countries have been nibbling away recently. Australia, Germany and Switzerland have attracted both doctoral students and trained scientists. France and Britain have also attracted scientists, but have failed to attract PhD students.

What does this imply for India? The last prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was highly educated, and paid frequent homage to science and technology. His government issued a science and technology policy in 2013 that was full of fine sentiments; but no practical action followed. Earlier this year, the president announced that the present government was working on yet another science and technology policy, but was in no hurry to formulate one; it was aiming at issuing one in 2020.

Can we do better? I think we can. The government has long spent liberally on research laboratories and educational institutions, but has no fruit to show. It had once thought of allowing entry of good foreign universities, but then balked. We have good minds, and our universities teach students well enough to qualify them for foreign universities. If we allow foreign universities in, many more of our students would be trained in good science. But foreign universities will not come unless they are allowed to charge whatever fees they want, and unless they can send teachers freely in and out of India. Hence we need price decontrol of our universities; if the government wants cheap education, let it subsidize students. And we need decontrol of movement of qualified foreigners into and out of India. They are needed not only in educational institutions, but in enterprises as well. If India is to excel in science and technology, it has to become far more open to foreign institutions and nationals.

India was held back for decades by Nehruvian policies of import substitution. We threw them out of the window in the 1991 reforms in the areas of goods and technology, but we did not liberalize international movement of intellectuals and the institutions that shelter them. This should be the next frontier of liberalization. If we think radically in this area, we can aspire in a few decades to become another United States or Germany - an international powerhouse of science and technology. If we continue in our parochial ways, we will continue to be the country that bright people want to leave. Does the government have the foresight and the courage for the radical change in policy? It can demonstrate that it has: it can begin by abolishing the ministry of commerce and industry, the last refuge of the licence permit raj.