An ill east wind originating in China has blown over the Indian subcontinent, shattering the self-esteem and comfortable assumptions of Indian academics who pride themselves upon having developed the world's second largest pool of scientists and technologists. In the Shanghai Jiao Tong University's (SJTU) Academic Ranking of World Universities 2003 released recently, none of India's 317 mainstream varsities made it into the ranking of the global top 500 tertiary level institutions of higher education. The only institutions which figure in the list - headed by Harvard and Stanford universities and the California Institute of Technology - are the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), ranked in the 251-300 slot, and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) of Delhi and Kharagpur in the 451-500 slot.
There is hardly any surprise in indigenous groves of academia that none of the mainstream Indian universities - dumbed down by decades of interference and intervention by populist politicians and pliant bureaucrats - have made it into Shanghai Jiao Tong's list of the world's top 500. But the lowly ratings of the IISc and India's much-trumpeted IITs - which have prompted cover stories in American business media - has surprised many. In particular, within IISc - which sprawls over 440 acres of prime real estate in Bangalore, has an annual budget estimated at Rs.120 crore and prides itself on being rated one of the top 20 research universities globally according to a UNESCO survey (1997) - there is considerable, though well-disguised, dismay that the SJTU survey accords it an Asia-Pacific ranking slot of 27-36.
Prof N. Mukunda, an alumnus of St. Stephen's, Delhi and the University of Rochester and currently director of the Centre for Theoretical Studies at IISc, is somewhat dismissive of SJTU's assessment and ranking methodologies. "Too much weightage is given to the number of science Nobel Laureates produced by universities. This questionable assessment methodology works against Indian scientists and institutions. Nevertheless, having said that, there's no doubt that in recent years the quality of science education dispensed in undergrad institutions is of poor quality. College labs are generally under-equipped, overcrowded and poorly staffed. Questions from students are often discouraged and experiments and demonstrations are few. Due to lack of laboratory facilities, science is taught unimaginatively and learnt by rote. All this has had a snowball effect: low standards at the undergrad level are reflected among entrants into postgraduate education and research," says Mukunda who over a decade ago chaired a committee constituted by the Indian Academy of Sciences (estb. 1934) which suggested immediate reforms in undergraduate and postgraduate science education.
Unfortunately for Indian science educators and researchers, other surveys tend to support the broad conclusions of SJTU's survey, which indicates that India's once highly-rated science and technology capability is caught in a downward spiral. Three years ago the UNDP's Human Development Report 2001, which pioneered a Technology Achievement Index (TAI), ranking some 150 nations according to their proven ability to absorb new and old technologies, offered hard evidence that India's much vaunted pool of trained scientists and technical personnel is shrinking. According to the TAI, the gross tertiary science enrollment ratio (i.e percentage of school leavers entering the science stream) in India during the period 1995-97 was a mere 1.7 cf. 23 percent in South Korea, 27.4 percent in Finland (ranked No.1 in TAI), 13.9 percent in the US, 5.9 percent in China and 3.3 percent in Malaysia.
Moreover, the Human Development Report 2004 indicates that only 25 percent of all students enrolled in tertiary institutions are studying maths, science and engineering programmes (cf. China's 53 percent) while the number of researchers engaged in R&D in the country is a mere 157 per million of the population (cf. China's 587). Between 1980-2000 the number of scientific papers from India included in the Science Citation Index fell from 14,987 to 12,227, whereas China's grew from 924 to 22,061.
Another warning to the effect that Indian science - if not technology - education was heading for the rocks, and should have been heeded but wasn't, was delivered almost three years ago by Dr. Goverdhan Mehta, an alumnus of Michigan and Ohio universities and currently director of IISc, interviewed in EducationWorld (September 2001). "Unfortunately India's scientific research capability whether measured in the number of research papers published in journals or the number of patents registered is slipping. This bodes ill for Indian society because without the constant development of science and technology capability through original research, there can't be meaningful development," said Mehta, in a prediction of the SJTU's damning indictment of India's over-respected higher education system.
Mehta's Cassandra-like warning (confirmed by the SJTU's lowly ranking of Indias show-piece institutions of science and technology education) remains as valid as ever. With the redrawing of national priorities in favour of elementary education, the Central government-funded University Grants Commission is all set to freeze, if not slash, capital and maintenance grants to institutions of higher education, while populist state governments are reluctant to raise rock-bottom tuition fees which have been frozen for more than five decades. Consequently most colleges offering undergrad and postgrad science education in the country are too cash-strapped to invest in science education, particularly in sophisticated laboratory equipment.
"There is an acute shortage of funds for all science courses. The annual budget of Lucknow Christian College is a mere Rs.2 crore. Ideally student tuition fees should be capable of meeting at least lab maintenance expenditure requirements. However the state government has ordered that the tuition fees remain frozen at the 1995 level. The sciences are practical and capital intensive subjects. What kind of practical demonstrations and experiments are possible if labs are without modern equipment? Obviously in these circumstances there will be no worthwhile research. The other problem is outdated syllabuses. If not every second year, science syllabuses must be revised every five years. But we continue to teach what we learnt in our college days," says Benjamin Pratap Masih, principal of Lucknow Christian College (estb. 1888), which has 4,000 students on its rolls and was ranked No. 9 in the country by India Today (June 2, 2003) for the quality of science education it offers.
Likewise Kavita A.Sharma, principal of Delhi's prestigious Hindu College, also complains of a funding crunch which has adversely affected science education in all colleges affiliated to Delhi University. "Though there is a general resource crunch in all faculties, it is most acutely felt in the science faculties because compared to arts or commerce, the sciences are capital intensive subjects. Large outlays are required to upgrade labs, purchase chemical compounds and lab equipment, hire skilled technicians for maintenance etc, but such funding is simply not available. Even if a talented few want to pursue the sciences at a higher level, their aspirations are likely to be quashed by funding failures. Continuous electricity in labs is a problem and lecturers don't get sanctions to purchase generators. The situation is truly pathetic," says Sharma, who adds that only a third of the 1,028 students studying science subjects at Hindu College stay the course through their undergrad years; two-thirds branch off into other streams, mostly out of frustration and disillusionment.
And if science education across India is in the doldrums, policy failures in government - which has a monopolistic stranglehold over the higher education system - is the cause, rather than falling student interest. Several reputable colleges report that student enrollments in science faculties continue to rise.
For instance, in Mumbai's highly-rated St. Xavier's College, for the first year of the bachelor's degree in science, the number of applications received for just 360 seats this year was 1,917. "Over the past two years we have seen an increase in the number of students applying for science degrees in this college. However there is a shift in the choice of science subjects. While earlier computer science and information technology were popular, now the focus is on life sciences, biochemistry and microbiology," says Dr. Dionysia Coutinho, vice principal of the science faculty of St. Xavier's, which boasts seven relatively well-equipped labs for undergrad and six for postgrad and doctoral students.
Likewise up north in Delhi Dr. Anil Wilson, principal of the 123-year-old St. Stephens College, reports a substantial rise in the number of students enrolling in science undergrad programmes. "There was a time, say four-five years ago, when demand for the sciences had taken a backseat. However during the past two years we've noticed a resurgence of interest in the science stream at the undergrad level. But we can definitely affirm that the interest for science subjects is confined to the undergrad level. The best students don't want to pursue science at the postgrad level," says Wilson, who doesn't set much store by India Today's ranking of top 10 colleges in the country (St. Stephens was ranked No. 5 for science education). "The India Today survey is the most bogus calculation, which should be discontinued forthwith," he says.
Presidency College, Chennai, ranked India's No.1 science college by India Today, also reports an increase in the number of applicants for enrollment in its science programmes. According to principal Dr. Ramanarayanan, an alumnus of IIT-Madras and Annamalai University, this year Presidency College received 250 applications for 40 seats in geology while 739 students contended for 48 seats in zoology.
The people's astronomer
It's hardly surprising that college and university graduates don't pursue careers in effect research careers in science. The Indian economy's investment in research and development (R&D) is much too low to afford intellectual, creative or monetary satisfaction. According to the Human Development Report 2001, India's annual outlay on R&D (government and industry combined) aggregates to a mere 0.7 percent of GNP or Rs.2,800 crore annually, much less than the one percent benchmark recommended by the National Committee on Science & Technology way back in 1973. Even the recommended one percent benchmark is too modest by current international standards, given that the industrialised nations spend 2-2.5 percent of their GNP on R&D. Moreover it's important to note that a greater proportion of India's spending on R&D is concentrated in the high-end space, atomic energy and defence sectors while Indian industry is heavily dependent upon imported technologies.
With the scientific community in India rarely involved in utilitarian 'low-end' research which could bring scientists fame, and with the profits from commercialisation of inventions and patents, careers in science are unattractive. "In India utilitarian research is almost non-existent. Hence unlike advanced nations, scientific research rarely benefits society. Indian R&D is 'brahmanical' research because nobody questions the relevance of high-end research. It's time the scientific community began thinking about giving something back to society, instead of the attitude of entitlement that currently prevails," opines Dr. S. Bhattacharya, an alumnus of Delhi and Chicago universities, and currently director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai. Widely regarded as one of the countrys premier R&D institutions, TIFR was recently granted deemed university status.
According to Bhattacharya, one of the major causes of science education losing its sheen is the artificial division between science research and teaching, which obstructs automatic contemporisation of syllabuses. Indeed, most universities in India are just teaching shops with the faculty rarely engaged in any research work, unlike academics in the US, UK and Australia. In this India can take a cue from Russia, which is ending the divide between its prestigious academies of science, research institutes and classical universities where teaching is often considered more important than research, by merging the two into "centres of innovation".
Fortunately the bells and whistles being sounded by academic leaders about declining research output and the diminishing interest of generation next in science education seems to have had some impact on bureaucrats and policy makers in the Central government's department of science and technology. The department has designated 2004 as the 'Year of scientific awareness' and initiated several activities including inter-school debates, exhibitions, and seminars to attract the student community to science and research. The S&T department's most ambitious science promotion scheme targeted at secondary school (class X and XII) students is the Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojna (KVPY) scheme. Introduced in 1999 and administered by the Indian Institute of Science, KVPY awards generous scholarships ranging between Rs.2,000-5,000 per month to class X and XII students who opt for basic sciences, engineering and medical education up to the Master's level. Thus far 437 students have been conferred these scholarships.
Other science promotion initiatives of the Central government's S&T department include the promotion of a Committee for Strengthening of Infrastructure in Science and Technology; Inter University Centres; financing computer centres in universities and computer labs for postgrad courses; and the creation of University Science & Instrument Centres financed by the University Grants Commission (UGC).
The Delhi-based Indian National Science Academy (INSA, estb. 1935) has also introduced several programmes to popularise and improve science education at the school and university levels. Says Dr. V.S. Ramamurthy, secretary department of science and technology, and a member of the governing council of INSA: "The academy plays a very important role in increasing awareness about the many careers available in science research and development. It provides quality reading material on science subjects to schools, colleges and universities; it has formed a regular network with the print and electronic media to publish interesting science material on contemporary, relevant topics, and runs several science projects at the school and university levels. The academy also conducts competitions such as the National Science Congress for students and teachers in schools and colleges throughout the country. Our purpose is to involve youngsters in socially relevant scientific activities to fuel their spirit of enquiry."
Likewise the Bangalore-based Indian Academy of Sciences (estb. 1934 by India's sole science Nobel Laureate Sir C.V. Raman) which boasts 800 of the country's top scientists and technologists as its members, has initiated various programmes to enhance the appeal of science education. They include publishing Resonance: Journal of Science Education; awarding summer fellowships to Plus Two students to work with fellows of the academy on research-oriented projects (150 fellowships are awarded every year); conducting refresher courses for school and university science teachers, and organising guest lectures and seminars.
Even the University Grants Commission the country's premier higher education funding agency (disbursement: Rs.3,000 crore in 2003-04) has got into the act. Earlier this year the commission announced the setting up of four National Institutes of Science (NISc) in Pune, Bhubaneshwar, Allahabad and Chennai to address the "growing concern expressed by educationists, administrators, scientists and industrialists on the continuing decline of science education standards at all levels and the urgency to make available for the country an adequate number of well-qualified and motivated scientists and technologists".
The proposal has generated considerable enthusiasm in Indian academia. "NISc, Chennai will function as an autonomous institute. But its steering committee will include the directors of Anna and Madras universities, besides agencies such as the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research and IIT-Madras. NISc, Chennai will integrate the roles of a teaching organisation and research establishment in frontier areas of science and cutting-edge technology. The institute will make an adequate number of highly-qualified scientists and technologists available for national development," vows Dr. E. Balaguru-swamy, vice-chancellor of Anna University, Chennai.
However it needs to be borne in mind that most government-funded initiatives such as the NISc are confined to upgrading the quality of postgrad and doctoral level science education and research. They by-pass the need for improved science education in feeder primary and secondary schools. With 20 percent of primary and middle schools in the country unable to even afford a pucca building, laboratory facilities are not on their priority list. Though the great majority of private sector secondary schools boast laboratories, they tend to be poorly equipped and experiments are conducted traditionally and pedantically.
"It is unfortunate that the majority of schools across the country teach science in a boring and mechanical style allowing little room for original thinking and innovation. Most of the time of science students is spent on searching for 'correct' answers. This is a false interpretation of science education. Science is all about doing and learning even through mistakes. It's vital that interest in science is kindled and nurtured through the school years because it's from the school system that our future scientists and technologists will emerge. We must catch them young," says Dr. Arvind Kumar, the Mumbai-based director of the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBSCE).
Promoted in 1974 by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, HBSCE has emerged as a premier institution in the country for research and development in science, technology and mathematics education. It has designed an innovative (though under-publicised) science syllabus for primary schools; trained hundreds of schoolteachers; commissioned science textbooks and trains class XII students to compete in the International Maths Olympiads.
Though the programmes initiated by organisations such as the HBSCE and the Indian National Science Academy to promote the scientific temper are valuable, they are not only under-promoted but also too few. The major thrust to frontier science education and research has to come from the nation's 317 universities and 14,000 plus colleges. With the Central government having set about fulfilling its three-decade old promise of increasing its annual education outlay from 3.2 to 6 percent of GDP, it needs to initiate a national drive to increase R&D spending from 0.7 to 1 percent of GDP as recommended by the National Committee on Science and Technology in 1973.
Quite obviously this national drive requires the participation and cooperation of the corporate sector and industry which have hitherto tended to be averse to investing in science and technology research on a meaningful scale. The self-evident proposition that Indian industry will be the greatest beneficiary of investing in science and technology research, needs to be absorbed by the captains of Indian industry even as they get battle-ready in the rapidly crystallising the post-WTO global marketplace.
The foundations of India's once-envied science and technology capability were built in the first flush of India's independence following several centuries of foreign rule. It's important that a sophisticated R&D superstructure is built on this strong foundation. This valuable Nehruvian legacy must not be squandered: the national interest demands it.