Thursday, March 30, 2006

Early happy hour: Balancing scientific……power

The February 9th issue of Nature had a rather revealing special article on the scientific balance of power.

There’s been much talk of the rapid “rise of Asia” in new research and technological breakthroughs, primarily in the popular media. And most of this talk was centered on China, South Korea and India, (and not the traditional self-effacing science powerhouse Japan), with its hordes of young scientists and engineers who will soon rule the world. Part of this was fuelled by some “spectacular” breakthroughs on stem-cell research from the (now thoroughly disgraced) Woo Suk Hwang group (now proven to be one of the most spectacular frauds of recent times). To many of us researchers, it was all mildly amusing, since little novel or pioneering research had emerged yet from these regions. There definitely was much promise in these countries, and the steady increases in funding for research was more than welcome, and quite desperately needed. But we knew that catching up with the west would take decades of dedicated effort.

The Nature report makes the picture clearer, by breaking down the research spending in all these countries, in dollar amounts as well as percentage of GDP. And the numbers are more sobering.

In spite of every thing Bush has mismanaged (NIH for the first time in two decades announced a cut in research budgets, and many researchers say times have never been this bad), the United States spends more on science and engineering research than the rest of the world combined.

Some select numbers for annual research funding by country:
USA: 134 billion dollars, 1.1% of GDP
UK, France, Germany: around 20 billion dollars each (around 0.7% of their GDPs)
Japan: 33 billion dollars, 0.7 % of GDP
China: 14 billion dollars, 0.7% of GDP
India: 3.5 billion dollars, 0.5% of GDP
(all bold fonts my own emphasis). link

The US spends FIFTY times more than India does on scientific research. And the output (in research) is invariably exponential to spending, the more you spend, far greater are your gains. So, the quality and sheer volume of research coming from the States is exponentially greater than India’s.

The doom and gloom predictions for the west in science can wait. It’s obvious that for the next few decades, the west, and the US in particular, is going to retain a huge innovation and original scientific discovery edge.

Though China and India have a long, long way to go before they can even start claiming “scientific powerhouse” status, there is much that’s positive in this. Though India is the only major country in the world that spends 0.5% or less of it’s GDP on research, the past 2-3 years have seen a huge increase in funding for science. Funding swelled by 25% from last year. The story in China is similar, with a 16% increase in spending on research. If this trend continues for a few years, there will certainly be real money available for research. India is also planning to (finally) create its own equivalent of a National Science Foundation. These are excellent trends, and can only yield rich rewards.

From an Indian perspective though, it’s not only the money that needs to increase. The money is very, very important. But, to use a hackneyed scientific phrase, the money is necessary but not sufficient. There is a cultural shift that’s needed to change “mindsets” and re-energize research.

There remains a institutional/systemic roadblock to innovation and research in India. Students are coerced to become a doctor or an engineer, and basic research is highly discouraged. This needs to change, urgently, and students should be encouraged to follow their dreams. But this will take time, perhaps years. The so called “premier” undergraduate institutions have to step up and play a role, and undergraduates need to be able to do real research. A theory is only so good if a student cannot ever see it working. Even in teaching, attitudes need to change. It is a rare professor who will allow students to question his or her ideas in class. This is just a continuation of suppressing ideas from kindergarten, through high school and finally college. Any “dissent” is considered hugely disrespectful. I was one of the few fortunate students to have some professors who encouraged a lot of questions, and I benefited greatly from that experience. Students are rarely allowed to take on serious research projects, and even if they are, are rarely encouraged. And stifling of creativity in students in India is an old story, so I won’t repeat it. These are the obvious problems.

There are a few centers of good research in India, and even here there remain pockets of bureaucracy (US researchers who complain of bureaucracy, go take a sabbatical in India), and resistance to all new ideas. Students should have the right to disagree with their PIs, or at least should have the freedom to question them, and should not work in an environment where the “have” to prove their PIs theories (yup, this happens in some groups). And large universities need to develop real research departments. It is not enough to see good research come from NCBS, IISc, TIFR, and a handful of other research centers and national labs across the country.

There are a few other measures though, that can be easily implemented. The first would be to introduce a “tenure track” system and provide incentives for researchers to publish. This is a rather obvious but long overdue measure that still isn’t being considered. In most universities in the US, a researcher is hired as an assistant professor. The first five years or so (the “tenure years”) for him/her are extremely hard. They have to publish good quality research that makes an impact in their fields. Only then do they receive “tenure”, and can stay on as an associate professor. Sure, there’s a lot of pressure, but if promotions or permanent positions are based on time spent/seniority (as it is invariably the case in Indian universities), it is instant death for research. Additionally, highly productive researchers should be given greater incentive to produce more (awards, increments in salary, grants, “endowed chairs” etc). Salary scales should not be based on longevity in the department alone. There is also no reason to discourage academic scientists to start-up companies using their research (and this is now changing, with a number of Indian researchers beginning to start their own companies).

There also needs to be some set standards for what constitutes an MPhil or (more importantly) a PhD. Repeating some one else’s published experiments cannot be one of them. Clear requirements, including a minimum number of publications of original research in well respected (and not improbably obscure) journals in the field must be mandatory.

But the increased money is a good first step. Hopefully, as Caesar might have said, alea jacta est.

The die is cast, and if these positive trends continue, it may trigger a cycle of productivity and innovation in Indian scientific research.


Vikrum said...

Hi Sunil,

Nice article. I agree with you that in India teachers generally do not allow dissent or questioning. And you are also right that India needs to invest more (not just in money) in fundamental research.

It's interesting how people like Tom Friedman continually write about the US's inevitable "loss" in science. Friedman has a point that the US is losing in science when one compares American science today with science 50 years ago; and he is right that other countries are doing better than before in regards to scientific innovation. But I agree with you that the US "is going to retain a huge innovation and original scientific discovery edge" for years to come.

Sunil said...

Vik......Friedman's a wonderfully talented writer, and i enjoy reading him greatly (and he even made good points in "The lexus and the olive tree") but he's gone overboard with his flat-earth theory, and has lost the plot :-)

But relatively speaking, these are bad days for science in the states........only relatively :-)

Pennathur.....yes, you and I have been fortunate to not encounter this side of the system. You may have gone to a modest school in madras< but it certainly was one where free thinking was allowed. this is the exception and not the rule....and we (like a small number of others) have benifited from it immensely...and even ended up in academia :-)
I've visited far too many schools (through my involvement with asha, and otherwise) to see students sit through classes, terrified of their teachers. And they are expected to mug through answers and that's it.

You're bang on about the "committees"........and letting the best schools do what they want gradually. Try what works, and throw out what doesn't. These bulky reports are a bit too frequent in India.....and the less of that, and the more freedom for schools to take action...that will change things a lot.

Prasanth said...


Pennathur was lucky to be in a school which did not kill his creativity. I was lucky to have great teachers who encouraged us in asking questions, challenge the status quo - but sadly, that is rare in India. Most schools encourage learning by rote - to finish the "portions" on time, get "good marks" in exams. They kill creativity and curiosity. By the time kids are in high school, their creativity and curiosity is gone - they starts hating subjects like maths and physics.



Sunil said...

Prasanth......likewise. I think you explained it well.

sorry for the absence all, but blogging resumes tonight.