Academia Must Inspire Society through Science

Date: 25 June, 2018

It is my proud privilege to deliver the annual convocation address of India’s iconic institution for advanced scientific education and research.

At the outset, let me offer my felicitations to the medal winners, the graduating students and their families on this proud day.  My congratulations also to the faculty, the Governing Council and to the Director for upholding the leadership credentials of this great institution.

To speak to the scientific thinkers and scientific thought leaders of our nation is a daunting task and yet, I would like to use this opportunity to engage with you on the subject of why ‘Academia Must Inspire Society through Science.’

The Importance of Science Literacy

Carl Sagan, American cosmologist and one of the scientists of our times who greatly contributed to popularize science, wrote in 1990:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

Sadly, not much has changed in the intervening three decades.

For example, only 51% of Americans, 28% of Japanese, 30% of Indians, and 27% of Chinese know that electrons are smaller than atoms.

This and other such data, drawn primarily from the Science and Engineering Indicators compiled by the U.S. National Science Foundation in 2014, go to show the appalling levels of science literacy not only in India but across some of the world’s largest countries.

This is alarming, because it is dangerous for the public to remain ignorant about burning issues like global warming, plastic pollution and water shortage.

Science literacy is an urgent and important issue for modern India. If science literacy continues to remain low, our nation will lose its competitive edge.

Scientists Need to Emerge from Ivory Towers

It is, therefore, imperative for scientists like you to engage society in a meaningful dialogue about the issues that confront our species, our planet, and our ideals.  You have a responsibility to communicate and support society in understanding science in order to make informed decisions.  It’s about educating society on decision science, which is based on data and facts rather than opinions and anecdotes.

Moreover, your scientific jobs do not end with discovery, application, or transfer of knowledge but in communicating and inspiring the beneficiaries of your findings through impactful narratives.

You need to remind society that science is not just a body of knowledge, but a method of critical thinking.

You need to facilitate and stimulate dialogue to educate ordinary citizens as they are not equipped with the tools to counter the growing threat of pseudoscience.

The spirit of inquiry and acceptance of the right to question and be questioned are fundamental to developing a scientific temper, which considers knowledge as open-ended and ever-evolving. The spread of scientific temper in society is a pre-requisite for optimising the benefits accruing from science and technology.

All too often, scientists are perceived as elitists ensconced in their ivory towers. However, in today’s complex world of social media, the engagement of scientists with the public is more crucial than ever.

By breaking down knowledge barriers, you can ensure that society supports scientific pursuit and that public funds are effectively used to further scientific advancement in a way that benefits society.

As American psychologist and writer, Anne Roe said in 1953: “Nothing in science has any value to society if it is not communicated, and scientists are beginning to learn their social obligations.”

Time to Humanize Science

We are living in the most exciting and best of times ever in terms of the potential we have to change the world with the help of Science and Technology. We are witnessing the birth of technologies that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. The scale, scope, and complexity of the transformation is unlikely to be like anything humankind has experienced before.

The next few decades will see cutting-edge technologies such as Cloud Computing, Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, Data Science, 3-D Printing and Quantum Computing present huge opportunities to usher in “disruptive innovation” that will shake up businesses and transform lives. These technologies will also create new employment opportunities.

Some people have expressed worries that AI will destroy jobs. However, history has proven that while new technology does indeed eliminate jobs, it also creates new and better jobs to replace them.

Research and advisory firm Gartner predicts that starting 2020, AI-related job creation will cross into positive territory, reaching 2 million net-new jobs in 2025. And by 2022, one in five workers engaged in mostly non-routine tasks will rely on AI to do a job.

Society has always reacted to new technologies with fear and scepticism, and it is for academia to quell these concerns. From the weaving machines and locomotive engines of the 1st Industrial revolution to Automation, AI and robotics in the 4th, redundant jobs alter society in unsettling ways but eventually for the better.

As Nobel-Laureate Michael Bishop described it: “Science now finds itself in paradoxical strife with society: admired but mistrusted; offering hope for the future, but creating ambiguous choice… boasting remarkable advances, but criticized for not serving more directly the goals of society.”

Citizens’ attitudes towards science depends on how well informed the people are on scientific matters. Bringing society into the dialogue on science is important because it is a key stakeholder. The scientific community needs to earn public trust by being transparent, open and human. That requires consciously re-building the ties between science and society. As scientists you will need to engage with people from diverse spheres to win public support for new ideas!

Renaissance and the ‘Enlightened Age’

Modern science emerged with the European Renaissance that ended the millennium-long ‘Dark Ages’.

Leonardo Da Vinci, who is perhaps the best remembered “Renaissance Man” continues to be regarded as the greatest scientist of all times because he started questioning entrenched scientific dogmas.

The Renaissance changed the world in just about every way one could think of. Empiricism began to take hold of scientific thought. Scientists were guided by experience and experiments and began to investigate the natural world through observation and evidence.

We must also pay rich tribute to our own ancient scientists and mathematicians: Aryabhatta, Mahaviracharya, Susruta, Kanad, Charak and many more to whom the world owes its scientific origins.

The seeds of the modern world were sown during the Renaissance. It heralded the start of the ‘Enlightened Age’ that we are continuing to build.

Most importantly, during the Renaissance era, science and society were integrated and scientific pursuit was supported through large public funds that had the mandate of the people.

The Importance of Societal Engagement in Scientific Pursuit

The revolution in scientific thought sparked by the Renaissance has brought us today to the dawn of the “ideas economy”, where the pace of a country’s technological progress is directly proportional to its investments in research and innovation. R&D spending has therefore emerged as a reliable barometer of an economy’s innovation capability.

The imperative to be ‘future ready’ is driving nations to identify key thrust areas for research and innovation and then nurturing them with the appropriate fiscal incentives, policy support, financing mechanisms, human capital and best-in-class infrastructure.

Size doesn’t matter like Israel and Cuba have shown.

Israel, despite being strapped for natural resources, has made ‘innovation’ the most valuable national asset. Former Israel President Shimon Peres said in 2016, “In the absence of natural assets, we found the greatest asset of all, the human asset, which is far richer than any other asset. It will enable us to turn our landscape, from swamps and deserts into flourishing homeland.”

Israel has successfully established a unique innovation ecosystem, where the government strives to strengthen infrastructure for innovation and prompts the private sector to invest in innovation through various incentives. Israel’s academia boasts some of the best institutions for education and scientific research worldwide.

It is not surprising therefore that Israel ranks as the No. 1 country globally in terms of R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP. In 2015, Israel invested 4.25% of its GDP in R&D. Israel also ranks No. 1 in venture capital investments as a percentage of GDP.

Let’s look at Cuba, a country whose entire GDP is just half of what the US government spends on research. Cuba is a poster child of biotechnology research. The US trade embargo meant that for half-a-century, Cuban researchers could not buy scientific equipment, win international grants and travel to the United States. Despite these difficulties, Cuba made scientific research a priority. Fidel Castro made biotechnology one of the building blocks of the economy. Fuelled by relatively generous government support, biomedical researchers in Cuba have managed to excel at creating low-cost vaccines, developing cancer treatments and screening infants for genetic disorders.

Between 2011 and 2016, Cuba spent an average of 0.5% of its GDP on research and development annually—one of the highest rates in Latin America.  According to the Cuban government, biotech exports netted the country $2.5 billion between 2008 and 2013—a figure that the agency expects to double by 2018.

Another noteworthy example is South Korea, a country whose investment in research and development (R&D) in 2015 accounted for 4.2% of its GDP, higher than regional competitor Japan (3.5%) and the United States (2.5%). In 2016, the South Korean government announced that it would invest 1 trillion Won in AI by 2020, while prodding the private sector into investing a further 2.5 trillion Won. The cornerstone of this co-investment model includes a public–private research institute involving corporations such as Samsung and LG. Five decades of research led economic growth has vaulted South Korea from developing-world poverty to membership of the Group of 20 (G20) leading industrial nations.

Pandit Nehru Sowed the Seeds of Indian Science

Let’s turn to India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s “tryst with destiny” for India was about the ability to leverage science and technology for agriculture, industry, defence, energy and other spheres. As India’s first Prime Minister Nehru ensured that he held the portfolio of Scientific Research in the first national government that was formed in August 1947.  He personally supervised India’s forays into space technology and atomic energy.

Thanks to Nehru’s vision, India has been able to achieve a level of scientific and technological development that very few post-colonial nations have achieved.

As a developing economy, India’s budget for space science was modest, which evoked a lot of scepticism about our country’s capability. Even today, ISRO has a budget which is a tenth of NASA, yet it has propelled India into a leadership position in space research.

Indian scientists have also made substantial contributions to the field of gravitational astronomy when in 2015 three major research institutions in the country contributed to the Nobel Winning Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) project, which successfully detected the existence of gravitational waves.

Is Indian Science at Risk?

Science & Technology is of strategic importance for our future. The tectonic shift being ushered in by Science & Technology is spurring developing nations to boldly invest in frontier scientific research at par with developed nations. If India is to build a credible scientific and engineering profile, then we do need to seriously invest in research in the public and private sectors.

Investments in Indian science, measured in terms of Gross Expenditure on R&D (GERD), have shown a consistently increasing trend over the years. GERD has tripled in the last decade– from approximately Rs. 24,000 crores in 2004-2005  to an estimated Rs.1,00,000 crores in 2016-17. However, as a fraction of GDP, public expenditures on research have been stagnant – between 0.6% and 0.7% of GDP – over the past two decades. This is much lower than countries like China (2%), Japan (3.5%), South Korea (4.2%), and Israel (4.2%).

It is also noteworthy that unlike other science led economies, the Indian Government is the primary source of R&D funding as well as its primary user of funds! There is a great need for State Governments to augment their spends on R&D in order to leverage Science & Technology for economic growth.

The optics on private investments in R&D are not encouraging either. According to one analysis (Forbes, 2017) there are 26 Indian companies in the list of the top 2,500 global R&D spenders compared to 301 Chinese companies.

Another anomaly in the Indian research ecosystem is the relatively small role played by Universities. In most countries in the developed world, Universities play a critical role in both creating the research talent pool as well as generating research output.  Publicly funded research in India, on the other hand, concentrates on specialized research institutes under different government departments. This leaves universities to largely play a teaching role – a decision that goes back to the 1950s.  It is now widely acknowledged that whatever the merits of the decision at the time, this disconnect has severely impaired both teaching as well as the research enterprise in the country. It is one of the reasons why Indian universities are missing from various global rankings of top institutions of higher education.

IISc Must Lead the Charge to Inspire Society

As the country’s iconic scientific academic institution, I urge you to go out of your laboratories and connect with society.  I appeal to you to showcase your research to the people through Open Day events and interactive forums.  We need society to be inspired by scientific pursuit and scientific promise. ISRO has inspired society through satellites that ‘reach out for the stars’ and Mangalyan that made it to Mars. These achievements have enabled our Government to invest more in space research with huge public endorsement. But does exponential investing in other areas of science evoke the same response from the public? The answer is an emphatic NO!  Don’t we need more medical research to address our mounting disease burden? Don’t we need to invest in genetic research for healthcare and agriculture? Don’t we need to invest strategically in quantum mathematics and theoretical sciences? If the answers are affirmative, then should we not, as scientists, allay the fears and suspicions that people have of clinical trials, genetic modification, gene editing and Artificial Intelligence? Can’t IISc create the magic of science in schools through outreach programs so that we encourage more and more students to purse STEM.  I am excited that we are soon to see the appearance of Science Gallery Bengaluru as a first of its kind interactive science museum to inspire young minds in creatively thinking about science.  I am glad that IISc is one of the academic partners in this endeavour. I am also happy to know that IISc is making a conscious effort to raise the level of science education in the country by training teachers at all levels at the Talent Development Centre at its Challakere campus.

Science and Entrepreneurship

Unless we create a virtuous cycle of research and innovation, we will not derive the true dividends of investing in basic and applied scientific research.  For this to happen, we need interdependence between academic research and industrial growth. Industry needs to realise that its future depends on a very strong academic research partner. Translating academic research to entrepreneurial innovation is now creating a start-up revolution, which India has long awaited. This has finally started building the clichéd Academia-Industry bridge. The number of tech startups in India crossed the 5,000 mark in 2017, according to NASSCOM. What is even more heartening is to see Start-Up incubators flourish at institutions like IISc for it is scientist entrepreneurs who will be the strong pillars on which the Industry-Academia bridge will strengthen and endure.

Incentivizing innovation and IP creation is important for India’s future growth prospects. Enabling entrepreneurs to propel ideas into sustainable businesses will add value to our economy in the long run. It will create a Knowledge Society that will generate wealth and lead to inclusive growth.

Conclusion

There must be a virtuous cycle of basic and applied science that straddles academic and industrial research if we are to drive world-class innovation I do hope that in the years ahead, Science and Technology are recognized as priority areas for investment in our national agenda for economic development.  After all, every part of economic development is derived from something that originated in a scientific crucible.

(Annual Convocation Address by Kiran Mazumdar Shaw at IISc, Bangalore.)

2 thoughts

  1. Informative article. Examples of Israel and Cuba R&D ecosystem are trendsetter examples and should be a motivation fr us too.

    Like

  2. A brilliant article! Thought-provoking.
    Unfortunately, Indian mindset does not support rational thinking and scientific temper. We have to start with the children. We need to catch them young. We need to thrill them with the magic of science. We need to train them to ask – why? Science needs to be made entertaining. Majority of people would like to get entertained than educated. We need science shows like – the German ones “Die Sendung mit der Maus” and “Quarks”.
    The first one is for children. A small topic is taken from everyday life and explained in 5-10 minutes from a scientific perspective – how does it work. For example, why there is a rainbow, high tide-low tide, solar energy etc. This addresses their curiosity and makes them investigate the reason behind the functioning of everything. It becomes a habit which eventually makes the German nation – technology and innovation leader in the world.
    Quarks run by the Indian-origin moderator Ranga Yogeshwar – takes one topic of current interest, and dives deep into it. Over 45-60 minutes he gives a complete view of that topic – which is mostly science-related.
    We need such shows on our televisions. Perhaps, you may wish to take lead to create such tv-/web-series. If I can be of any help, I would love to contribute.

    Liked by 1 person

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