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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Add science to taste

Tuesday, 08 August 2017 11:55
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Milind Sohoni 


The best way to ensure science will influence policy is to encourage people to appreciate and engage with science. That can only happen through education, communication, and ties of mutual respect between scientists and their communities - the paths of communication must go both ways. There has too long been a divide between the scientific community and the public. We encourage scientists to reach out to their communities, sharing their research and its impact on people's everyday lives. We encourage them, in turn, to listen to communities and consider their research and future plans from the perspective of the people they serve. We must take science out of the labs and journals and share it with the world." (Concluding paragraph of the Mission statement of The March For Science movement.)

IISc, the IITs, IISERs are some of the most eminent institutions in India and are headed by distinguished academicians, scientists and administrators. The conduct of science and technology (S&T) in the country is directly and indirectly influenced by the methods, topics of research and notions of rigour that these institutions practise.

Yet all is not well within Indian S&T. We see a great disconnect between the centrally funded institutions, the state universities and ground reality.

Within the older IITs, we see excessive coaching, diversion of talent away from core sectors, and dropping quality of Ph. D applicants. In the sciences, we see a narrow focus on academic research with little relevance, an over-supply of post-graduates and few openings other than in academics. We also see the newly started IITs and IISERs groping for definition and fighting for the same pool of central funding. The so-called placement problem is acute for these new institutions, specially the IISERs, where there are few pathways for gainful employment for students who do not want to pursue a Ph.D.

On the other hand, we also have the development agenda of sadak, bijli, paani, and other material needs of a young and impatient population. We see age-old practices of delivery, based on outdated knowledge and a governance which is failing. We also have small, household and rural enterprises, who are our largest employers, struggling in the market place.

An important cause is the absence of the above agenda in our curricula, research and modes of engagement. We have not recognised these sectors as essentially engineering and scientific services, but which require an inter-disciplinary and field-oriented methodology within a regional context. We have also failed to formalise these sectors so as to bring out the key processes and problems, ways of measurement, agents and their protocols, in other words, opening them up for analysis and improving outcomes. If we had done this, perhaps today we would have the necessary empirics, gadgets and processes to create new job definitions and professions, which bring efficiency and deliver value and pay for themselves. Examples of such positions are District Drinking Water Analyst, or District Public Transport Manager, or Cooking Energy Auditor, the City Economist, or even Scientific Advisor to the District Collector.

Engagement with the development agenda has always been part of research and training within universities in the West. It was only in 1958 that the MIT dismantled the Department of Sanitation Engineering. See, for example, the Transportation Center at the University of Toronto or the inter-disciplinary Twente Water Center. Today, various top universities are redefining engineering education, for instance, "Engineering+X" at University of Southern California, or Development Engineering at UC Berkeley, and other innovative UG programmes at several universities.

Our proposal is to initiate the formalisation of the development agenda and reclaim it as an area of interest for the science and technology establishment. It is to assert that these areas are indeed amenable to scientific rigour and rational argument in broader society. This is to be achieved by our network of centrally funded institutions adopting certain key measures. Perhaps, we can begin with the IITs, NITs, IISERs and the centrally funded universities.

One, each department is to identify 2-3 development sectors for deeper engagement and study. Civil Engg. at IIT Bombay may choose drinking water, Mechanical Engg. at IIT Mandi may choose wood-burning stoves for the hills, Chemistry at IISER-Pune may choose regional water quality assessment and analysis, and Economics at IIT Kanpur or Delhi University may study district plans.

Two, in these areas, the departments will identify a team of faculty members to develop expertise through field-work, inter-disciplinary training, student-based projects and case-studies and engage with local, regional and state agencies. This will be supported by laboratories, testing facilities and staff. This should eventually lead to key reports and publications which contribute to better practices in the sector.

Three, upon maturing, these development sectors should lead to course material and research frameworks. These should be extended to regional colleges. Four, the collection of institutions will evolve common frameworks for academics and institutional mechanisms of working in inter-disciplinary areas. They will also work out common funding, faculty incentives and possibly chair positions to give prestige to the programme.

Such a programme will be widely appreciated both outside and inside higher education, in political, social and intellectual circles and also by our alumni. It will be seen as a positive step to broaden and deepen science and technology and strengthen our role in it, and also to provide jobs in the form of new professions. It will be welcomed by regional institutions for they will see a role for themselves and an outlet for their creative energies. It will provide much needed support to state agencies who work in very adverse conditions. Finally, it will infuse new blood into research by bringing new methods, problems and a much-needed focus on sustainability.

Perhaps such a decentralisation of S&T may redefine school-level science as broad enough to incorporate the immediate environment as worthy of study, documentation and analysis. It will cause a deepening of scientific temper which will help people negotiate for themselves a better deal in the market and society. Finally, it will show that modern science has a method and outcomes that are not limited to passing entrance exams or publishing papers.

The IISc, IITs and IISERs are well poised for a leadership role in this exciting mission. The massive dissatisfaction over development outcomes will eventually force us to adopt at least some part of the development agenda. It is better that we do this on our own terms and preserve our autonomy and our notion of rigour. While we may argue about the "traditional" and the "ancient", the "modern" must ultimately deliver material outcomes.

The world of science too is groping for ideas and mechanisms to re-engage with the community and re-establish its credentials as a pillar of freedom, prosperity and sustainability.

The writer is Head of Department Centre for Technology Alternative for Rural Areas, IIT Bombay

(Courtesy: IE)

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