Science is spectacular, but humanities matter

  • Mark Tully
  • Updated: Jan 04, 2015 02:05 IST

The year 2014 was a very good one for the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). First came the successful Mars programme, then at the end of the year the 630 ton GSLV Mk-111 launch vehicle soared into space. The GSLV Mk-111 brings obvious financial benefits to India. Isro should now be able to launch its own heavier communication satellites, thereby saving the cost of launching them elsewhere. At the same time, it will be able to launch heavier satellites for other countries, and earn good money for doing that. In addition to these specific benefits, high-technology industries like space give momentum to the economy.

Nevertheless these major successes have not been universally welcomed outside India. There has been widespread criticism of the space programme in the West, where many have seen them as a luxury India can ill-afford. I have just returned from lecturing about India on a British cruise liner and I was frequently asked how a country with a large number of people living below the poverty line could justify spending money on a space programme. After the Mars launch I took part in a discussion on a BBC current affairs programme's discussion shortly after the Mars launch. One of the participants thought India could not afford to do any higher scientific research.

Underlying the criticism is the view that advanced science should be the monopoly of advanced countries. Jawaharlal Nehru realised this assumption had held back the development of Indian science under colonial rule. David Arnold, a historian at Warwick University in Britain, recently wrote: "Nehru sought to contest Western presumptions of a monopoly over science and to ground modern science in India's cultural tradition and contribution to world civilization." Nehru realised that if India was to overcome its backwardness in science, scientists should not be limited by crude assessments of their research's immediate and direct value in solving the problems the country faced.

But India still hasn't produced enough scientists even for its immediate practical needs. One of PM Narendra Modi's ambitions is to provide India with a modern railway system, including at least one bullet train. Dinesh Mohan, the transport expert who teaches at IIT Delhi, pointed out to me that China's success in modernising its railways had depended on the expertise of four research institutes, each staffed by 4,000 scientists. He said Indian Railways didn't have one institution that employed 500 scientists.

But there is the danger that with all the emphasis on the usefulness of science, the value of humanities will be forgotten. S Radhakrishnan spoke about this when he inaugurated the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla. He warned the staff of the Institute "when technical creations become spectacular, overwhelming, there is a danger that it might give rise to a lack of equilibrium". It has to be said this is recognised in IIT Delhi, which has an excellent department of humanities.

Another danger of emphasising the need to increase the higher levels of scientific learning is that this will overshadow the need to expand and improve education at all levels. Back in 1995 Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen commented on "the remarkable neglect of elementary education in India".

So it is right to be proud of the Mars mission but these stellar achievements should not blind India to the need for many more scientists to work in less glamorous fields. Those scientists will not be forthcoming unless the opportunity to have a good education from the primary stage onwards is more widely available. But at the same time the greater the achievements of science the greater the danger is of forgetting the warning given by the British Indian philosopher Bhikhu Parekh. He said: "India should avoid the positivist mistake of regarding science as the only valid form of knowledge."

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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