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World-class in pockets

tech reviews Updated: Jan 01, 2012 02:26 IST
Shiraz Minwalla

What is the universe made up of? How did it begin and how will it end? What are the smallest constituents of matter and how do they interact with one another to produce the world around us? Theoretical physicists are engaged in a quest to discover the answers to these questions, many of which are as old as humanity itself. In this great endeavour, what is India’s contribution?

It is substantial. My own area of research is string theory, a theoretical framework for quantum theories of gravity that hopes to address the questions formulated above. The hundred or so Indian string theorists — professors, PhD students and post-doctoral fellows — belong to a two- to three- thousand-member global string theory community.

Some of the string theory research carried out at institutes such as Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and Allahabad’s Harish-Chandra Research Institute (HRI) is outstanding, and has shaped the development of the field in certain areas. Although Indian research output in string theory is not comparable with the contributions of the US or the European Union, in my opinion, India has contributed more to the field’s development over the past five years than Japan or any single European country, and is certainly in a different league from any other developing country, including China.

India hosts research groups working in most other important areas of theoretical physics and other sciences, and Indian scientists continuously make important contributions in several of these areas. So from one point of view, the theoretical sciences are doing rather well in India; we outperform other developing countries in many areas and contribute at a higher level than some developed countries. However, there is another way of viewing our track record. India has more than four times as many people as the US and so should be producing that much more output. We are certainly not there yet.

What can we do to achieve our full potential? Historically, Indian scientific research has been inhibited by low funding, but in the past decade, at least at the top institutes, funding has improved dramatically. It is substantial, hassle-free and remarkably steady. As funding and work conditions improve, India is increasingly attracting talent from abroad.

The main bottleneck for the growth of scientific research lies in the availability of exceptional young people. In interviews for prospective PhD students at TIFR, the admissions committee usually finds that almost all students with the ability and training needed to embark on a career in research come from the IITs or a handful of exceptional institutes. The vast majority does not receive an education good enough for research.

The problem starts with the abysmal level of our primary and secondary education. Let us suppose that one-fifth of all six-year-olds who join school emerge with a good education. Let us assume that one-fifth of these students emerge from college with a good education. In this scenario, only one Indian child out of 25 emerges from the education system with a chance of contributing to research in the basic sciences.

In other words, Indian research has to choose from just 50 million rather than 1.2 billion people, perhaps explaining why it compares poorly with that of the US.

But there is good news. The department of science and technology’s INSPIRE programme aims to identify lakhs of highly talented secondary school students and give them Rs 5,000 to encourage them to study the basic sciences. The department also awards 10,000 INSPIRE scholarships, worth Rs 80,000 a year, to exceptional college students who choose to study the basic sciences. In tandem, six new Indian Institutes for Science Education and Research in Pune, Kolkata, Bhopal, Mohali, Trivandrum and Bhubaneshwar are being set up along the lines of the IITs, with the aim of giving students a top-notch education in the basic sciences; their students automatically qualify for the INSPIRE scholarship. The Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, one of India’s premier research universities, has recently started an excellent undergraduate programme. The government has also embarked on an ambitious programme to identify a few universities as institutes of excellence and upgrade their infrastructure and funding. Finally, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research is setting up a major campus in Hyderabad, at which it hopes to train hundreds of PhD students every year. These initiatives could substantially increase the pool of bright young people available to Indian science and qualitatively enhance research output over the coming decades. For the long term, however, none of this is enough. Scientific research in India — like so much else in our country — can reach its full potential only once every school and college becomes an institution of excellence. This sounds like a goal worth moving towards in 2012.

Shiraz Minwalla is a professor of theoretical physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.

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