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India is where science is

There is huge scientific talent and enthusiasm in the country which bodes well for the future, writes Simon Singh.

india Updated: Jan 04, 2006 17:17 IST
Simon Singh
Simon Singh

Last month, the British Council brought me to India to give a dozen science lectures in six cities. I lectured in schools, universities and libraries, and over and over again was struck by the knowledge and intelligence of my audiences.

The questions and discussions, particularly from young people, showed me that there is huge scientific talent and enthusiasm in India which bodes well for the country's future.

When I use the word 'science', I am using it in its broadest sense to encompass mathematics, engineering, technology and medicine. I know that there is some concern that students are moving away from pure sciences, such as physics, towards more applied sciences, such as software design.

However, the key point is that these students, both pure and applied, have the talent to innovate and invent and they will come up with the ideas that will drive India's future prosperity.

By comparison, Britain's outlook is very bleak. The number of 17 year olds studying physics has dropped by 38 per cent in the last 15 years, which is indicative of a massive drop in the quality and number of students going on to do not just physics, but also engineering and whole series of related disciplines. In fact, Britain's science education is in crisis, and even more worrying is the fact that there is no sign of any improvement.

So, while Britain's tradition of excellence in physics is going down the drain, India is developing an increasing confidence in the sciences. The youth of India realise that they can improve their own lives and the future of their nation by studying science.

Personally, I have very mixed feelings about this. My parents left India for Britain half a century ago, so I am obviously delighted that the country of my ancestors is prospering. At the same time, I am depressed that the country in which I was born and raised has neglected science.

Britain is the land of Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday, it is where the atom was split and where pulsars were discovered, and yet today the country is caught in a spiral of decline. We do not have enough physics teachers, so pupils do not pursue the subject to university level, so they do not get degrees in physics, so there are even fewer potential physics teachers, and so on.

India has a great variation in education provision, which is exacerbated by the divide between rich and poor. Nevertheless, the education system has improved dramatically since my parents left India in 1950, which means that India can provide a reassuringly high quality of science education to a surprisingly high number of bright young people.

This has led me to a shocking conclusion. One of the main reasons that my parents emigrated to Britain was so they could their children could obtain a good education, but today I suspect that a child from a middle-class family in India probably has a better chance of a good science education than a similar child growing up in Britain.

(The writer is a science writer based in London)

First Published: Jan 04, 2006 16:18 IST