Neither quality nor quantity

In an inside-out analysis of the Indian scientific research scenario, Gautam Radhakrishna Desiraju tracks the loopholes in the country's system of identifying and nurturing merit.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2008.192 Published online 1 May 2008

Gautam R. Desiraju

Twenty-five years ago, the scientific research scenario in India was simple. Life itself was simple. The number of institutions that undertook competitive research was small — the IITs, the IISc, some CSIR laboratories and a few universities. A small number of serious minded students undertook research. After a PhD, they would proceed for a post-doctoral stint abroad. Their parents did not ask them what their salary would be when they finished their PhDs. An even smaller handful, who returned to India, constituted a new generation of teachers. Life went on.

The research output of the country under this dispensation was by no means of the highest international level. A few scientists did aspire for this standard, and were successful in part. These scientists, however, were more the exception. They did what they did, not because of the system but despite it. Indian science was competent given its flimsy infrastructural support and near absence of equipment. It was a low input, low output, low throughput and low impact situation. Notably though, no one was anxious and making money was quite far from everyone's mind. A dedicated teacher and a few motivated students could together achieve a happy academic environment. Quality was the goal, and though elusive, there was never any doubt about identifying it when it came calling.

Change is knocking today on the doors of academia. Vast numbers of students aspire for educational opportunities at higher levels. In the name of democratisation, we have been told by our political masters to increase the outreach of our research programmes. Can the system cope with this increase? Over the last fifteen years, there has been a modest increase in the numbers of researchers who are able to publish their work in competitive international journals. This increase is, however, far outstripped by the numbers of research students, their general lack of quality, and their hunger for quick monetary gains.

Our system is incapable of handling numbers. It is also incapable of handling populist political themes that promise to deliver education at all levels

Having evolved in more gentle times, the system is incapable of handling these enormous numbers. Our system is also incapable of handling populist political themes that promise to deliver education at all levels to the masses. It is equally incapable of handling ministerial statements that 12% of scientists in the U.S. including 36% of those in NASA are Indians thereby proving that there is nothing wrong with research in India (a statement made by D. Purandeshwari in the Rajya Sabha on 10 March, 2008). This minister also said that it was wrong to run down the country's higher education system since most Indians who excelled abroad were products of Indian institutions.

This is ludicrous. Is the minister implying that the Government of India is responsible for the excellent state of American science? Such statements make good copy in the newspapers but are far removed from reality. It is like saying that our space programme is a success because Sunita Williams has an Indian parent.

Research is elitist

It is impossible and unnecessary to make every student a high profile researcher. Research is elitist, exclusive, discriminatory, and at the highest levels of outstanding quality. Excellence in research is like high altitude climbing or marathon running. It is not meant for all. At more modest levels, a few more can participate, but that's the bottom line. Still, there is nothing wrong in moving from the slow paced quality based system which we had 25 years ago, to a more accelerated quantity based system, provided the ultimate goal is the identification and encouragement of true quality.

Quantity does not mean loss of quality. Quantity is also no substitute for quality. How does research fit into a quantity based system where everyone wants to study? Education must evolve in two stages: in the first stage a very large number of students must be given a sound undergraduate training in science, including laboratory work. In the second stage, a smaller number of truly gifted individuals must be identified and given a world class education. Simultaneously, those who terminate their education at the undergraduate level (and many should be encouraged to do so) should be provided with decent employment opportunities.

If identification and encouragement of quality is the true aim of a quantity based system, two indispensable elements are required for its successful prosecution: (1) The numbers of students processed at the lower levels must be really large; (2) The thoroughness with which the system is able to identify and elevate quality must be highly efficient. Both points require elaboration.

Small talent pool

A key assumption in the working of a quantity based system is that the proportion of really talented individuals is always small and constant. So, in a heavily populated country the total number of extremely talented individuals is rather large. But the problem is one of identification of these individuals. It is like searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Unless our screening mechanisms are very efficient, the whole system would collapse under the weight of its mediocrity

Why does one need to educate a very large number of students at the undergraduate level? The main reason is that one cannot afford to lose the few individuals who are truly exceptional even as they remain hidden (even uneducated) amongst the vast numbers of more average people. Why should the screening mechanisms at the second stage of post-graduate education be very efficient? This is because we would be handling huge numbers at the undergraduate level. Unless our screening mechanisms are very efficient, the whole system would collapse under the weight of its mediocrity. With large numbers screened effectively, one would get the golden mean of quantity at the lower levels and quality at the higher levels.

What is happening today is sadly different. We have neither quality nor quantity. Our undergraduate programmes are in shambles. The students who drift into science only do so because they are unable to get into professional courses (however shabby the latter may be for the most part). They lack motivation, skill and even the ability to learn. The indifferent programme of study at the B.Sc. level converts most of them into zombies. This very group enters the post-graduate arena, once again because they have nothing better to do. We are forced to choose a smaller group from this jaded lot for our PhD programs as otherwise there would be no one to select. It is inconceivable that a system like this will deliver world class research outputs, and indeed it does not.

The way ahead

Can one think of a breakthrough in these dismal circumstances? High levels of student participation at the undergraduate level demand budgets that are much higher than what we are able to conceive of in India. China has opted for this route and has set up 100 universities each with a budget of around 100 crore per year, and each handling 10,000 students. This would amount to an outlay of Rs 10,000 crore per year but nearly 2,50,000 students would receive a good undergraduate degree every year, and this is no small number .

I do not believe that a sum of Rs 10,000 crore per year for undergraduate education is large given today's realities (the DAE gets roughly Rs 7,000 crore every year) but there is a total lack of political will to take such a decision. The crippling administrative and bureaucratic set-up we have only compounds the problem. Sub-critical efforts like starting three IISERs, each admitting 65 students a year, and declaring that we will start two more IISERs, eight IITs, 15 central universities and 14 'world class' universities will take us nowhere.

We are simply unable to perceive quality any more

Even if we are able to handle huge numbers of undergraduates, there remains the second question. Will we able to identify the really talented ones from this pool and induct them into a world class programme of research? Our main problem is that we are simply unable to perceive quality any more. We have made so many compromises that we are now unable to even recognise that we are mired in a vast bog of mediocrity.

After 80 years of puffing herself up, India is unable to qualify to play hockey in the Olympics. But the rot had set in 20 years ago, and we were in a state of denial — unable to recognise it, or too scared to recognise it, or too corrupt to want to recognise it. In the end, the exact reason does not matter. Academics have kept silent for too long in a country that has stubbornly refused to identify and encourage quality. Disaster was inevitable and is now a reality.

In all successful countries, quality and quantity are two sides of the same coin of excellence. Because of this almost wilful neglect of quality India is paying a bitter price today in the field of education and research. Our main examination for the identification of research students, namely the CSIR-UGC NET, is in itself suspect. This exam tests students under high stress conditions, and encourages rote learning, and memory power. It does not test creativity, curiosity, non-linear thinking, and an ability to draw analogies all of which are vital in research. We simply cannot afford to allow the students who qualify in this sub-standard test to enter our research institutions and expect world class work to emerge. It cannot and it will not.