Sunday, 20 March 2011

Geek Nation

Geek Nation: How Indian science is taking over the world by Angela Saini

Financial Times, 19-20 March 2011

‘It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.’ The inclusion of this statement in the Indian constitution, which came into effect on January 26 1950, was insisted upon byJawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.

Nehru’s ‘scientific temper’ is a wonderfully concise phrase, which describes his vision of a nation in which people could think independently, employ logic and understand the scientific method. In a land of religion, Nehru put his faith in science and technology. He believed that it was ‘science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition’ and that the ‘future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science’. Nehru wanted a nation of geeks.

‘Wherever in the world we live, Indians and people of Indian origin are famous for being swots, nerds, dweebs, boffins, and dorks,’ writes Angela Saini in Geek Nation. A British science journalist of Indian parentage, Saini spent six months in India exploring Nehru’s geek nation almost 50 years after his death.

With a population approaching 1.2 billion, India has the largest pool of scientists and engineers in the world. While the literacy rate hovers around a dismal 60 per cent, some 400 universities produce two million graduates every year, including a staggering 600,000 engineers, the most sought after of which are from the 16 Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT’s). Yet, instead of discovering hothouses of intellectual curiosity and innovation, Saini found drones, not geeks. The relentless pressure on India’s students is ‘disabling imaginations’ and driving hundreds to suicide.

From the vast Soviet-style Bhabha Atomic Research Centre to the Academy of Sanskrit Research, ‘the geeky and the bizarre’ sit side-by-side; wacky ideas are more easily tolerated than in the west. Indians, Saini observes, have ‘a unique freedom to explore the edges of what’s believed to be possible’.

Indian science is far from taking over the world: it currently contributes less than 3 per cent of global research output, lagging far behind the US and UK. Yet an increasing number of Indian researchers, having established reputations aboard, are returning home to lead a younger generation.

Saini’s vivid portrait of hi-tech India reveals a country in a hurry. No one knows how long it will take, but India’s present economic expansion is a reminder that more than 1,000 years ago it had a scientific culture as advanced as any in the world. ‘The Empires of the future,’ Winston Churchill once said, ‘are going to be the empires of the mind.’