The Sorry State of Affairs of Science and R&D in India

Recently I watched a heart-wrenching tale of an Indian Scientist in the 1990 art film “Ek Doctor Ki Maut”. Directed by Tapan Sinha, it stars Pankaj Kapur as the eponymous Doctor Dipankar Roy, Shabana Azmi as his wife and Irrfan Khan as a science journalist-friend of the couple.

The plot is based in Communist ruled West Bengal where the Doctor invents a cure of Leprosy. Very disturbingly, he is ridiculed by the medical association and the scientific community for his claim that as a side-effect, the vaccine could treat women infertility. Further, the Government bureaucracy stifle Dr. Ray’s work by transfering him from Kolkata (then Calcutta) to a remote village (Dr. Ray was employed in a Government hospital).

The pitiful state of research and innovation in India is exemplified in the cinema. While there is no doubt that Dr. Ray is a mad scientist, preoccupied with his work, so much that he ignores his beautiful wife’s repeated plea. But, that should not be hold against the Doctor’s scientific passion — the way the Bureaucracy in a communist government treated him.

“If Greed is the vice of Capitalism, Jealously is the vice of Communism” 
Gurucharan Das in The Difficulty of Being Good

I have been an ardent supporter of the theory that human progress depends on innovation and creative destruction. India, unfortunately, accords little value to research and development (R&D). Instead, we copy the West’s innovations and manufacture goods using cost-cutting techniques. This phenomenon has become the USP of India — ‘frugal innovation’.

The reason why India was dominated by foreign rulers for more than 800 years is because of stagnation in innovation. Islam was the most progressive religion in the medieval period (1200–1600). The Islamic world of the time contributed to advance science in fields such as alchemy, mathematics, architecture and so on. Similarly, the Britishers (and the entire West) are the most advance civilization in the Modern period (1600-present). There, the philosophical and scientific revolution started with Renaissance and the age of enlightenment and continued with the invention of steam engine, modern weaponry and government insitutions.

India, after gaining Independence from British Rule in 1947, established numerous R&D and manufacturing centres to pivot the scientific advancements in the country. Sadly, these organisations mostly focus on copying the technology from the West, improvising on the tools used to cut down the costs.

If India ever wants to be back on the world map as an advance civilization (like in the ancient world), there is an urgent need to infuse talent, resources and capabilities in our R&D facilities. Government, instead of inhibiting scientific progress (as depicted in ‘Ek Doctor Ki Maut’), should encourage scientific institutions to produce world class innovations.

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