Impossible Performance on the Part of the Grass (bits from the archives)

Grass

In 1892, British electrical engineers of the Department of Telegraphs in Calcutta, as part of an exercise, buried a piece of india-rubber cable core treated to withstand attacks by termites. After six months, when the cable was dug up, engineers found grass growing through the cable. On 1 February 1893, P. V. Luke, a member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, wrote the following in his letter to the secretary of the institution:

What at first sight appears to be an impossible performance on the part of the grass seems less so when you come to examine the hard, sharp, needle-like points which characterise the roots of this species of grass.*

*P. V. Luke, ‘A new danger to which underground wires in India are exposed’, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, 22:104 (1893), pp. 146-147 (pp. 146-147)

The state of history of science in India (part 1)

Esplanade_in_Calcutta_1800s

As Ernest Renan said a century ago: ‘Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation.’ It is the professional business of historians to dismantle such mythologies, unless they are content – and I am afraid national historians have often been – to be the servants of ideologists.

Eric Hobsbawm, On History, p.35

Several contemporary interpretations of the history of science in India are close to being questionable, to put it mildly. These accounts of the history of science in India are replete with specifically Hindu renditions, which present India’s past contributions to science as dazzlingly glorious and modern, only to be ruined later by Islamic and British rulers. The past, according to these accounts, has been so glorious that the Defence Minister claims scientists in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) must learn the ancient hindu metallurgical practices of turning human and animal bones into indestructible metals. There has also been a recent push to distance the history of India from the ‘external’ imagery of the Christian and Islamic West and create a Hindu historical vision of ‘our modernity’ as opposed, and much superior, to ‘their modernity’. This has led to people making claims, amongst many others, of manned flights existing in ‘Hindu’ India almost 3000 years before the Wright brothers’ construction of the aeroplane.

Such focus on India’s ‘Hindu’ specialness neglects crucial aspects of the history of science in India – the exchange of knowledge with the West and the East; and Indian intellectual traditions that influenced, and were influenced by, Western, Islamic and Eastern knowledge. While it is not wrong to write revisionist histories, historical claims should nevertheless be supported with extensive archival and historical research. This isn’t the case with most recent claims made regarding India’s history of science. It cannot be said that scholars in India are not producing definitive research, but the growing number of dubious research and researchers is just one of many reasons why the history of science must make its presence felt as an academic discipline in India.

The problem though is not just the absence of history of science as an academic discipline, but also the status of humanities studies in general within the Indian education system. In a 2014 interview for the Wall Street Journal, the cultural and literary theorist Homi K Bhabha said what almost all humanities academics in India agree with: “The prestige of humanities is at an all-time ebb, partly because there is a public sense that the most profitable way of making a livelihood in the global era is through technology or finance.” This has resulted in what Eric Hobsbawm states to be one of the reasons why  the importance of history and its lessons have diminished: “the a-historical, engineering, problem-solving approach by means of mechanical models and devices.” Such an approach, although successful in producing marvellous results in several fields, does not allow for science and engineering students to discuss the historical, social, political and cultural dynamics of the field they study, and to understand how the roles and values of inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural research that the humanities strives for are crucial to the creation of better technologies and societies.

I worked (and hope to continue working in the future) in this direction in 2014-15 through my involvement in the Science Park in Pune, India. I not only worked to help the Science Park develop its outreach and education programmes, but also drew heavily on my experience as a student undergoing the conversion from being an engineer to an aspiring historian in helping science and engineering students and trainees engage with historical, social and cultural issues outside their curriculum. Thinking about the historical and social aspects of the subjects they study forces students to think critically about the world around us, and their place in society as future scientists and engineers. However, exposing engineering and science students all over India to historical approached and methods would require bringing together more research-active historians, philosophers and sociologists of science and technology, with their participation facilitated by universities and institutions such as the History of Science Society, the British Society for the History of Science, the Society for the History of Technology and many more.

One of the many ways in which institutions such as the HSS can contribute to these efforts is by not only reaching out to academics and researchers studying the history/philosophy of science in India (either in India or abroad), but by also facilitating dissemination of their research in public forums in India. Science museums and centres in India provide the most lucrative platforms for such endeavours, since these would only add to a centre’s reputation, thereby increasing footfall and funding. The HSS could also look into training academics and researcher, who would then train staff and curators in science museums and centres in India , since almost all such institutions suffer from a lack of trained staff and funding for training. Such endeavours would not only help the HSS reach out to historians of science (and other historians) in India, and improve its presence in India, but also help academics and researchers be involved in curriculum reform in, beginning with science centres, schools and universities.

There are several other advantages to institutions such the HSS reaching out to academics and researchers working on the history of science and technology in India, and helping them collaborate with formal (colleges, schools, policy authorities, research institutions, companies) and non-formal institutions (science centres, museums):

  1. working with companies and research institutions can help such organisations enhance public understanding of complex and controversial scientific and technological issues.
  2. increasing access to historical and archival collections, thereby enhancing educational innovation.
  3. creating networks and stimulating dialogue.
  4. providing improvements to public space and urban quarters through an increased public understanding of the history of buildings and cities, also enabling constructive engagement for those sections of society generally excluded from a range of conventional public debates and decisions.

… Continued

Problems with “Colonial Science” and “Technology Transfer”

Scholarship on “colonial science” in British India has often in the past concentrated on “the introduction and dissemination of Western ideas, practices and techniques.”[1] Such simple “diffusionist” interpretation of the spread of Western science had plagued not only the study of science in colonial India, but also the scholarship on colonial science in general. The diffusionist model of the simple transfer of a progressive Western science to non-European colonies had been influenced by George Basalla’s seminal 1967 essay, The Spread of Western Science.[2] In the article, Basalla outlines “a three-stage model [that] describes the introduction of modern science into any non-European nation.”[3] In the first phase of Basalla’s model, colonies provide the foundations and source for geographical exploration and scientific analysis; phase two involves a period of “colonial science”, while phase three denotes the completion of the transplantation of Western science and the separation of the scientific tradition of the colonies from the traditions of Western science.

Basalla’s three-stage model remained influential in historical studies denoting Western science as a means for imperial expansion and control of India, instead of development.[4] However, from the 1980s onwards, the dominant theme in the historiographical scholarship of science in colonial India shifted from “diffusion” to diversity. Scholars began to recognise that Western science was seldom simply transferred from the West to India. Not only was technology transfer a complex process, but science and technology was also adapted according to the social and cultural contexts prevalent in India.

The “Centre/Periphery” Concept and “Colonial Science”

One of the concepts that had been central to the study of the history of colonisation and the transfer of scientific knowledge and technology from the West to the colonies was the theory of “centre and periphery”. Originally used in the social sciences, and especially in development economics in the 1950s and 60s, the “centre and periphery” has also been used by historians of science. The centre and periphery approach is usually used in economics and social sciences to depict the economic and political differences between the industrialised countries, and the developing and under-developed countries. The “centre” comprises of those countries that are suppliers of technology and capital, while the “periphery” consists of those countries, which due to the lack of their own resources, or because of the interests of the centre, are importers of products, technologies and ideas from the centre. The centre/periphery concept argues that this model is dependent on the centre being economically and politically dominant, and on the periphery’s aspirations to develop economic and political systems similar to that of the countries of the centre.[5]

Over the years, historians of colonial science and technology transfer have used the centre/periphery concept and written colonial histories with different purposes. While some historians wrote with a view to promote a nationalistic history, with a narrative of how technologies and scientific ideas produced by a nation in the centre were successfully spread across the world, other historians focussed on the adoption or rejection of new scientific ideas and practices by countries of the periphery.[6] In addition, a large number of historical works based on the centre/periphery concept regarded scientific ideas and technologies as material entities, which could be transferred from one place to another as physical goods.[7]

George Basalla’s essay on The Spread of Western Science has been instrumental in combining the centre/periphery concept and the study of colonialism and technology transfer. In the essay, Basalla aims to understand how the “modern” science of Western Europe was diffused to the rest of the world through a three-stage model. In phase-1, Europeans established contact with new lands as a result of trade, conquest or colonisation for settlement. The “nonscientific” societies served as sources of scientific knowledge for European science, which the Europeans gathered through maps, and plant and animal specimens. Although commercial exploitation also played an important role in such scientific study of new lands, Basalla, however, stressed that such exploration was a result of the European scientific culture and its need for scientific data. Also, the scientific knowledge gained from the colonies in the periphery resulted in Western science being modified as a result of the new information. According to Basalla:

European science, its practitioners forced to come to terms with exotic material at home and aborad, underwent a significant transformation while it was in the process of being diffused to a wider world. [8]

In time, the initial phase of exploration and reconnaissance resulted in the second, and more important, phase of “colonial science.” This phase was characterised by increased scientific activity in the colonies. Colonial scientists, who according to Basalla were Europeans, established local institutions in the colonies, replicating the fields of scientific investigations pursued in Europe. Such institutions and practices were dependent on European institutions and expertise, and resulted in what Basalla terms as “an external scientific culture.”[9] Basalla also clarifies that terming colonial science as being dependent on European institutions and expertise did not necessarily mean that it was inferior. Being dependent, according to Basalla, meant that practitioners of colonial science were trained in Europe and followed the methods and field of inquiry as that followed in Europe. Basalla writes:

[T]he colonial scientist works under handicaps at home and relies upon a scientific tradition located abroad. Although the group of men involved in the enterprise of colonial science is larger than that involved in phase-1 collecting, the number has not yet reached the critical size necessary for reciprocal intellectual stimulation and self-sustaining growth.[10]

In phase-3, with the rise of nationalism, colonial science gradually developed into an independent scientific tradition. The colonial periphery achieved scientific autonomy after a constant struggle with European beliefs. According to Basalla, the colonial scientist was replaced by a national of the colony who was trained in science and worked within the boundaries of the country.[11]

Basalla’s model was, for several years, considered useful in historical studies on colonial science and technology transfer, because it showed a linear path to national scientific development. R.K. Kochhar, in his 1991 article, Science in British India: Colonial Tool, stated that “modern science came to India in tow with the Europeans.”[12] In the article, Kochhar claimed that before the arrival of the British, scientific knowledge in India was erratic and motivated only by the curiosity of the locals, and studied the emergence of modern science in India on similar lines as Basalla studied the spread of Western Science.[13] Kochhar too, as Basalla did, proposed a three-stage model for discussing the advent and development of modern science in India. The first stage in Kochhar’s model was the “colonial tool stage”, which consisted of the introduction of science by the British colonists as a colonial tool. In this stage, much like Basalla’s phase-1, the colonists conducted geological and botanical surveys in order to utilise the knowledge for their own benefits. As a result of the exploration and surveying, the colonists established institutions such as the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1784, and the Geological Survey of India in 1851.[14] The second stage, called the “peripheral-native stage”, was established once the British were well established in India. In this stage, the British enrolled Indians as cheap labour to the “colonial science machinery.”[15] The third stage, called the “Indian response stage”, was the reaction to the second stage, similar to phase-3 of Basalla’s model, which was a reaction to the “colonial science” phase. In the third stage of Kochhar’s model, Indians began taking initiative in developing self-sustained and independent scientific activities.[16]

Problems with “Colonial Science” and “Technology Transfer”

New historical works have, however, proven Basalla’s and Kochhar’s models to be defective in several veins, and have re-examined the concepts of “technology transfer” and “colonial science”. Roy MacLeod, in his essay, On Visiting the Moving Metropolis: Reflections on the Architecture of Imperial Science (1982), revisited Basalla’s models and proposed an alternative to the understand the relations between the core and the periphery. According to Basalla, the core was a constant and stationary source of scientific knowedge. MacLeod, however, argues that the core was a “moving metropolis”, which was itself dynamic and changed substantially over time. These changes, in MacLeod’s view, also affected the scientific relations between the core and the colonial periphery, and the development of imperial science. MacLeod also pointed out the vagaries of historians’ definitions of the terms “colonial science”, “scientific colonialism”, “imperial science”, and “scientific imperialism”.[17] Although the concepts are closely related, MacLeod stresses that historians needed to logically differentiate between them. According to MacLeod, colonial science was the practice and application of science in the colonies through institutions and other structures, while scientific colonialism defined the processes through which colonial policies were implemented. Also, in MacLeod’s view, British imperial science was similar to colonial science, but only worked to serve the political ideologies and objectives of the “new imperialism” of the nineteenth century, while scientific imperialism was the implementation of science for the purposes of fulfilling imperial doctrine.[18] MacLeod’s notions were useful in illustrating that the spread of Western science as a result of colonialism was not a linear process as Basalla had indicated; contrarily, the spread of Western science and the processes of colonial science were more dynamic and flexible in nature.

David Wade Chambers and Richard Gillespie, in their essay, Locality in the History of Science: Colonial Science, Technoscience, and Indigenous Knowledge (2000), argue that while Basalla’s model was widely accepted by historians of science and colonialism, it failed because it assumed that the patterns of scientific and economic development of the West could be applicable to other parts of the world. The authors state, “without considerable modification this assumption is effectively blind to both history and culture, and is premised on the notion that ‘pre-scientific’ localities, today, start from a position similar to Europe’s before scientific take-off hundreds of years ago.”[19] The authors also argue that the concept of “colonial science”, as defined by Basalla and studied by several historians, was problematic. They stress that Basalla’s definition of “colonial science” implies that each locality develops into a scientific nation state only after going through the “colonial” stage, and ignores the social and cultural parameters that are unique to each locality. Chambers and Gillespie suggest that colonial scientific relationships must be seen as networks through which scientific knowledge was produced and circulated, instead of the linear, unidirectional model of technology transfer suggested by Basalla.[20]

In The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Progress, 1850-1940 (1988), Daniel Headrick discusses the process of technology transfer and also argues that “the transfer of technology from one society to another, and from one civilisation to another, is of an altogether higher order of complexity, and no theory has yet emerged to encompass it all.”[21] Headrick writes that technology transfer is not a singular process, but comprises of two distinct processes: “relocation” and “diffusion.”[22] Relocation, according to Headrick, is the movement of equipment, methods and personnel from one location to another, while diffusion involves the cultural acceptance and diffusion of skills, knowledge and attitudes from one society to another.

In Headrick’s view, technology transfer is incomplete without its agents: “exporters”, “importers”, and “migrants.”[23] Exporters, which include officials, tradesmen and engineers, are responsible for the “geographic relocation of technology”, and for exporting technology and skilled personnel to fulfill gaps in the demands of the importing country.[24] On the other hand, importers, which include students, local labour and local experts, are responsible for cultural diffusion of technology, with a view to develop skills and technologies in their home countries. Migrants, according to Headrick, are both exporters and importers. Headrick adds:

Hence we are left with four basic categories of transfer: the geographic relocation of technology by Western experts; its relocation by non-Western importers; its cultural diffusion by Western experts; and its diffusion by non-Western importers.[25]

In The Tentacles of Progress, Headrick also adds that due to the complex nature of the processes of technology transfer, especially in the case of colonial India, the relocation of technology is a much easier task than the cultural diffusion of technology. While geographic relocation of technology only requires transporting technology and personnel from one location to another by means of a transportation system that links both the home and the new locations, cultural diffusion of technology involves cultural, political and economic aspects, which make it liable to facing resistance. This is because, in Headrick’s view, cultural diffusion “takes a willingness to accept changes, a strong political cohesiveness, and a common vision to the future.”[26]

Headrick argues that these cultural, political and economic aspects of diffusion of technology are responsible for why the colonised regions failed to industrialise despite large-scale technology transfer. India, in Headrick’s view, is an apt example due to its size, population, and also due to the fact that India was colonised many decades before the British ruled Africa, Malaya or Indochina. However, Imperial interests caused delays in the cultural diffusion of technology in India despite India being the forerunner in technology transfer from the West. Headrick stresses that the unequal power relationships between India (and other colonies) and the colonisers was responsible for the failure of India’s attempts to industrialise.[27] The author also demonstrates that the introduction of railways in India, usually considered by many as a means of modernisation and economic development, had a far smaller impact on India’s developments than it had in any other country. Headrick states that the British did not introduce the railways in India with a view to help economic development in India, but to meet their own political and economic goals. He states, “after all, the prime concern of British railway policy in India was to make India useful to Britain, not to make Britain useful to India.”[28] Ian Inkster also makes a similar point on the railways in his essay Colonial and Neo-Colonial Transfers of Technology (1995). Inkster argues that while the development of the railways in Japan and Europe were applications of technological knowledge, “inducing certain types of learning, attitude change and institutional reform”, the building of railways in India was, on the other hand, was not seen as the development of a technological system. British ownership and the import of materials from Britain ensured that the railways project had no significant impact on any technological systems in India.[29]

Headrick also studies indigenous experts and enterprise, especially Jamsetji Nasarwanji Tata and Pramatha Nath Bose, founders of India’s steel industry. However, according to the author, the commercial and political interests of the colonisers restricted and limited indigenous entrepreneurs.[30] Even education of the locals was restricted by the colonisers, who “educated their subjects up to a point. Beyond that they withheld the culture of technology.”[31] Deepak Kumar and Roy MacLeod, editors of Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India (1995), also argue that British political control over agricultural and engineering projects, and education ensured that the transfer of technological knowledge and its dissemination into the local knowledge systems were almost impossible.[32] The engineering community involved in building India’s railway network was predominantly British, and only few Indian engineers reached positions where they could contribute to decision-making processes:

Colonial prejudice against the decision-making capabilities of Indians, their reliability in a crisis, and their ability to direct European and Anglo-Indian upper subordinates, was to prevent these well qualified officers from advancing further until the inter-war years, when Indianisation finally passed beyond the subaltern to the superior grades.[33]

The Tentacles of Progress, and Technology and the Raj can, however, be classified as examples of the centre/periphery concept. Studies on colonial periphery usually employ concepts that define the circulation of scientific knowledge and skills between the developed centre and the colonial periphery with terms such as “transfer”, ”spread”, “introduction”, and “adoption”.[34] The arguments made by the contributors in Technology and the Raj, and by Headrick as to why, despite extensive technology transfer, the colonies remained underdeveloped implicitly imply that the centre and the colonial periphery can be differentiated on the basis of their levels of scientific and technological advancements. These works also neglect the changes that scientific and technological ideas and techniques may have undergone as a result of being transmitted from one culture to another.

Recent historical works have, however, shown that the cultural orientations and internal dynamics of the colonial periphery are important aspects in the study of technology transfer. Kapil Raj, in his book, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 (2007), argues that the construction of scientific knowledge in the colonial periphery was a result of intercultural interactions, and not just the result of a straightforward transfer from the centre.[35] Raj argues that since South Asian and British colonial intellectuals possessed different tools and scientific knowledge, science in the colonial periphery could not have developed without fruitful scientific interactions between the two communities. Raj writes:

[S]cientific knowledge [is developed] through co-constructive processes of negotiation of skilled communities and individuals from both regions, resulting in as much in the emergence of new knowledge forms as in a reconfiguration of existing knowledges and specialized practices on both sides of the encounter.[36]

Raj’s study of interactions between European and Asians, and the way knowledge changed as a result of those interactions is in contrast with the usual centre/periphery and diffusionist models that studied the transfer of scientific and technological knowledge from the Western “metropolis” to the colonial peripheries as a result of superior knowledge. Raj stresses that although these relationships and interactions were asymmetric due to the greater economic, political and military powers of the Europeans, it did not, however, mean that the interactions were unidirectional. Raj also argues against Basalla’s technology transfer model in stating that scientific knowledge was not taken from the colonies in South Asia to the centre to be refined and reshaped before being applied in the colonies as “colonial science.” Instead, according to Raj, scientific knowledge was practiced and applied in the colonies through the cooperation between the colonisers and the colonies. This is evident in his study of geographic surveying, where local South Asian knowledge aided the English in mapping their administrative territories.[37] This, in Raj’s view, benefited both science in the colonies and in the West, thereby making the locals and the colonisers significant yet unequal partners in the creation of scientific knowledge, and “interpersonal trust between — certain — British and — certain — South Asians was predicated upon establishing their common genealogy, language, culture, and shared mercantile interests.”[38]

Kapil Raj’s Relocating Modern Science has resulted in historians questioning the term “colonial science”. By studying the contributions of individual scientific practitioners, Raj has pointed out the various complex interactions between colonisers and local experts, and the exchange of knowledge. More historical works by Kapil Raj have also revealed another aspect of cooperation and knowledge sharing between colonisers and the indigenes — the concept of “go-betweens”, or human agents who “made and changed the contents and the paths of knowledge.”[39] The go-betweens are additions to the agents of technology transfer that Headrick defined in The Tentacles of Progress — exporters, importers and migrants. Go-betweens — usually brokers, messengers, knowledge collectors and translators — were crucial for decision-making processes in politics, and for the dissemination and communication of scientific knowledge. In The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770-1820 (2009), Simon Schaffer and Kapil Raj discuss the largely ignored roles of go-betweens in the transfer of scientific knowledge in colonial India. Raj identifies five types of go-betweens who helped in the development of relationships between Asia and Europe — the “interpreter-translator”, the “merchant-banker”, the “procurer”, the “attorney”, and the “knowledge broker”.[40] Schaffer studies the intellectual network between Britain and India and the role of Tafazzul Husain Khan in helping the exchange and collection of scientific knowledge. Schaffer illustrates the role that this individual go-between played, not only in translating Newton’s Principia into Arabic, but also in collecting ancient literature and enabling English, Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit scholars to share their astronomical knowledge with each other.[41]

Conclusion

The historical works studied here have shown how the study of the history of colonial science and technology transfer has changed with the growing importance of studying the social, cultural and local aspects of scientific knowledge, the ideas and practices of indigenous individuals, and how scientific and technical knowledge is circulated in specific local and institutional contexts.

While historical works discussed here have focused on the changing concepts of technology transfer from the West to the colonies, what is also needed is a closer examination of how indigenous scientific and technical knowledge from the colonies, especially India, resulted in the transformation of scientific and technical knowledge in the West. This would require following the steps of Chambers and Gillespie, and viewing colonial scientific relationships as multilayered and polycentric communication network, while building a history of colonial science different from that of the “diffusionist” model and the “centre/periphery” dichotomy.


References

[1] David Arnold (ed.). The New Cambridge History of India III: Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 9

[2] George Basalla, “The Spread of Western Science”, Science, Vol. 156 (5 May 1967), pp. 611 — 622

[3] ibid, p. 611

[4] Although Basalla’s essay was concerned with colonialism and technology transfer as a whole, it’s tenets also applied to historical scholarship on colonial science in India, a topic this essay intends to study.

[5] See: N. Despicht, “‘Centre’ and ‘periphery’ in Europe”, in J. de Bandt, P. Mandi and D. Seers (eds), European studies in development: New trends in European development studies (London, 1980), pp. 38 — 41

[6] The theme of the reactions of different segments of Indian society to the scientific and technological knowledge brought from Britain to India during the rule of the East India Company has recently begun to attract the attention of several historians in India and abroad, most notable of whom have been Irfan Habib, Dhruv Raina, Deepak Kumar and Daniel Headrick.

[7] K. Gavroglu and M. Patiniotis (et.al.), “Science and Technology in the European Periphery: Some Historiographical Reflections”, History of Science, 46: 2 (2008), pp. 153 — 176 (p.156)

[8] Basalla, The Spread of Western Science, p. 613

[9] ibid, p. 613 — 614

[10] ibid, p. 614

[11] ibid, pp. 617 — 619

[12] R.K. Kochhar, “Science in British India. I. Colonial Tool”, Current Science, 63: 11 (10 December 1992), pp. 689 — 694 (p. 689)

[13] ibid, p. 690

[14] ibid, pp. 690 — 694

[15] ibid, p. 690

[16] ibid, p. 690

[17] Roy MacLeod, “On Visiting the ‘Moving Metropolis’: Reflections on the Architecture of Imperial Science”, Historical Records of Australian Science, 5: 3 (1982), pp. 1 — 16

[18] For imperial science and scientific imperialism, and how technology helped the expansion of European control, see: Daniel Headrick, “The Tools of Imperialism: Technology and the Expansion of European Colonial Empires in the Nineteenth Century”, The Journal of Modern History, 51: 2 (June, 1979), pp. 231 — 263

[19] David Wade Chambers and Richard Gilespie, “Locality in the History of Science: Colonial Science, Technoscience, and Indigenous Knowledge”, Osiris 2nd Series, 15 (2000), pp. 221 — 240 (p.226)

[20] ibid, p. 223

[21] Daniel Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850 — 1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 9

[22] ibid, p. 9

[23] ibid, p. 10

[24] ibid, p. 10

[25] ibid, p. 10

[26] ibid, p. 13

[27] ibid, pp. 13 — 16

[28] ibid, p. 91

[29] Ian Inkster, “Colonial and Neo-Colonial Transfers of Technology: Perspectives on India before 1914”, in Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India, ed. by Roy MacLeod and Deepak Kumar (New Delhi: Sage, 1995), pp. 25 — 51 (p. 35)

[30] Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress, pp. 259 — 303

[31] ibid, p. 345

[32] Roy MacLeod and Deepak Kumar (eds.), Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India (New Delhi: Sage, 1995)

[33] ibid, p. 184

[34] Gavroglu and Patiniotis (et.al.), Science and Technology in the European Periphery, p. 159

[35] Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650 — 1900 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

[36] ibid, p. 223

[37] ibid, pp. 60 — 93

[38] ibid, p. 224

[39] Simon Schaffer, Lisa Roberts, Kapil Raj and James Delbourgo (eds.), The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770 — 1820 (Sagamore Beach, M.A.: Science History Publications, 2009), p. x

[40] ibid, ch. 3, pp. 105 — 150

[41] ibid, ch. 2, pp. 49 — 104

Money Isn’t Everything

Most discussion of Indian R&D and scientific and technological competitiveness concentrates on the lack of government funding of R&D, and the neglect of the higher education sector. Mr. V.V. Krishna’s Paralysis in science policies (The Hindu, Lead Opinion, 7 February 2014) follows a long tradition of arguing that the failure of science policies “stems from poor governance mechanisms” and from “low priority accorded to science and technology in the overall budget.” Discussion on the failure or “paralysis” of science and technology policies in India is relatively straightforward: (i) “There has been no commitment to increase public R&D;” (ii) Research in universities is “given low priority for lack of funds.” Practically every comment on Indian science policies refers to the lack of funds for higher education and innovation projects. Typically, analysts also compete to compare India’s R&D figures with those of other countries such as China, South Korea and Japan. However, the best analysis of relationships between R&D expenditure and competitiveness is by studying not the lack of government funding, but rather the lack of realistic goal-setting through comparative appraisal of previous science policies.

While everyone accepts that India’s science and technology policies have failed, it does not mean that lack of funds is a major determinant of such failure. We need to understand, however, that policies, in addition to being a plan for the future, must also look back. Policies and analysts must take into account the successes and failures of previous policies, which would eventually result in realistic goal-setting in future policies. The 2013 Science Technology and Innovation policy does not mention any of the reasons as to why the 2003 Science and Technology policy failed to meet one of its primary objectives, especially when the 2013 policy reiterates the same objective – to increase India’s GERD (Gross Expenditure on Research and Development) to 2% of GDP. In such cases, an appraisal of the reasons for underperformance of past policies becomes crucial to proper framing of the present policy and opens avenues for discussions on why targets could/cannot be achieved, what the structural impediments were/are, and what were/are the challenges and implementation issues.

Primarily, the 2003 policy did not mention any specific measures that the government intended to take in order to improve R&D funding. The policy concentrated solely on increasing private sector investment in R&D without due consideration to the institutional, legal and tax bottlenecks facing private sector organisations. The 2010 OECD report, India: Sustaining High and Inclusive Growth, expresses concerns over the various hinderances that private sector organisations face in India:

India’s framework conditions for entrepreneurship remain weak. Trade and FDI restrictions, along with administrative red tape and restrictive product market regulations, hinder investment and productivity. The financial sector is also insufficiently developed to meet capital needs in a fast-growing economy, let alone the need for financing business innovation. [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), India: Sustaining High and Inclusive Growth (Paris: OECD, October 2010), p. 14].

Although vacuous in the specifics, the 2013 STI policy does acknowledge the problems in institutional structures in science in India, and highlights a number of areas in innovation in which the government plays a crucial role. Perhaps most importantly, the 2013 policy document acknowledges the role of the government in creating an environment conducive “for enhancing private sector investments in R&D.” In later pages, the document also briefly highlights the government’s plans to adopt a flexible approach to investment, which would allow modifications in the Five Year Plans in accordance with changes in the S&T scenario. However, such plans of the future seem ambitious and ambiguous unless the government acknowledges the failures of previous policy and, in addition to increasing R&D investments, also includes detailed plans of how the S&T system would be reformed in order to utilise these funds meaningfully. Gautam R. Desiraju, a professor of chemistry in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, wrote in 2012:

Although there was, curiously, no increased allocation to science in this year’s Indian budget, there is hope that, as the prime minister has declared, things would improve if government support were increased to 2% of gross domestic product. But it is a haphazard plan, with no hint of new strategies. The assumption is that the answer to our problems lies simply in more money. [Gautam R. Desiraju, ‘Bold Strategies for Indian Science’, Nature, Vol. 484 (12 April 2012), p.159].

Of equal significance is the criticism that research in higher education in India has been ignored due to lack of government funding. Analysts argue that “until the higher education sector is given its due importance in the national innovation system and allocated at least 10 per cent of GERD, it will continue to remain sub-critical at the national level and we will fall behind our Asian neighbours.” The argument that research in the Indian higher education will decline relatively because of lack of government funding is a bit too pessimistic. Thus, the stylised image of a declining research intensity due to lack of funds should be replaced with another: the major problem lies in the separation of education and research; while Indian universities only teach and look to provide skilled personnel for employment, government laboratories do research.

This is not to say, however, that lack of funding is not a problem. Government and private sector funding is just one input, of many, into the higher education sector. It should be noted that R&D funding is not a measure of the quality of research and teaching in higher education. Challenges and shortcomings, in addition to lack of funding, continue to affect the higher education system.The education system has failed to keep pace with the huge demands for skilled labour in the rapidly expanding Indian economy and industry. The lack of quality in higher education is of great importance to the gap between demand and supply of technically trained personnel, which is indirectly related to the lack of meaningful research in Indian universities. Also, a major number of faculty positions in colleges and universities across India, despite being funded by the government, remain vacant due to lack of suitably qualified personnel or even due to lack of proper hiring procedures. We should therefore not assume that increasing R&D funding in higher education to match those of China and the USA is the only means to strengthen research.

In conclusion, policies, especially those relating to scientific and technological research and development, should be developed and analysed on the basis of an understanding of current circumstances and existing historical deficiencies. For India to pursue a policy of increasing R&D expenditure to Chinese or American levels would probably be foolhardy. India must set its own standards and must try to meet them before trying to achieve standards set by other nations. Although increasing R&D funding is seen as a means to make India more competitive in the global market, looking inwards can solve most of India’s problems. Desiraju writes that India, as “a large country with a well developing economy can afford this long-term strategy and vision. China need not be a comparison point – India is endowed enough to seek its own solutions for its problems.”

Quantity vs. Quality in Science and Technology Education

This blog post is a continuation of the previous post “Why Policies Must Also Look Back“. This post is a modified and shortened version of a section of an essay submitted for the London Centre’s options course Science, Governance and the Public, tutored by Dr. Jon Agar (UCL STS). The original essay was titled “A Critical Analysis of India’s Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013”, and was submitted on 12 June 2013.

A second important goal of the Science, Technology and Innovation policy is increasing India’s global share of publications from 3.5% in 2011 to 7% by 2020. The policy also aims at achieving a four-fold increase in Indian publications in the top 1% journals. The policy states:

India ranks ninth globally in the number of scientific publications and 12th in the number of patents filed. The Composite Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of Indian publications is around 12+1% and India’s global share has increased from 1.8% in 2001 to 3.5% in 2011. But the percentage of Indian publications in the top 1% impact making journals is only 2.5%. By 2020, the global share of publications must double and the number of papers in the top 1% journals must quadruple from the current levels. The citation impact of Indian publications must improve and match at least the world average.

The policy also recognises the human resources required to improve India’s R&D situation and states that the number of Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) of R&D personnel must increase by at least 66% every year. All these objectives are fuelled by the desire to position India amongst the top five global scientific nations by the year 2020. These objectives seem very positive, and the government intends to achieve these objectives through the measures mentioned in the policy.

However, the aims to increase manpower and publication in the S&T sector seem focused only on achieving quantity over quality. The government and the policy fail to recognise the many shortcomings of the higher education system, especially in science and technology education, which the government would have to depend on to increase both the FTE and publication figures. The policy briefly mentions the need to foster excellence by measuring basic research against global benchmarks, and by focusing on research relevant to national concerns. Still, the government must focus on improving the standards of science and technology education within the system before trying to meet global standards.

Higher education, especially in science and technology, consumes a respectable portion of the GERD (Gross Expenditure on Research and Development). 5% of the GERD funds the eight Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institute of Science, and many other government universities. Yet, the higher education system only provides skilled personnel for employment and very little research. Universities and higher education institutions also collaborate with the private sector, but only on the levels of basic research, with minimal direct contribution to industry and industrial outputs. A 2007 Demos report states:

In developed economies, universities are vital sources of science, training the researchers who then work in industry, and forming hubs for clusters such as Silicon Valley. Yet India’s universities do not play this role because education and research are separated. Universities teach and government laboratories do research.

The 2013 STI policy suggests a few measures to overcome the complex problems in the education system in India. First, the policy concentrates on improving the standards of science education in schools. It aims to do so by reforming curricula, teaching methods, and by attracting students to learn science. The policy also states the government’s incentives to stimulate research in universities. The government also intends to set up inter-university centres to enable researchers to collaborate and share research facilities. However, these objectives do not suggest any measures to fill in the large gaps present in the higher education system, namely the lack of skilled personnel and researchers.

In 2012, the University Grants Commission of India released a report on the reforms needed in the higher education system in India. According to the report, India has one of the largest and fast-growing higher education systems, primarily caused by large-scale expansion, growing number of students and institutions, and a rise in public funding. According to the figures in 2009-2010, India had more than 600 universities and more than 30,000 colleges, of which almost 12,000 colleges were set up in the five years from 2005-2006 to 2009-2010. The number of students enrolled in science and technology courses (including pure sciences, engineering, medicine, agriculture and veterinary sciences) in 2009-2010 was close to half a million. Yet, challenges and shortcomings continue to affect the higher education system. The higher education system has failed to keep pace with the huge demands for skilled labour in the rapidly expanding Indian economy and industry. A lack of quality higher education is central to the gap between demand and supply of technically trained personnel. The lack of quality in higher education can be majorly attributed to the lack of competent faculty. A major number of faculty positions in colleges and universities across India remain vacant due to lack of suitably qualified personnel, restrictions in funding or even due to lack of proper hiring procedures. Thus, although colleges and universities enrol a large number of students every year, the number of teaching personnel does not grow at the required rate, resulting in high student-teacher ratios.

The lack of teaching and research personnel also affects research in the universities. While student enrolment in science and technology (at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels) grew rapidly, the number of PhDs awarded remained really low; the number of PhDs awarded in 2008-2009 (in pure sciences, computer applications, computer science, engineering, medicine, agriculture and veterinary sciences) was only around 5,500. Another major issue that has a major impact on the potential supply of researchers and technicians for science and technology education and businesses is the migration of highly skilled personnel to the developed countries, since foreign institutions and organisations offer better incentives and facilities than the educational institutions and businesses in India.

The government, instead of focusing on increasing research publications in order to improve India’s global rankings in R&D, must look to tackle the lack of faculty and research facilities within the science and technology education system. Both science and education policies must look to attract and retain the best faculty resources by making teaching and research a lucrative career option. Although the policy does briefly mention the need to make “careers in science, research and innovation attractive enough for talented and bright minds”, it does not, however, outline any details of how it aims to do so. Instead, the policy focuses on increasing research publications and outputs in order to place India amongst the top five global scientific nations. Desiraju writes:

The true measures of a country’s scientific strength are found in the numbers of competent teachers and lively students in schools and undergraduate colleges, because these translate into real gains in the future. Fluffy factors, such as the numbers of articles in Nature and Science, do not tell the real story.

__________

REFERENCES

Albright Stonebridge Group. Science Technology and Innovation Policy, 2013. 21 March 2013. Available from: http://www.albrightstonebridge.com/science_03-21-2013/

Bound, Kirsten. India: The Uneven Innovator. London: Demos, 2007

Deloitte. Research & Development Expenditure: A Concept Paper. Deloitte, July 2011. Available from: http://www.deloitte.com/assets/DcomIndia/Local%20Assets/Documents/Whitepaper_on_RD_expenditure.pdf

Department of Science and Technology, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India. Research and Development Statistics at a Glance, 2007-08. New Delhi, October 2008. Available from: http://www.nstmis-dst.org/PDF/rdeng.pdf

Desiraju, Gautam R. “Bold Strategies for Indian Science”. Nature, Vol. 484 (12 April 2012), 159-160

FICCI, Planning Commission, and Ernst & Young. Higher Education in India: Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012 – 2017) and Beyond. New Delhi: Ernst & Young, 2012

Government of India – Ministry of Science and Technology. Science and Technology Policy 2003. New Delhi: Government of India – Ministry of Science and Technology, 2003

Government of India – Ministry of Science and Technology. Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013. New Delhi: Government of India – Ministry of Science and Technology, 2013

National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS). Measures of Progress of Science in India: An Analysis of the Publication Output in Science and Technology. New Delhi: NISTADS, 2006

OECD. OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2012. OECD Publishing, 2012. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/sti_outlook-2012-en

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). India: Sustaining High and Inclusive Growth. Paris: OECD, October 2010

Planning Commission (Government of India). Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-2017): Faster, More Inclusive and Sustainable Growth. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2013

Planning Commission (Government of India). Faster, Sustainable and More Inclusive Growth: An Approach to the Twelfth Five Year Plan. New Delhi: Planning Commission, October 2011

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). UNESCO Science Report 2010. Paris: UNESCO, 2010

University Grants Commission (UGC). Inclusive and Qualitative Expansion of Higher Education. New Delhi: UGC, 2011

Wilkie, Tom. British Science and Politics since 1945. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991

 

Why Policies Must Also Look Back

This blog post is a modified and shortened version of an essay submitted for the London Centre’s options course Science, Governance and the Public, tutored by Dr. Jon Agar (UCL STS). The original essay was titled “A Critical Analysis of India’s Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013”, and was submitted on 12 June 2013.

In January 2013, the Government of India announced the Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy, with a view to “drive both investment in science and investment of science-led technology and innovation in select areas of socio-economic importance.” This policy is the fourth national policy in science and technology since the Scientific Policy Resolution (SPR) of 1958, the Technology Policy Statement (TPS) of 1983, and the Science and Technology (S&T) Policy of 2003. While the previous policies focused on promoting science and scientific research, emphasised the need for technological self-reliance, and aimed to promote investment in R&D, respectively, the 2013 STI policy aims to embrace and promote science and technology-led innovation as a means for social and economic development.

The chief aim of the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013 is to increase India’s GERD from the present under 1% of GDP to 2% of GDP in the next five years. The Indian government plans to achieve this target by raising private sector investments in research and development to levels almost equal to that of public sector investment. The STI policy states:

Increasing Gross Expenditure in Research and Development (GERD) to 2% of the GDP has been a national goal for some time. Achieving this in the next five years is realisable if the private sector raises its R&D investment to at least match the public sector R&D investment from the current ratio of around 1:3.

The policy also briefly mentions the government’s plans of attracting private sector investment in R&D. The government’s chief focus is on establishing R&D facilities through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) initiative. The government also intends to allow private sector organisations equal access to public funds as public sector institutions, and develop systems to help science-led entrepreneurship.

On close comparison, it can be seen that similar claims were outlined in the 2003 S&T policy, announced by the Government of India in January 2003. The policy proposed an increase in India’s GERD from 0.8% of GDP in 2003 to 2% of GDP by 2007, or the end of the Tenth Five Year Plan (2002 – 2007). The government also indicated measures to help increase R&D investments by the private sector. The policy stated:

There has to be increased investments by industry in R&D in its own interest to achieve global competitiveness to be efficient and relevant. Efforts by industry to carry out R&D, either in-house or through outsourcing, will be supported by fiscal and other measures. To increase their investments in R&D, innovative mechanisms will be evolved.

The 2003 policy, however, failed to achieve its main objective. According to UNESCO World Science Report 2010, India’s overall GERD stood at only around 0.88% of GDP at the end of the Tenth Five Year Plan in 2007, against the government’s expectations of 2% of GDP.

The 2013 STI policy does not mention any of the reasons as to why the 2003 S&T policy failed to meet one of its primary objectives, especially when the 2013 policy reiterates the same objective. In such cases, an appraisal of the reasons for underperformance of past policies becomes crucial to proper framing of the present policy and opens avenues for discussions on why targets could/can not be achieved, what the structural impediments were/are, and what were/are the challenges and implementation issues.

Primarily, the 2003 policy did not mention any specific measures that the government intended to take in order to improve private sector involvement in R&D funding. The policy concentrated solely on increasing private sector investment in R&D without due consideration to the institutional, legal and tax bottlenecks facing private sector organisations. The 2010 OECD report, India: Sustaining High and Inclusive Growth, expresses concerns over the various hindrances that private sector organisations face in India:

India’s framework conditions for entrepreneurship remain weak. Trade and FDI restrictions, along with administrative red tape and restrictive product market regulations, hinder investment and productivity. The financial sector is also insufficiently developed to meet capital needs in a fast-growing economy, let alone the need for financing business innovation.

While the government of India does provide the private sector with tax deductions for in-house R&D expenditures, payments to research institutions, and the expenses of employees’ salaries and materials used in R&D, there are, however, several hurdles that private sector organisations must overcome before obtaining any of these benefits. First, the tax deduction is mainly limited to organisations involved in biotechnology or manufacturing and producing goods. In addition, only organisations that perform R&D activities and incur costs in India are eligible for these benefits. As a result, many Indian private sector organisations that intend to fund, perform or collaborate with R&D activities abroad, and bring the results of these R&D activities back to India, have almost negligible government support.

Another aspect in which the 2003 S&T policy failed is the recognition of the growing private sector investment in R&D in India. Since the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991, the average GERD/GDP ratio has been constant at 0.78%, within which the contributions of the private sector in R&D have increased from 19% of GERD in 2002 – 2003 to almost a third of GERD in 2007. This upward trend is generally considered “necessary for translating R&D outputs into commercial outcomes.” According to the UNESCO World Science Report 2010, the very minute but important growth of the GERD/GDP ratio from 0.8% in 2003 to 0.88% in 2007 can be attributed only to the contributions of the private sector, especially to the investments of fast-growing sectors such as pharmaceuticals and automobile. On the other hand, public sector contribution to this percentage growth can be considered negligible because although the government contributes almost two-thirds of the total investments in research and development, government-funded research is rarely directly used for civilian benefits. Public sector investment is concentrated mainly on defence, space and nuclear physics.

Although vacuous in the specifics, the 2013 STI policy does acknowledge the growing rates of industrial R&D and the problems in institutional structures in science in India, and highlights a number of areas in innovation in which the government plays a crucial role. Perhaps most importantly, the 2013 policy document acknowledges the role of the government in creating an environment conducive “for enhancing private sector investment in R&D.” In later pages, the document also briefly highlights the government’s plans to adopt a flexible approach to investment, which would allow modifications in the Five Year Plans in accordance with changes in the S&T scenario. However, such plans of the future do not seem adequate unless the government acknowledges the failures of the previous policy and, in addition to looking to increase R&D investments, also includes detailed plans of how the S&T system would be reformed in order to utilise these funds meaningfully. Gautam R. Desiraju, a professor of chemistry in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, wrote in 2012:

Although there was, curiously, no increased allocation to science in this year’s Indian budget, there is hope that, as the prime minister has declared, things would improve if government support were increased to 2% of the gross domestic product. But it is a haphazard plan, with no hint of new strategies. The assumption is that the answer to our problems lies simply in more money.

Despite containing progressive plans and initiatives, the STI policy seems ambitious and ambiguous. The STI policy oversimplifies the complex structures of public-private partnerships and investments in R&D in India, and also does not take into account the successes and failures of previous policies, especially the S&T policy of 2003. An appraisal of previous policies is imperative to understanding their levels of performance and identifying the causes of underperformance. A lack of such appraisal in the STI policy means that the policy fails to recognise the structural impediments, institutional bottlenecks and other challenges that affected the implementation of the previous policy, and which could also affect the implementation of the aims of the present policy.

__________

REFERENCES

Albright Stonebridge Group. Science Technology and Innovation Policy, 2013. 21 March 2013. Available from: http://www.albrightstonebridge.com/science_03-21-2013/

Bound, Kirsten. India: The Uneven Innovator. London: Demos, 2007

Deloitte. Research & Development Expenditure: A Concept Paper. Deloitte, July 2011. Available from: http://www.deloitte.com/assets/DcomIndia/Local%20Assets/Documents/Whitepaper_on_RD_expenditure.pdf

Department of Science and Technology, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India. Research and Development Statistics at a Glance, 2007-08. New Delhi, October 2008. Available from: http://www.nstmis-dst.org/PDF/rdeng.pdf

Desiraju, Gautam R. “Bold Strategies for Indian Science”. Nature, Vol. 484 (12 April 2012), 159-160

Government of India – Ministry of Science and Technology. Science and Technology Policy 2003. New Delhi: Government of India – Ministry of Science and Technology, 2003

Government of India – Ministry of Science and Technology. Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013. New Delhi: Government of India – Ministry of Science and Technology, 2013

OECD. OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2012. OECD Publishing, 2012. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/sti_outlook-2012-en

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). India: Sustaining High and Inclusive Growth. Paris: OECD, October 2010

Planning Commission (Government of India). Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-2017): Faster, More Inclusive and Sustainable Growth. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2013

Planning Commission (Government of India). Faster, Sustainable and More Inclusive Growth: An Approach to the Twelfth Five Year Plan. New Delhi: Planning Commission, October 2011

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). UNESCO Science Report 2010. Paris: UNESCO, 2010

Wilkie, Tom. British Science and Politics since 1945. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991