The Indian Science Congress, which has just concluded a session, has been described as both a circus and a highly useful gathering which helps scientists network and, critically, encourages and inspires young people into a life of scientific enquiry. However, all are agreed that there is excessive focus on the prime minister and his speech. This is an Indian phenomenon. An event worth the name must be able to call in a VIP and you can't do better than the prime minister. Since this is a given, can we make the best use of it? Can we look at what the prime minister has to say as a guide to the government's science policy? Does it have a coherent science policy?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come out strongly in favour of harnessing science to take forward sustainable development, which will rid India entirely of poverty. There is a strong utilitarian focus in this, a move away from the Brahminical pursuit of knowledge to addressing current urgent needs. For example, if newly independent India had devoted as many resources to immunology as it did to nuclear science then the country would have looked quite different. Imagine India's global status if it had developed effective and cheap vaccines against tuberculosis and malaria instead of fighting with the nuclear haves to get into their club? If Mr Modi is signaling a change from the Nehruvian legacy in science, then good luck to him.
Related to this is the issue of money. C N R Rao, speaking at the Science Congress which was held in Mysuru, lamented the focus of the information technology community in nearby Bengaluru on "money" instead of "intellectual exploration". But, at the level of human organisations, are the two all that mutually exclusive? Have the personal computer, its operating system, the smartphone and the internet not used science for the greater good of humanity, and have Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry page and Sergey Brin been totally unconcerned about money?
Mr Gates, who was not a scientist by a long chalk, made an incredible fortune and is now busy giving it away for, among other things, discovery of vaccines. Technology startups indisputably take science and innovation forward and the key aim of those behind them is to sell out after a time at a great profit.
There is need for clarity on this as it is linked to issues of basic science and innovation. India can hardly afford to spend much on the pursuit of basic science but it stands at the core of an ecosystem in which the intellectual interplay between those engaged in basic science, applied science, technology and innovation is critical. Today, if you wish to develop a gadget which will win the world you will likely need to know what is happening in nanotechnology for which you will need to be in touch with, say, what is happening at the Indian Institute of Science, which has to be there in the first place.
Mr Modi's speech ends with a plea that "let the different disciplines of science, technology and engineering unite behind this common purpose (of leaving behind a better planet for future generations)." It is good that the three have been identified as "different" disciplines but disappointing that "innovation", which was mentioned 13 times in the speech, does not figure in the final summing up. The difference between the four is important because you need different policies to promote them (all of them have to be promoted) and the last leg of "innovation" is critical for mankind to benefit from science.
A basic scientist can be happy with peer recognition, an applied scientist or technology person can be happy with owning a patent, but an innovator has to make something which others find useful from the knowledge contained in a patent. Historically, the British excelled in invention, the Americans in innovation. The Japanese at one stage sought to challenge this, but with the smartphone and the internet the Americans have regained their advantage.
Does India have a policy to promote innovation? Can you do much more at the official level than to fund incubators, give tax breaks and protect intellectual property rights? Is that enough? The US lead in innovation is ultimately the result of certain cultural values - questioning received wisdom (learning by memorising is abhorrent), making a habit of thinking out of the box, tolerating failure and freely exchanging ideas over coffee (as happens in Silicon Valley) without worrying much about them being pinched.
The speech mentioned the launching of Startup India to encourage innovation and enterprise. There was a reference to the pledge made at Paris to double investment in innovation, but it is doubtful if government spending can do much in this regard. It refers to the need for frugal innovation. But, can innovation be anything other than cost effective? It says good governance is not just about policy and decision-making, but integrating science and technology into the choices we make. Nice words. But hopefully there will be a roadmap for this and not just end with a speech written by smart speechwriters.