Aug 21, 2011 -- posted by Ranjit
The first time, a friend handed me Geek Nation: How Indian Science is taking over the World, he said, “It’s a bizarre book!” And one has to admit that reading this book is a journey which you take with the author, Angela Saini, with mixed feelings. At times your emotions resonate with those of the author and at others, it’s an uneasy feeling that something fundamental to Indian Science is missing. Something essential that’s lost in the myriad of places that she visits and people that she interviews. But, before one begins to explore it, one has to clarify that Gen W.H.Y. is borrowed from the book itself. It is what Thomas Simon, Vice President – HR, TCS calls the new generation of young Indians that question. I belong to this generation and hence, I presume that I have a right to question.
Geek Nation essentially focuses on the idea of ‘Big Science’. The word was coined by Alvin Weinberg and subsequently popularized by Derek de Solla Price in his book: Little Science, Big Science. Big Science is defined around multi-faceted directions: increasing number of scientists, publications and patents, increase of investments in science, growth of scientific institutions, development of large instruments, increasing multi-disciplinary and multinational scientific collaboration, geographical expansion of science and increasing duration of scientific programmes. Each chapter in Saini’s journey offers at least one example for each of these aspects of Big Science. One might argue that the concept of Big Science itself is just too big to be analytically useful, but the distinction between Little Science and Big Science is an important one, brought out poignantly by the economist E.F. Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful.
Nehru in his fascination for the intellectualism of Science was a harbinger of Big Science in India investing in institutes such as Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and dams such as the Bhakra dam, which he described as the ‘New Temple of Resurgent India’. But, the politics of Indian Science changed in the post-Emergency era when there was literally an explosion of several civil society movements where critiques of science, critiques of development, attempts to create a tribal way of life, anti-development models, fundamental rights models, ecological models and feminist models were discussed, theorized and practiced. Though, the factors that influenced this change are many, one could confidently say that Emergency had an important role to play in this shift of attitude. Each of these critiques has their own respective foundations which can’t all be addressed here, but, let’s take an example. One such critique emerged from E.F. Schumacher who invented the idea of Intermediate Technology in a new sense. He theorized that technological choice and application should be small scale, labor intensive, energy efficient, environmentally sound and locally controlled. His impact of Indian Science became much more pronounced when he was invited as a consultant to the Planning Commission of India.
Exploring the Indian History of Science and Technology is important to understand the landscape of Science in India. While space research, nuclear energy, IT revolution, genetic engineering, drug discovery are important facets of Indian Science, there is an equally important Other. Saini finds this Other in Vandana Shiva whom she dismisses as someone who mixes two unrelated branches of science (quantum theory and biology). Shiva reminds Saini of Hindu ideas about cosmic consciousness and Buddhist philosophies about the interconnectedness of the universe. One, inevitably, wonders at this point in the book about what’s wrong in taking inspiration from religion. Schumacher came up with the whole idea of Buddhist Economics while travelling across Burma. But, that’s not really the most important point here. Shiva makes the argument that in a country where population is high and resources are low, one is better off exploring less resource intensive Science with sufficient efficiency as opposed to high resource intensive Science with high efficiency. There are multiple examples of this idea that can be seen in India ranging from the Dr. P.K. Sethi’s Jaipur Foot, the work of Dr. A.K.N. Reddy exploring Biogas as an alternative energy source to the current Non-Pesticide Management Movement organized by scientists from Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad and System of Rice Intensification under the ICRISAT-WWF project.
Saini notes and laments the lack of resources for scientific research in India, but is confined to reporting on institutions of Big Science that work through this lack. She doesn’t take the step forward or even acknowledge that Science is also practiced by subsistence communities and there are geeks within rural India as well. What else would you call a villager who uses the battery of a tractor to power a DVD player and television to watch an Amitabh Bachchan film? One wonders if being geeky is an urban phenomenon, though she clearly says that being a geek is all about passion and inventiveness. One misses Little Science and the enormous collections of innovations ranging from a washing machine that is used to make Lassi to the story of a Tea Stall owner in Chikpet, Bangalore who uses missed calls from his customers as intimation for tea/coffee delivery.
Fundamentally, there are assumptions in Saini’s narrative that need to be critically understood. Is Science just a profession of the scientists and engineers or could citizens be also looked at professional amateurs practicing Science? Secondly, is there a need for Indian Science to take over the world? For example, let’s take the energy issue that Saini explores during her trip to BARC. Dr. Ratan Kumar Sinha, Director of reactor design and development group, BARC, says that, “Something like 5,000 units of electricity should be available per person per year to be able to support the educational, healthcare and industrial infrastructure for quality of life to be developed today.” If we were to consume energy at this rate, we would inevitably cannibalise our resources to the point of no return. Do we really have to measure up to this standard, just to prove that we are superior? Or should we just change the world of economic evaluation of development and build our own ways of understanding it? As Shiv Visvanathan puts it, “Right to Life should incorporate the Right to a Way of Life.” Along similar lines, Geekiness, as passion and inventiveness, needs rethinking where solutions that are devised are contextual to the multiplicity of subcultures that we harbor. One wonders where is the Other in Angela Saini’s story? Or does it have no place at all in her Geek Nation?