Tuesday, December 29, 2009

We can do something does not mean we have to do that

I was watching the sixth sense technology lecture by Pranav Mistry in TED India forum. No doubt it is a nice idea and I appreciate that. I was checking the comments, and, as expected too many people are excited.

I was dreaming a little further. Suppose I can implant a microprocessor in one’s brain (that can communicate with his own senses), attach that with a broadband network and then enable the person to communicate with the world without any more external device, at any time, day or night. He can get any data, any picture or just anything available in the web. He will be able to store huge information there in his head and never forget anything. If I am successful in doing that and give a lecture on TED forum, I think I will get huge “congratulations” for “extraordinary innovation”, making many Indians “proud” and so on. But, please think little deeper. Do we need such a (bionic) person in the first place? Will that (bionic) person be a better human being, more genius in inventing or innovating? Will it be worth doing so? Should there any of that kind of technology be invented or be allowed? Answer for any of those questions is a big no for me. It seems that it’s almost impossible to make many people understand that we can do something does not mean that we have to do that.
We have enough technology, sufficient medical and agricultural know-how to make this world a much, much better place. Judicious use of already existing technology, proper application of our current knowledge can make a great difference. In fact, when industrial revolution started in Britain a couple of centuries ago, it promised “eradication of poverty and a more just society”. We all now know that industrialization made things worse. Agrarian societies are fairer, distribution of wealth was more equal. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting going back in time to have an agrarian society.

Most of the time, when we get any new idea, we become so excited that we tend to lose sight of bigger picture. We tend to justify the means than the goal. I know that we probably can not and should not stop innovations; but, I think, it will be better not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Short URL: http://goo.gl/4l3pqq

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

How important money is to decide which profession to join?

Last few years Indian higher education and research sector is loudly asking for more salary and other financial benefits. Majority of them argue that higher salary will attract better talents, help improving the rapidly falling quality of Indian higher education and research.

I have a serious problem with the idea that increase in salary and other monetary benefits will increase quality while it definitely attract many un-worthy candidates into that area. If survival and progress of a person in a specific area is not dependent on actual productivity and accountability, then any increase in monetary benefit will do more harm than good.

Currently higher education and research in India is nothing but a tool to address huge unemployment problem without any accountability towards the nation or the subject.

If you do not love a subject but join it simply because of money, then there is a very high chance that you are just mediocre. Your main strategy to survive will be to belong to like minded mediocre people and form a group. Then wipe out any potential trouble maker- in form of genuine talented colleague or a student/junior who reminds you of your mediocrity. The only motivation for such people, in any profession, is money. It’s not very surprising that the main topic of discussion in majority of Indian universities and institutes is salary hike, pay commission, increase in TA-DA, HRA and so on. Very rarely we can hear any scientific discussion. This is not limited to science/research but almost any field of life there. We generally forget that India has substantially increased its higher education and research budget, both in terms of total money and percentage of GDP, since independence. Many new universities and institutes are coming up on a regular basis. Yet published reports show that we going downhill, so far quality is concerned.

Let's check one specific example of highly hyped IT sector in India. Despite of being one of the most prosperous industries, innovation-invention is almost zero. Not a single core software (operating system, JAVA, C++, Oracle etc) is developed by these rich Indian IT companies, using Indian IT professionals. We are happy to apply existing technology to solve customer specific problems and to do routine, maintenance jobs. Why so? Now analyze who is joining IT and why? Any Tom-Dick-Harry can become an “IT professional” who have passed bachelors degree with some math (not always necessary). Few months training will be sufficient to give him/her the job of an “IT professional” that will pay more than a teacher in a collage. On top of that, possibility of lucrative foreign tour/postings (again, mainly for money) provokes many to join IT. In this overwhelmingly majority of mediocrity, original talents in IT are lost. Many great talents in other fields are also lost in this IT-mania. This is one of the reasons why we will never have our own Bill Gates in IT or Obama in Indian politics in near future.

Thankfully, there is no software or fixed rule to generate talents and promote out-of-box thinking. You need to provide suitable environment to groom talented people. Money is needed but if money becomes the sole parameter to decide which profession to join, then all the professions and overall quality of life in that society gets affected. The same is true for almost any profession in India, starting from IAS-IPS (civil servants), to IIT, to IT, to biotech. No amount of screening, no amount of stringency during entrance exams can prevent that. We all know how rigorous UPSC selection process is, yet Indian bureaucracy is the worst in Asia (1). our IT is capable to do routine maintenance jobs, our biotech research is good for imitating western research and technology and/or BPO jobs. Many of these professions are well paid; many of these industries have good financial muscle but still lack originality, still lack efficiency and severely lack accountability towards the profession and towards the society.

I think that there should be legally binding cap (for salaries and executive benefits) for all the top executives of big industries (say, with more than 1 billion USD turn over). I am sure that it will not cause any serious attrition of talents. Talented people will continue to enjoy their professions as before. But such cap will help distributing the money to novel R&D projects, to other junior staff to make their lives little better (to reduce job loss and salary erosion, mainly during recession time like this). Focus on short term gain and over crowding of mediocre people (who joined the job only for money in many financial institutions and banks) are some of the important reasons for our current problem in global economy.

Lately I came across this excellent presentation. It may help you understanding why higher remuneration improves performance only for mechanical or routine jobs while reduce performance when, even, rudimentary cognitive skill is needed. It suggest, "just offer a minimum but enough salary and then take money out of the equation to improve both motivation and performance".

Real talents, the dedicated ones, join a profession they love. Money is important but must not be the main parameter, mainly in creative professions like research. Creative ego, professional success and institutional power (fame) are the most important driving forces for talented people. If someone joins a profession for money and the only day s/he looks forward to go to the office is the salary day then s/he should understand that there is a severe problem.

Short URL: http://goo.gl/LM9Q0y

Friday, August 07, 2009

Definition of intelligence and responsibility of a scientist

I am sorry if I sounded too revolutionary in this lengthy message. I do not think anyone in this world is just average. Everyone have some great talent. It’s up to right grooming and providing right environment that help discovering and then developing such talents. When I play with my very young son, I try to see the world through his eyes and then try to understand the problem he might be facing before asking him to do something different or the same thing differently.

I have doubts about the way IQ is measured and how people are branded intelligent or not. How can one say that Einstein is the greatest genius when he could not do many things that a common Joe can do without much problem, e.g maintaining a healthy family relationship, respect his wife or not sidelining his wife for his personal fame, inability to foresee how his and many other research were about to be used by policy makers (yes, I am talking about Nuc bomb) and so on. Einstein surely was genius so far physics and mathematics is concerned. But that is not all about life or the world. Let me quote, “…wherever possible, scientists took advantage of the nation’s appetite for heroes.… Social surveys demonstrated that industrialization had not eradicated poverty and the heroic rhetoric of invention had served its purpose” (source: “The invention of heroes”: Nature 30th July, 2009, pp 572-583).

People like Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey may not be excellent in using latest technology or great in doing complicated physics problems in chimpanzee or gorilla research. But I consider them as one of the finest human being ever lived in this planet. Or how can you compare Vivekananda or Rabindra Nath Tagore or Nelson Mandela with Newton or Edison so far “intelligence” is concerned? Let me phrase my wordings differently: If the ultimate target of science is to make this world a better place (through technology and knowledge) then who is more important, among those people? Some may say these are all irrelevant for a scientist to think about, many say “it’s not our (scientists’) duty to decide how our work is being used by policy makers”, some may agree with me that our ultimate target is to make this world a better place. Some bright medical scientists are very against doing more research to lengthen human life span, as “if we can not control birth then we must not control death”. The consequences are in front of us, mainly in developing countries like India with its high population growth and increasing life expectancy without supporting resources and governance to sustain such a huge population. We also can see huge socioeconomic problems associated with rapid increase of old people in developed countries, without proper care (both mental and physical), living almost meaningless lives.

I am trained (I am avoding the term “education” here) in some specific subjects; know some specific techniques and now trying to solve some of the earthly problems using those. But am I a good “scientist” if I forget where to go, what is the main objective of all these “research”? Once Ex-British PM Tony Blair said something like this, “money was invented to quantify happiness in ancient time but now even economists have forgotten the basic objective and we all are busy in measuring and maximizing money and most of the time it translate into sacrificing happiness”. Deterioration of social values and happiness is a direct consequence of deterioration of our basic education. Have you heard of the term "happiness index" or "happiness quotient"? (you can check: Science of happiness and Politics of happiness).

In other words, introduction of corporate education (invented in the western world, mainly in USA) and adoption of US system around the world made the situation worse. We talk what others want us to talk, we think as others want us to think. It's becoming more and more tough to remain different, think differently, act differently. We are loosing our personality, our creativity, and above all sacrificing our own happiness in the process. Nowadays we hardly do what makes us happy, but we try to justify what we do. That’s why so many people flock to a profession that can give them money while majority of them could be better in many other professions. Everyone does not have to do IT or biotech or genetic engineering or work on string theory to become intelligent. The situation is far worse in developing countries like India where people face harder challenge to sustain basic survival, pay higher price to remain different. 

I am not an economist. I do not have in-depth knowledge how the society and mankind will be affected if we, majority of human beings, start doing what we love. Will that be good or bad? What is the actual value of an art work (other than box office or business earnings)? Will it be a great idea to allow bees to become extinct and then invest billions of dollars to invent on a technology to pollinate plants or producing industrial honey by chemists! I think the world will become more boring, monotonous and much less productive (even for a genius) if love for doing something is not maintained and encouraged. Supply of factory workers and industrial managers should not be the main target to educate our future generations.

It is the conducive socioeconomic environment that allow people to do what they love and that ultimately groom talents. Scientist (I mean, logical people) should actively take part in framing those policies. We, the scientists, have a bigger responsibility. People with vision must get involved. Some can do it directly while many others can try to build public (Scientific?) opinion for a bigger goal towards a better society.

Pic: Jane Goodall with one of her Chimps

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Indian Police after 62 years of independence

This picture is published in a Bengali magazine, “Desh” (17th July 2009, page 75). This is about an ongoing police operation in recently famous (for leftist extremism) Lalgarh area in West Bengal state in eastern India. Is there anything in that picture that strikes you? Apparently not, if you are habituated with daily lives in India. But look closely. You can see a paramilitary force personnel holding an assault rifle wearing a towel around his neck, typically worn by common people in some areas in India. A police personnel wearing a fancy, American style trousers with big side pockets. That cannot be an approved police uniform. Two other police officials are doing their duties with buttons of their shirts wide open. Is this a picture of a state owned, disciplined armed force and that too during an on going operation?

This picture seems to indicate the present status of India. Lawlessness. By the way, the article was not about police indiscipline. There is not much difference between underworld criminals in action and that of a state owned police-paramilitary force. These police and paramilitary personnel have no sense of discipline, no sense of duty. No sane Indian expect these "professionals" to be disciplined.  These people know very well that no one can take any action against them, as the higher officials are even less disciplined, less accounted for, and lost almost all moral high ground to punish such “simple mistakes”.

It seems that Indian police-paramilitary is nothing but state owned criminal gangs, devoid of any discipline, duty towards the nation and its people and above all no accountability. Reports of police abuse appear regularly in news media. Our political leadership routinely promises police reform but nothing happens in reality. Today no sane person prefers to go to police and ask any help, even to report any crime. General people are showing increasing tendency to take laws into their own hands. Police abuse give rise to more anger and give birth to many more terrorists and extremist as compared to any ideology (e.g Islamic terrorism, Maoism etc.). Indian police live on with its pre-independence mentality and brutality; always reminds our colonial past.

Indian policy makers should remember that development of few people cannot be termed as development of the country. One of the main parameters for a civilised nation is to provide an environment of security and affordable and speedy justice. But such a police force can never help towards that goal but can only make things worse.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Can a true rational person compartmentalize inquisitiveness and rational thinking?

The basic qualities of a scientist or any truly educated person are rational thinking and inquisitiveness. I think a true scientific mind can never restrict his/her abilities limited only to his/her area of work but will apply to each and every aspect of life. Sometimes it may create problems for the person to live a “normal” life, mainly in a conservative society in countries like India. It can also become a bit painful experience when s/he start applying these qualities to ask questions and re-visit traditions, religion and religious beliefs that we imbibe since our childhood; from our parents, relatives and society. I know it is always a tricky issue to mix science with religion and tradition. I also should make it clear that my intention is not to hurt any religious sentiment here.

Let me give an example. In India majority are Hindus and so are majority of Indian “scientists”. Many of us believe that beef eating is not allowed in Hinduism, which is clearly not true, as per historians and social scientists. Many of Hindu “scientists” religiously follow that so-called religious custom and never eat beef for “religious” reason. There are many such rituals that we follow in the name of tradition and religion. This attitude gave rise to a very conservative and close society even among so-called educated people, as I think. It has a bigger impact on society when an established “scientist” follows such rituals. It strengthens many superstitions in the name of religion/tradition among common Indian people, who are not that much literate or well informed. I think I should make it clear that respect to one’s heritage and acknowledgement of one’s past is a different issue as compared to accepting and encouraging distorted version of religion and negative aspects of tradition. 

We need to keep in mind that single most important reason of killing people is religion since pre-historic time and India has more than fair share in that number. Mass murder, brutal torture of weaker sections of our society (e.g against women) in the name of religion/tradition is still a burning issue in Indian society which mainly originates from ill-informed notion about “religion” and lack of transparent, rational thinking.

I am not advocating that all scientists or truly educated people to start a mass movement to eradicate religious superstitions and social prejudices leaving less time for their main profession. I am wondering how hard it will be for us to set examples to others (mainly to our students and juniors) by our own deeds in personal lives. I do not think it will take any extra time away from our research or teaching. I have seen many Indian “scientists” wearing rings with gem stones to rectify some "rogue" star/planets to change their misfortunes. Whatever such scientist/teachers teach in a class or in his/her lab, is not going to make his/her students more rational and “educated” in real sense.

What we do has more profound impact on our students and juniors than what we actually preach in classes. As a teacher our duty is not only to train some techniques and transfer information in the name of “education” and “professionalism”, but also to train them, to encourage them to become a better human being, to gather the courage and wisdom not only to remain personally honest but to oppose corruption in an effective way. I am not asking my students or juniors or friends to become a martyr by opposing crimes and corruption of powerful people in a country like India but simply asking them to think of a better way to do it without sacrificing too much. The best and most effective way we can do, as I think, is by setting standard for ourselves.

My questions are:
1. Does a truly educated person have the social responsibility to behave a bit more responsibly with more open, logical attitude outside of his/her area of work?
2. If the answer to my previous question is yes; then, can we afford to continue compartmentalizing inquisitiveness and rational thinking?
3. Lastly, is it at all possible to become rational in some issues but not in many others?

Short URL: http://goo.gl/86dCoj 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Primary and secondary education reform should be India's top priority

There were only 20 universities and 500 colleges in the Indian subcontinent (including Bangladesh and Pakistan) in 1947, the year of Indian independence. Now there are about 376 universities and 17,700 colleges in India only, many with world class physical infrastructure. Many private research institutes are also coming up on a regular basis. The only Nobel prize for India (Indian citizen at the time of the award) in science for C. V. Raman (1930, University of Calcutta) also came in that era. We also had many world class scientists during that time (e.g Satyen Bose, JC Bose, Homi Bhaba etc). Now India is the second fastest growing in the world and third largest economy in Asia with huge budget in so-called education and research. But we do not have any world class scientist who has the slightest chance to get Nobel Prize in science in India (as per a survey published in a reputed Bengali magazine, “Desh”, sometime ago).

We see huge uproar when previous government wanted to “introduce accountability” in some elite institutes like IIMs & IITs but we never see a fraction of that excitement among educated middle class people or our political masters to reform primary and secondary education although our primary and secondary education system, the backbone of our country, is in a pathetic shape. Our middle class people, who can not afford to send their kids abroad (like our socio-political “elites”) but dream to have a better, more powerful and comfortable life for their kids (and to them through their kids) do not allow any meaningful reform of primary and secondary education since independence.

Our current education system selectively discards talented students with inquisitiveness, ability to ask questions and dream to do something challenging, something better for the society. Now we only produce private tuition and coaching enabled, mugging-up grade technicians who are great to do routine jobs (as in IT or BT) or imitating others (mainly true for Indian R&D sector in any branch of science and in any industry), but not capable of doing original research, despite of having many world class physical infrastructure, huge budget and some so-called “elite” institutes. My recent experience with many graduate students form some high profile Indian institutes/universities indicate that the trend to emphasize on database type knowledge, quiz type information and fascination with techniques (not science as such) are still highly prevalent. No wonder India is among the least innovative nations in the world. Quality of Indian science education and research is going down at an alarming rate since independence, despite of huge increase in funding (1, 2, 3 and Balaram, P (2002): Science in India- Signs of Stagnation. Current Science 82, 193-194.).

We need to invest much more and have an intensive and proper supervision of primary and high school education than wrongly focusing on higher education and research at the top level, at this time. Recently passed Right to education bill is a step towards the right direction. But here again we need to remember that many such great policies hardly achieve anything in reality and only limited within government files and the money ends up in the pockets of few selected people. Whatever money we spend on higher education and research is not going to give us any novel knowledge or technological edge unless we have right candidate behind the costly machines we buy. Now we produce mainly technicians, not scientists or technocrats and feel proud to export such raw materials to manpower-starved developed countries (be it IT or BT, the two main pillars of Indian economy today). This might lead to some degree of prosperity in the short term but we are going to loose in a big way in the long run unless we totally overhaul our basic education system at primary and high school level. It’s useless to cut the roots and then water on the top. Universal and quality primary and high school education will also bring many other positive socio-political changes in our system that can propel India to attain its rightful position in the world.

Some relevant facts:
· "The study of 188 government-run primary schools in central and northern India revealed that 59% of the schools had no drinking water facility and 89% no toilets; and, most alarmingly, a large number of teachers were found to be absent at the time of the survey. With a literacy rate (percentage of adults who can read and write) of 65%, India compares poorly to not just industrialised nations but also several much-poorer economies, such as Vietnam (90% literacy), Zambia (80%), Tanzania (77%), and Cambodia (70%)".

"Only 21% of the teachers in Bihar are class X pass. In one of the most prosperous states in India, Gujarat, over 55% of the teachers have not got beyond the secondary stage of schooling. The only state which comes near Gujarat in terms of the low quality of teachers is Karnataka, another highly prosperous state in India, with about three-fourths of its teachers having studied only up to the higher secondary level". Such data also implied that prosperity of few people (that inflate the macro level data like GDP, par capita income) does not mean prosperity for common people (or the country as a whole). The same “prosperous” states like Gujarat and Karnataka also do worse as compared to “least developed” states like Assam in term of hunger and social well being (the overall hunger index for India is worse than many “least developed” countries” like Cuba, Uganda, Sudan, even our arch rival Pakistan). Such facts imply that “trickle down” effect of “development” or “prosperity” as many seem to justify, can never be translated to the common people of the country unless strict oversight and transparency in governance is present. This is true for any country, be it USA or India.

PS: There is a related topic in “Nature India forum” on “How to improve India's higher education and research quality?”. I also published this blog in the same “Nature India Forum sometime ago. Readers can read the discussion part there and are welcome to post their comments there too.