Source: YouTube

Feroze Varun Gandhi’s innovative prescriptions for Indian S&T

Where Feroze Varun Gandhi writes about “forging a culture of innovation” in India:

We need to push beyond metrics, papers and patents to focus on providing solutions to development and economic challenges. A focus on building an innovation culture is necessary, particularly giving the transformative shifts under way in sectors critical to India’s economy — from electric cars in automobiles to insourcing in IT services, the economy is exposed to significant job losses and a fall in exports over the coming decade. Our innovation policy has to shift beyond a focus on increasing R&D spending to inculcating a mindset of “out-of-the-box” thinking in our universities, start-ups and corporates. India’s educational policies need to be redesigned, with a focus on building cognitive abilities, beyond rote learning and focus on quantitative subjects.

Dear minister, did you speak to a scientist before writing this? (Alternatively, did your ghost-writer speak to a scientist before writing this?) K. VijayRaghavan was just appointed PSA; I’m sure he’d have been happy to take your call.

Because I’m getting tired of pieces in this template, where authors drop a bunch of numbers we’re so familiar with that many of us have memorised it, and just keep saying “India needs to do better science and better tech”.

In fact, I doubt Feroze Varun Gandhi even wrote this piece. It’s quite easy to write because it offers no new information, no new perspectives and no new insights. Obviously India needs to be better. We all already know that.

So what is this piece about? It’s FVG putting on display the fact that he too can write about science and tech. It’s FVG putting on display that he can think rationally about science and tech spending, irrespective of his party’s often-stupid claims. It’s essentially FVG saying #notallpoliticians.

But as a Bharatiya Janata Party MP, what’s expected of him if he’s going to write about science is something else. It’s about nitty gritties (tell me something I don’t know!), about what he’s doing to change his party’s mindset about “ancient India”, about his efforts to participate in policymaking in science, translational research, tech and research-funding.

But none of these items feature in his piece. Instead, FVG seems content about drawing comparisons to South Korea and the US, quoting from their budget reports, and drawing B-grade parallels to a country whose uniqueness our leaders often like drawing attention to.

By disregarding this uniqueness – of research culture, traditional knowledge, etc. – when talking about scientific research and technological development, people like FVG betray their failure in understanding that scientists are people, too. By ignoring the cultural and political contexts they negotiate, FVG assumes that Indian scientists are simply not thinking hard enough, out of the box enough, etc.

Most of FVG’s piece focuses on downstream activities; when it does turn upstream, it’s only to talk about R&D spending (itself a nebulaic description) or improving “cognitive abilities”. I predict his next oped is going to be about eradicating tuberculosis by 2025, with the following keywords: MDR TB, XDR TB, masks, vaccines, private healthcare and medical insurance. After that, I suspect it’s going to be nuclear fusion.

There’s not a line in FVG’s piece about

  1. Facilitating collaborations
  2. Addressing a monumental language barrier
  3. Women, transgender people and LGBTQIA+ scientists
  4. School students
  5. Reforming grant-disbursal
  6. University autonomy
  7. Preserving safe spaces for intellectual discourse
  8. Research ethics
  9. Setting up schemes on a consultative basis
  10. Making government bodies transparent

Also, science is not divorced from the social sciences. Assuming (wrongly) for a moment that science is neutral and reflexive on short timescales, technology is inherently political. It’s going to create new jobs but get rid of older ones; it’s going to divert resources, redistribute value and require new regulation. A government has to deal with such changes through affirmative action, protecting the livelihoods of the underprivileged and the rights of all its citizens.

If genetically modified crops – a powerful example of the “new technologies” that FVG mentions – haven’t been adopted in India even though scientists are clear that they’re safe, it’s because the government has disenfranchised farmers in the past, slipped up on crop insurance and fixing sale prices, treated public resource management with kid gloves, kept genetic testing data out of the public domain and dealt with agricultural distress according to what will win them a nearby election.

The effects of such botch-ups will be felt upstream, the place that FVG is looking at as if it were an eclipse. Recently, Devang Mehta, a biologist at ETH Zurich, recently wrote a moving piece for Massive about how he was quitting GMO studies because he – like many of his peers – never agreed to put up with the acerbic activism against the technology. IMO, such acerbity is necessary to deal with the Government of India.

Seriously, let’s get over the “numbers are the problem” routine. As a Member of Parliament, FVG doesn’t get to throw his hands up in the air and say, “Here are the numbers, and this is what we need to fix.” There’s a cultural crisis underway in India’s educational and research institutions. Admittedly, it’s a lot of information to process and opine about. If FVG can’t talk about them, he should just not.

It’s perfectly fine. For every moronic utterance that ancient India invented everything, another minister’s silence is worth volumes. It’s a low bar but I’m sure the more cynical among us will take it. It’s obviously important to keep conversations about science and research going in the public domain, but an overwhelming number of those in power appear to be stuck at simply acknowledging a bird’s eye view of our research and development woes, and never really getting into the thick of it.

What’s worse is opeds like FVG’s are taken to be some kind of expression of commitment when they’re not. “Fixing” science is an arguably riskier, stinkier task than “fixing” most other sectors because of the ubiquitous, but eminently fixable, cluelessness. Every new oped that advertises such cluelessness by sticking to the data that FVG has is a proclamation that the author doesn’t give a damn. If the author had, this wouldn’t be the piece they’d be writing.

If this piece had been pitched to me, I’d have rejected it for the reasons above and because publishing it would’ve given the impression that politicians care. They don’t care – not if this oped is anything to go by. It’s a puff piece. My suggestion is to drop the incessant oped-writing and pay attention to the ‘March for Science’ on April 14.

Featured image: Varun Gandhi. Source: YouTube.

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