Nature India | Indigenus

Spirit of inquiry

Reading an editorial by eminent Indian scientist Raghunath Anant Mashelkar in Science today, I wondered why asking questions of senior scientists in this country is seen as a mark of irreverence. In the recent past, I have come across some highly regarded scientists who thought it was inappropriate to question their findings. Contrary to the very spirit of science, they have chosen not to answer my queries or simply replied in monosyllables that amount to not answering. I know of colleagues who have had similar innocent questions bounced off such firewalls.

When science can not answer uncomfortable questions, it ceases to be science. Mashelkar talks of adventurism in Indian science, of the Kite Flying Fund that saw not many fundable ideas, of bringing back the spirit of inquiry that made Ramans, Boses and Sahas and of not loosing sleep over such irreverence.

I have seen hundred times more ideas merrily floating in labs which don’t care too much about such centralised flow charts for free thought. Many of them are brutally shot down for their sheer craziness but those that survive are brilliant pieces of start-ups. That, I guess, is far democratic and profitable over labs that need written approval even to ideate! A scientist friend I was talking to the other day made a particularly bold statement that made me partly happy and partly concerned over his youthful optimism . “Bureaucracy is not something I am bothered about, I can handle that. The sole aim of my lab is to get a Nobel for India soon. That’s what keeps me going.” Good luck!

This week, while talking to another young and brilliant energy researcher spearheading social outreach programmes from one of India’s many IITs, I was convinced all’s not doomed for the free spirit of science in this country. It was heartening to hear about the many young researchers under him choosing careers in remote villages to produce alternative energy over cushy MNC jobs. He was proud of these success stories that came out of simple and humane ideas that fought not just the bureaucratic, social and economic system but the political as well. Kudos!

The spirit is alive. In pockets.


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    Aditya Mittal said:

    Very inspiring Subhra. I hope the “young” and the “senior” alike in our country realize that hiring and supporting folks for carrying out their PhD or post-doctoral work does not create “innovation”. I hope we start living the line of “outside the box” rather than beat it to death in spoken language. I hope we just start trusting each other in this country for our spirit and sincerity. And finally, I hope that we as scientists in India start taking the flights that the academic freedom in this country allows us to take.

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    Payal Joshi said:

    A very thought provoking post. I intend to share it with my senior scientists to know about their viewpoint and give my follow-up comment on this issue.

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    Adithi Mohan said:

    Well written, Subhra. In my opinion, the key issue concerning scientific development in India is because questioning a senior’s authority is unfortunately considered a mark of personal disrespect to the person – and not as an enquiry to probe the scientific logic/thinking behind the question. As a scientist who has worked in India in the past, I see this as a barrier to be ‘able to come out of one’s shell’ – if you can’t ask questions, how will you learn how to develop a scientific bent of mind? There are few senior scientists who I’ve worked with who do not fall under this category – and I think the teams they lead have the highest chance of scientific success in India! Let’s hope that that the free spirit of science does shine through and serve an example to others..even if it does in small pockets!

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    Neera Sen said:

    Hi subhra, great way to reconnect… I was going through your posts and this one turned me on … or off, so to say…very well written thoughts of things that keep creeping up when the “firewalls” literally crash down on you under such circumstances – in an altogether different situation and a very later date – makes you remember about the dated “innocent” question…& yes hats off to the young scientist friends that you have mentioned … may their spirits keep rising.

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    Rahul K said:

    Hi Shubra,

    This post really highlights the real truth..

    It makes us think about the fact that in India, the real science is only hidden inside the pockets and so is the spirit for innovation. Scientists are shy to speak out..for the reasons best known to them….And if we start discussing about the meaning of word ‘innovation’ in indian context..then it may take so many pages and days to even arrive at a conclusion…Well having said that..we still are sustaining on a hope for better science and better future..So let the hope be there and we continue to be positive…Thanks