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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 48, November 16, 2013

Jawaharlal Nehru — Builder of Modern Science and Promoter of Scientific Temper

Tuesday 19 November 2013, by Soma S. Marla

Jawaharlal Nehru’s farsighted vision and admirable leadership is responsible for develo-ping modern science in our country. He played a major role in establishing a modern scientific and technological infrastructure and strove to promote scientific temper. Nearly 50 years after his death it is time to review the state of Indian science and scientific temper in the present society.

The launch of the Mars Orbiter spacecraft, scheduled on November 5 from the Satish Dhavan Space Centre SHAR, Sriharikota, was a signal success. Also this year the Union Health Ministry has administered Pentavalent vaccine to five million Indian children. The vaccine, with one shot, offers protection against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenza B (Hib). Today the impact of science on society is clearly visible; progress in agriculture, medicine and health care, telecommunications, transportation, computerisation and so on, is part of our daily life. In spite of all these achievements people complain that the impact of science has really not contributed to the well-being of millions of fellow Indians and to the growth of scientific temper in the country. In this context it is worthwhile to remember Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of development of modern science in India, and his ideas on its utilisation for the benefit of society.

Pandit Nehru laid the brick and mortar of science in newly independent India. Nehru’s enormous contributions to the establishment of the IITs, of the large network of research laboratories of the CSIR and DRDO and of the atomic energy establishment are all well known. To accomplish his dream of making these institutions world class centres of research and learning, Pandit Nehru invited and encouraged a number of renowned scientists and acade-micians like Homi Bhaba, J.B.S. Haldane, Sir C.V. Raman, Satish Dhavan, Nalini Ranjan Sarkar, J.C. Ghosh, Humayun Kabir and many others. It was Nehru’s sustained and spontaneous political support that translated the idea into a reality. Over 45 Central laboratories in different fields of science were launched during his time. He was also responsible for initiating the first steps to launch India into the electronics and space era.

But more than the brick and mortar—the hardware or establishment of physical facilities as it were—Nehru was preoccupied with what he at different times called the “scientific method”, the “scientific approach”, the “scientific outlook” and the “scientific temper”—the soft-ware. Inaugurating the 34th session of the Indian Science Congress, which met in Delhi in January 1947, Pandit Nehru expressed the hope that as “India was on the verge of independence and science in India too was coming of age, it would try to solve the problems of new India by rapid planned development in all sectors and try to make her more and more scientific minded”.

He said: ”Science was not merely an individual’s search for truth; It was something infinitely more than that if it worked for the community.” He explained: “For a hungry man or hungry woman, truth has little meaning. He wants food. For a hungry man God has no meaning. And India is starving and to talk of truth and God and many of the finer things is mockery. We have to find food for them, clothing, housing, education and health are absolute necessities that every person should possess. When we have done that we can philosophise and think of God. So, science must think in those terms and work along those lines on the wider scale of coordinated planning.”

It may be worth gauging how far these economic and scientific achievements—and scientific temper—in India have percolated down to the common man. As scientific progress outstrips scientific understanding, people are increasingly dependent on science and technology and yet largely ignorant of their working. This places us at a great disadvantage. It is sad to note how few of our science graduates are aware of what vaccines are available today for averting many life-threatening diseases in children or the impact of progress in space research on simple communications and broadcasting. As a result participation of the common people in fulfilling their needs, in taking decisions and
in the democratic process is increasingly marginalised. The growth of scientific temper is a measure of the extent to which society applies the methods of science to solve its problems. Science should serve society. A clear awareness among the masses needs to be cultivated.

To Nehru, scientific temper was something to be inculcated in society at large. Just let us look at our institutions of higher learning and research—our numerous national science laboratories, IITs, our universities, our ourselves research laboratories—and ask ourselves the question: where are they in answering questions posed by society and the inculcation of the scientific temper? Are the true values of science—the values of relentless questioning, logical argumentation and humility, for instance—being propagated? Are our centres of learning and research possessing what Amartya Sen called “internal pluralism and external receptivity”? Nearly eighty per cent of our population lacks access to safe drinking water. There many tracks in the country wherein there is no availability of clean water (away from physical and chemical contaminants like heavy metals, fluorides etc.); huge losses are suffered by power firms during transmission across the various grids in the country. How many research projects are today geared towards tackling these questions by our centres of research and learning? The number is minimum and can be counted on one’s fingers.

Pandit Nehru believed that with the spread of education and with economic development itself, the values which animate scientific temper would get embedded in our lives. However, in professional education it has not led to a broadening of horizon but to a narrowing of outlook. According to some estimates, nearly eighty per cent of our graduates (churned out in lakhs every year) lack essential skills and are unemployed.

What has gone wrong? Why have we strayed so far and lag behind several countries? How is it that we are recognised as a major power in some knowledge-based industries and yet when it comes to scientific temper, we are found wanting—not just ordinary citizens but scientists and engineers as well? How is it that a number of national institutions, set up with a grand vision, have now turned un-scientific (in outlook)? How is it that we cannot have a cool and composed public debate on any issue without abuse and vitriol being hurled by religious fundamentalists? The recent brutal assassination of the well-known rationalist Dabholkar reflects the dismal scenario on this score. Pandit Nehru often emphasised that there should be a strict demarcation between private views and public positions. To accomplish his dream to establish world class institutions of science Nehru actively corresponded with and invited several reputed scientists and academicians from across the world. J.B.S. Haldane, one of the greatest geneticists of the 20th century, emigrated from England to spend the last years of his life in India, in part because of his admiration for Nehru. Haldane was to warn Nehru in the late 1950s that his beloved CSIR was not the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research but actually the Council for the Suppression of Independent Research! It is astonishing that Prof Suri Bhagavantam, an architect of modern defence research in India, later turned out to be a disciple of the godman, Satya Sai Baba, who is said to have produced ash and watches from thin air!

The spirit of inquiry and acceptance of the right to question and be questioned are fundamental in scientific temper. It considers know-ledge as open-ended and ever-evolving. Scientific temper is incompatible with theological and metaphysical beliefs. While science is universal, religions and their dogmas are divisive. Scientific temper cannot flourish in a grossly inegalitarian society where 50 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and almost 70 per cent of our people, especially women, are functionally illiterate. Social justice, widespread education and unrestricted communication are pre-requisites for the spread of the scientific temper and, therefore, optimising the benefits accruing from science and technology. 

Dr Soma Sundar Marla is the Principal Scientist (Biotechnology), Indian Council for Agricultural Research, New Delhi.

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