Schools not enabling students to think for themselves: Deepak Dhar

Deepak Dhar is a noted scientist, prominently known for his work in theoretical physics. Professor Dhar is an elected fellow of all the three major Indian science academies – the Indian Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy and the National Academy of Sciences, India – as well as The World Academy of Sciences. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the apex agency of the Government of India for scientific research, awarded him the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology, one of the highest Indian science awards, for his contributions to the physical sciences. 
In an exclusive interview, Professor Dhar talks to Ujjawal Krishnam on the current academic and scientific state of India. 

Professor Dhar

As a renowned theoretical physicist, could you tell us the status of research development in the field of theoretical sciences in our country? How do you compare it with other countries, which have performed better than India on the impact matrices?
I think that the question is somewhat like “Is the glass half-full, or half empty?” Certainly, Indian scientific contribution is nowhere near proportional to our fraction of the population of the world. Hence, there is ample scope for improvement. But I do not want this to become an opportunity to trash all work that has been done by scientists in India in the last 70 years. The second part of the question answers itself. It is lower.

There have been several cases of plagiarism in India. What are the fault lines where Indian scientific community fails on standards?
The problem of plagiarism is certainly a serious concern. Of course, in any society, there will be some individuals that indulge in criminal behavior.  I think that our problem is heightened by the fact that, as a society, our law-enforcement machinery is less effective if the offender is a “person of power”. This problem is not confined to science. I think that another contributing factor is that a significant fraction of practitioners do not even appreciate that it is unacceptable behavior. This is worse than widespread cheating in exams. There, at least, most people would agree that it should not be done, but many still do it, and justify to themselves in some way.  
There is a recent column in Nature: “Stop teaching Indians to copy and paste”. Author and biotechnologist Anurag Chaurasia pens a personal anecdote that could be considered a dilemma, I would like 
My eight-year-old son came home from school disappointed last week. When asked the test question “How can we save the environment from pollution?”, he had tried to write the answer in his own way. This did not go down well with his teacher, who cut his mark and asked why he had not repeated the answer as it was printed in the textbook. That’s common practice in India. To get top marks, school children must learn and regurgitate answers presented to them. With such a culture, is it any wonder that plagiarism and unoriginal thinking are so prevalent in Indian science and research?
What is your take on this kind of rote learning our education system imparts to learners at the school level which further hampers proper innovative growth of mind? Did you have any experience regarding this?
Yes, I have personally experienced this when I was a child, and later when my daughters were going to school. In fact, in our schools, we do not seem to enable the students to think for themselves and grow. Even practical training like writing essays, that should be aimed at developing the ability of expressing one’s thoughts in words, are converted to mindless essays on “The Cow”: The cow is a domestic animal. It has two eyes, four feet,….”.  The student is often punished (the marks are cut) if he/she says anything slightly different.  I did find a few teachers that were different, but the vast majority were not.
Skyscrapers are determined by their solid foundations. Do you think that the current education system is flawed? What is your suggestion to improve scientific temperament among neophytes?
Certainly, the way we teach our young needs a major overhaul. This requires a massive revamp of primary education, and that should include upgrading skills of existing teachers. I will prefer a word like “critical thinking” to “scientific temper”. Not that these are different things, but that critical thinking is necessary in other fields, like humanities, law, and religion also.

India is facing a huge brain drain today, not only are students moving to developed countries for educational purposes, but they settle there for employment too. It is true that humans have been known for migrating and they should do so in search of opportunities. But given that we are not living in the Stone Age where there was no possibility of growing a favourable situation in a specific geographical area, we can do it now. So why are scientists migrating? This will hamper the scientific growth of our country. Teaching faculties in India are not up to mark and mediocre students who don’t have enough resources can’t move abroad, so how will Kalam’s dream be achieved?
I do not feel that restricting freedom of movement is an answer. If there are good job opportunities within the country, people will prefer to work here: their friends are here, and prices are lower, etc. The sine qua non for improving teacher quality is to increase their salaries and access to facilities, especially in primary education.

The present government is willing to introduce the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), replacing the University Grants Commission (UGC). Experts have opined that it is an act of taking away the autonomy of academic bodies through the bureaucratization of academic governing bodies. There are chances that it will increase unethical political and bureaucratic interference in academic bodies. What is your take on this?
I do not think that the new body is intended to increase bureaucratic interference.  Whether it will be better or worse than the UGC depends on how we administer this.

Satyapal Singh, Minister of State for Human Resource Development, recently spoke at an event that Darwin’s theory of evolution is false as none saw ape turning into man. He also suggested it to be removed from the academic curriculum. Do you view that as a scientific pursuit?
I think it is unfortunate that we choose as ministers people having such a worldview. Even in other countries, there are people who have what I will call the minority opinion. In India, this type of world-view is perhaps shared by a not-minuscule fraction of population. So it may not be surprising that some ministers also have it.  But, it is unfortunate.

At the Indian Science Congress event, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the examples of Karna and Ganesha to support the view that cosmetic surgery and reproductive genetics were used thousands of years ago. Regarding this, The Guardian observed, “For the first time an Indian prime minister has endorsed these claims, maintaining that cosmetic surgery and reproductive genetics were practiced thousands of years ago.” Each year, the Indian Science Congress sees lectures examining ancient technologies in the ancient scriptures instead of talking about modern innovations. Speakers at the Indian Science Congress have been making conflicting claims amid concerns that the Modi government has been allowing Hindu nationalists to spread their influence in academia. What is your opinion about the Indian Science Congress? Do you see it as a prime body of science popularisation in India? How can we combat pseudoscience?
I think that we, as democratic people, elect our leaders. If the elected leader has an opinion that is different from what I like, that is perhaps my problem. If the whole society wants to go back to the golden age five (or is it fifty) thousand years ago, then we have a real problem, much bigger than some political disagreement. I think the main problem here is that in India, as a country, people don’t even realize that it is an unacceptable behaviour.

There have been sayings in scientific aisles that the government is pressuring fundamental research institutes to change themes. Do you think that some mathematical and theoretical sciences should not be advanced because they don’t contribute any immediate results for technological or industrial applications?
The tussle between fundamental versus applied research has a long history. I do not see how one can say, “advances in mathematics should be stopped”. At best, one can say that the government can afford to support fundamental research at this level, and not that level. I guess people with disposable income can afford to, and will buy expensive paintings, or private helicopters. Also, I think fundamental research, and even non-applicable fine arts, should be supported at some level. We are not that poor a country. We will be that poor if we do not have any art or science of our own to speak of.

Some scientists are being affected by the Department of Atomic Energy’s (DAE) unwarranted bureaucratic involvement in academia. How does bureaucratic interference affects the functionality of research institutes?
The DAE’s involvement in scientific research is a result of our history. I do not see that it has been particularly harmful, or that transferring all the research institutes under DAE now to MHRD or DST will by itself improve things.

What would you advise the executive body, general public and the young generation in particular to do in order to cultivate a scientific temperament?
The main thing that I would like the government to do is to improve our primary education. There should be emphasis not only on quantity, but also on the quality of education. We must ensure that students who complete primary, or secondary education acquire some useful skills. The salaries of primary school teachers should be increased, as without that, improving the quality of teachers cannot be achieved.




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