COVID-19 challenge to India's scientific capability: A perspective from the B-school

It's high time India stepped up investments in science and technology

IIM-Ahmedabad campus IIM-Ahmedabad campus

The coronavirus pandemic in recent times has brought back the spotlight on the pursuit of science once again. There are numerous attempts to find a suitable resolution to the pandemic from around the globe. Over one hundred independent attempts are being made to find a vaccine or remedy for the infection, but they are primarily spearheaded by research labs based out in the developed nations. A few initiatives are based in India, including a prominent ayurvedic treatment claim from a well-known consumer goods manufacturer. 

Not surprisingly, India will be one of the major beneficiaries of this still to be discovered cure. Our high population density provides infectious diseases a healthy hunting ground, validated in the current situation by our ever increasing detection of COVID-19 cases in the country. As I write this piece, we are ranked four in the number of cases of the infection and still growing at a rapid rate. Yet we remain largely dependent on other nations to find a remedy to our problem. 

Our relatively marginal role in research for a cure for this infection is rather befuddling. Despite the initial push towards promoting the education of science and technology with the establishment of some very good technical institutes right after independence, over the years the focus on these critical fields has been rather moderate. Even as late as the turn of this century, we remained far behind developed and newly industrialized nations in the number of scientists per million of the population. Our R&D expenditure has remained abysmally low compared to many other comparable nations (stagnating at 0.7 per cent vs 4.5 per cent of Israel). On the contrary, we have seen an overwhelming popularity for business education and a significant growth of commerce and industry. Our GDP growth rate has been steady between 6-8 per cent for many years and the service sector particularly has been booming in the past twenty-years. The list of the best paying professions in India does not include a scientist or an engineer, while it does have data scientists and product manager listed. 

While this surge in business and commerce is not bad at all, it is a fact that when we need the prowess of science and technology the most, like today, we seem to find ourselves on the back foot.   

There is no doubt that the fast growing trend of business education (MBA) over decades is primarily due to the lucrative placement opportunities available to business graduates. These opportunities are spurred by our significant economic activities, as mentioned earlier. And it is known that a large number of competent engineering graduates (and some scientists) fill up a majority of the seats in these business programs. Engineering graduates especially, with their strong training in maths and science, tend to have a superior ability to successfully clear the entrance examination for these courses. A large proportion of middle class India still craves to have their offspring join a reputable technical or medical school and thereafter attempt to get into an MBA school of equal repute, or travel abroad for further studies. Options have also increased over time and areas like data science, information technology, automation and financial analysis, too, have found prominence. And, the growing aspirations to be professionally successful have also led to much higher levels of competition compared to earlier times. But in this pursuit to secure a “better future” with financial stability, the “desire to learn” has taken a back seat. 

While this may sound like a harsh comment on the primary need for higher education in our society, it is worth pondering as to why many students pursuing technical and science courses in top institutes of the country like to spend enormous amounts of time building competency in non-core activities such as data science, software programming and finance and eventually like to pursue a business course. 

It is not difficult to understand why “second / third year students from engineering colleges” send out unsolicited mails to management teachers in well-known management schools about their “keen interest in studying marketing although they are pursuing a degree in engineering, and that they would like a summer internship at the management school”. While the statement appears to be out of place and unconvincing, it is a known fact that over the years this has become an established practice among many students at top level engineering colleges.

Some may argue that the undergraduate college today is more like a staging point for the many youngsters to prepare themselves for the next milestone—an admission to a reputable management college or other post graduate programs that fetch a cushy placement opportunity. They also serve the purpose of letting students discover their true interests that they would like to pursue.

Be that as it may, this raises a question about the kind of competency that we are building for the future in our society. A proverb that we were taught back in school comes to my mind—'A rolling stone gathers no moss'. The original intent of this proverb was to imply that people with too much mobility do not gather much substance. Too much shift in focus of study can lead to little substantive acquisition of knowledge. I see many students in my college busy preparing for placement interviews rather than being fully immersed in the MBA curriculum. I can only attribute this behaviour to them focussing on the next opportunity to grab, rather than imbibe the knowledge provided to them in the present. For the same reason, a typical engineering student may be spending more time in picking up software / data science / finance skills rather than understanding the subtle nuances of a “Hamiltonian”. 

But can we really blame today’s youngsters if they wish to take up education as a staging point towards gaining ultimate professional success, and do not necessarily imbibe true learning? A significant part of the blame should be taken by the social institutions such as the family, schools and colleges and the general social milieu that have propagated to them the importance of instant success at the expense of long term sustenance. With opportunities opening up with globalization, commerce and industry have invested a lot in building near term economic success and have cornered trained human resources of the country at the expense of other domains such as science, technology and liberal arts. There are far fewer technically superior employment opportunities in the country with commensurate pay for a qualified and competent engineer. Instead, the ambition of such competent professionals is met by opportunities in other non-technical sectors which have grown enormously.   

I would like to believe that “professionals in India largely work towards achieving good performance, but do not have the stamina to strive for excellence. Joining the management program by smart college graduates (who decide to stay on in India) is a trend that supports that objective. Management education essentially teaches to optimize returns on investment weighing in the risks involved due to possible failure. On the contrary, “striving for excellence” requires us to face the potential of a failure head on. We may fail many times, but sometimes the creation is brilliant. Many of us in India may not be equipped to create brilliance, because our fall back measures (necessary to buffer failures) are pretty weak. Hence, middle class India strives for good performance where the risks of failure are far more moderated, but the chances of creating excellence is pretty slim.

Innovation in science and technology require taking significant chances to achieve remarkable milestones. Looking at the kind of effort and investment that has gone into the attempt to discover an antidote for the COVID-19 pathogen in recent times, India may not have the resources to invest aggressively. While the limited efforts in the country are commendable, they are still way behind compared to the initiatives in other parts of the world. At the same time, we are more than equipped to produce in mass scale the vials of vaccine once they are discovered (refer to the Oxford research in which an Indian unit is a partner for mass production).

Time to step up investments in science and technology? I think the answer can be nothing but a firm affirmative. It is time the technical institutions got students who truly aspire to be in the pursuit of science and technology rather than look at their qualification as a stepping stone for a career in business and economics. For that to happen, a career in science needs to be enriching and also lucrative for our young bright minds and their families. Otherwise, there is little point in expecting our scientific resources to step up and solve some of the most complex problems that environment may impose upon us, as it has today.  

Arindam Banerjee is a Professor of Marketing and Quantitative Methods at IIM-Ahmedabad. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK