Archive | August, 2013

Indian marriages, families and rape

Following up on a set of observations by my colleagues and friends on twitter, here are a few thoughts on rape in India:

Marriage in India largely happens between families rather than individuals. The social compatibility of families often matters a lot more than that of the bride and groom. Caste is the principal determinant of that, but it goes beyond that to class, social connections, wealth and more. The bride ends up marrying the groom’s household, for all practical purposes.

As Karthik Shashidhar observes, people often think of rape in India as a problem that results in a ‘loss of marriageability’, rather than what it really is: the assault of an individual. This also explains the rather mind-warping suggestions heard again and again: let the rape victim marry the rapist, and all will be okay.

The loss of marriageability is of the family, but the physical and mental trauma is that of the woman alone. It should be of little surprise to anyone that the latter goes unaddressed most of the time. Worse, the woman ends up getting blamed for getting into a position where the family honour gets lost.

Reporting cases of rape, seeking help and receiving support is difficult even in far more liberal societies. But as long as marriage remains the primary aim and raison d’être of a woman in society, rape will be an extremely difficult problem to address.

The Indian extended family can act as either a champion of individual liberties or an anchor that drags it down.

PS. Do read my colleague Priya Ravichandran on ‘Let’s talk about rape.’

Comments { 13 }

A Culture of Boldness

In 2009, there was an article posted on by an anonymous Chinese strategist saying that ‘If China takes a little action, the so-called Great Indian Federation can be broken up’. The notion of the Indian state being that fragile sounds laughable in 2013, as it did in 2009 – notwithstanding separatist movements in certain corners of the country. But it wasn’t always so.

When India became independent in 1947, it numbered among the boldest experiments in democracy the world had ever seen. There was a lot of skepticism that the Indian union would last any significant length of time. That such a plurality of peoples, cultures, languages and attitudes could have a single imagined identity of ‘India’ was ludicrous to many. But India proved them wrong. And the nation did so by ensuring universal franchise from the very beginning. And by having a constitution designed for great social reform.

The boldness with which India began its tryst with destiny has become a rare commodity in recent years. Poverty, malnutrition, subsistence employment and all the other problems that ail India are used as convenient excuses to cover up what is essentially a failure of imagination. We want to develop ‘low cost’ technologies instead of wanting to be the best at something.

The nuclear tests of 1997 were the last, really bold step that the nation took, with the golden quadrilateral highway programme perhaps coming close.

As Saurabh Chandra noted on twitter a few days ago, ideas as ‘crazy’ as Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is ideal for a country like India to adopt. Like the country leapfrogged over landline phone connections to cellphones in almost every household today, only our imagination is limiting us from doing the same in dozens of other fields. We mistake jugaad for innovation and get lost on inventiveness with terms like ‘appropriate technologies’.

We can use a lot more of the boldness this nation was born with – in technology, social reform, governance, art and in every conceivable field of human endeavour. And it is that boldness that will allow us to be independent in every sense of that word. Happy 67th Independence Day, India.

Do take a look at the Independence day posts from my fellow bloggers: Sarah Farooqui, Saurabh Chandra, Priya Ravichandran and Nitin Pai.

Comments { 1 }

A Noble Pursuit

My colleague Nitin Pai started an interesting discussion on twitter this morning by asking the question: “Why does India have fewer science Nobels than Trinity College?”

Late as I was to the conversation on twitter, here is my long form answer to that question. To begin with, there can be no targeted efforts at winning Nobel prizes, nor is that end in itself a useful objective. Any pursuit of science honours and awards has to be placed within a broader pursuit of research excellence. This cannot be limited to individual research groups or institutions either. There are at least six areas that need attention for us to get anywhere near a Nobel.

First, the research talent pool is global, and it has been so for longer than in most other fields. The best talent needs to be recruited in order to get top-notch research done, and they have to be paid accordingly – but linked to outcomes. For example, Singaporean universities have done extremely well over the past decade or two in recruiting talent from across the world, often out-bidding other universities. While IITs and other Indian universities have slowly started wooing Indian researchers studying or working abroad, this needs to be extended to people of other nationalities as well. Recruitment is currently limited to entry-level assistant professor positions. Given our limited funds, more innovative ideas can also be explored – such as inviting established professors to open second laboratories in the country.

Second, much of cutting edge research is interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary. Many of the breakthroughs in Biology in the past 50 years have come from physicists and chemists working on biological problems with unique tools and perspectives at their disposal. Even if individual star researchers exist in some of our institutions, they cannot do much. Successful research institutions are those that bring many talented people together so that in collaboration, they can work wonders. This means that walls must be broken down between departments and institutes, intellectual silos must perforated before they can deliver.

Third, Nobel-winning research is made possible not just by brilliant professors, but by equally talented doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers. In almost all PhD research, there comes a time when the student knows more about his or her project than the professor. This won’t happen if the best talent decides to go abroad. Students can be encouraged to stay back in the country through improvements in many things including pay, benefits, mentoring, etc: but most critically through better career prospects. PhDs by many Indian institutions are thought of very poorly by the same institutions. The biggest disadvantage for an Indian researcher to get a tenure-track faculty position in a top US university is having an Indian PhD. This can change only when universities decide to invest in their doctoral students rather than look at them as cheap, bonded labour.

Fourth, while India needs to spend a lot more on R&D, incentive and advancement structures in India require a serious re-think. Academic tenure is a late-19th century concept that was created to encourage freedom of independent opinion among academics, by giving them job security for life. The utility of tenure is quite limited in science/tech fields, and comes at the cost of removing many incentives for professors to perform after they have received their tenure. While the concept of tenure is still in place in the US and other countries, it has become weaker in practice. For example, if a synthetic chemistry professor cannot win competitive funding sources and his lab runs out of money in a US university, the professor is effectively out of a job even if he or she has tenure. This is far from the situation in India. Tenure is not a luxury that Indian academia can afford. Something new will have to be thought up – a system that better incentivises performance, while at the same time keeps research careers in India attractive enough.

Fifth, there is a dire need for administrative reform in Indian research institutions. Researchers in India cannot compete with their foreign counterparts if it takes a few months for them to purchase basic ingredients and consumables. As Shilpa Anand mentioned on twitter, procurement policies need to be greatly simplified and the role of tendering needs to be re-examined. Decentralisation is key.

Sixth, we need independent research boards that are in charge of granting funds. Currently, it is the Union Department of Science and Technology, Department of Atomic Energy and a motley collection of government departments that are in-charge of disbursing science funding. What we need instead are research boards which can disburse grants in as objective a manner as possible, with double-blind peer reviews and good processes to select the best research proposals. While the Government of India has set up a ‘Science and Engineering Research Board’ to serve a function similar to the American National Science Foundation, there are no signs so far of this board getting empowered with sufficient funds, autonomy and power to make any tangible difference.

And finally, individual laboratories are institutions too. They require the same kind of careful nurturing larger establishments do.

To India’s credit, there are a few islands of excellence in scientific research that have been created over the past two decades. (Which, for better or worse, have little relation with the far more numerous ‘Centres of Excellence’ that have been created.) But scientific research is far too important to be left only to the scientists. It’s time that the rest of us started introspecting as well.

Comments { 2 }

Surveying Opinions on Scientific Issues

Last week, I wrote a short post on how someone’s combined views on climate change, nuclear safety and GMOs are a good indicator of their scientific temper and ideological biases. Subsequently, my colleague and fellow blogger Karthik Shashidhar ran a short online survey on the same three questions to solicit responses. Survey participants were given five choices ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Karthik has analysed the survey results on the RQ blog that I would urge all readers to check out.

Firstly, we will look at the individual responses to each of the three questions:

…this shows that opinion in favour of global warming is fairly strong.

While a majority of the people believe that health risks from nuclear power have been exaggerated, the opinion is not as overwhelming as it is on the global warming front. There still exist a significant number of doubters of safety of nuclear energy.

When it comes to GM crops, however, public opinion is largely divided. As many people agree that GM crops are safe, as do people who believe they are unsafe. [RQ on INI]

The survey was designed to be quick and dirty – participants were largely those who found the survey on Twitter and Facebook and essentially selected themselves into entering the survey. Ergo, there are no claims made here that these responses are representative of any ‘universal’ population.

Taking a venn-diagram approach to analysing the survey responses, I was able to generate the chart below. I divided the 5 options for each questions into two categories: neutral or disagree, versus agree or strongly agree. Therefore, all those who have either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that 20th century climate change is anthropogenic come under the orange coloured ellipse, and all those who haven’t come outside of it. Note that the ellipses in the venn diagram have been drawn in proportion to the number of respondents who fall under that category.

Scientific Temper

The largest set of respondents (29 percent) are those who, according to my metrics, can be classified as “left wing”, those only agreeing to the climate change question while disagreeing with nuclear or GMO safety. The second largest (23 percent) is a curious set: they do not think that GMOs are safe, but agree both on nuclear safety and climate change. Without commenting on ideological biases, it is possible to look at this set as a people who are “climate change realists” – people who understand that we do not have the option to burn dirty fossil fuels endlessly, and that nuclear power has a role to play in reducing our fossil fuel dependence.

Some 19 percent of the respondents are those I would consider as being most sensitive to scientific evidence, but readers can feel free to disagree with me on that. About 10 percent of the respondents are classically right wing – the notion that ‘most environmental fears are overblown’ can explain their stance on all three questions.

About 9% agree that climate change is anthropogenic and that GMOs are safe – but are not convinced about nuclear safety. They form a subset that I find rather curious. In a sense, there is indeed a connection between the two topics. GMOs form an essential tool in retaining and improving agricultural productivity in the face of climate change and uncertainty – not just in creating drought and flood-resistant varieties, but also in converting C3 plants into C4 plants, the latter of which are far superior at tolerating high temperatures and making use of increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. It is difficult to comment, however, that  this knowledge indeed informs their opinions.

The initial hypothesis was that asking for opinions on anthropogenic climate change, nuclear safety and GMO safety would broadly give us three categories of respondents: left wing, right wing and those “biased to evidence”. When tested, it gave us four or five major categories of people, including those who disagree only with nuclear safety, or only with GMO safety.

Comments { 5 }