Corridors in my hostel become centers of discussion on various topics at night, ranging from the extremely banal to the fantastically esoteric. What I missed the most in my summertime sojourn in Germany were these nocturnal powwows in my corridor, where knowledge and opinions fly in the air.
I am into my last year in Bachelors, which means that most of the conversations with my batchmates revolve around the future. Being an undergrad in primarily a research institute, most of our future plans involve trying to become like our seniors in the institute – grad students, people whom we love to hate (especially when they are checking your papers) and hate to love (when they teach you better than your professors). The process to becoming a grad student is a stressful one, what with applications, exams and the hunt for recommendation letters. But the biggest source of stress is in the decisions that need to be taken. Graduate School is the most significant investment of possibly the most productive phase in one’s life. So it’s not surprising that existential questions arise in our minds – one of the many battles to fight before we embark upon the next step in our careers.
Now this blog post isn’t about making peace with myself regarding the stress of the purported career choice, it is about another pertinent issue that shapes our future.
It all started after we attended a talk on the “Joys of discovery in modern science”, by Prof. Ananthanarayan, a senior professor in IISc. This kind of a talk is quite rare in an institute like IISc; it is often assumed that people who are in here are already enthusiastic about science and don’t need occasional motivation. No wonder the talk was meant to be a trial run for another talk that he was invited to deliver to a general public outside IISc. The crux of Ananthanarayan’s talk was that modern science has been largely driven by the urge of human beings to discover the unknown, the promise of scientific glory and the immense joy of discovery. While the talk went on for about an hour, we spent more time in our corridor at night, dissecting and analysing the talk which gave rise to some interesting insights. This blog post is a distillate of that nightly discussion.
The question that we tried to address was about whether scientists should pursue science with possible applications in mind, or whether the research that they do should be left aside to be something that they prefer to do, without the extra baggage of societal applicability. This is, in fact, not such a straightforward decision. In many professions we are inspired to follow our passion and that’s the end of it; it is assumed that the zeal of an individual can drive that person to maximum productivity. However, it is often impossible to turn a blind eye to the world around us when it comes to the career that we choose. A 15 minute drive around Bangalore is enough to evoke in you a sense of privilege that we have began to associate ourselves with, so naturally. The stark inequality and deprivation even in the lives of many people in a metropolitan city like Bangalore is enough to make you feel privileged. Recently when Noam Chomsky visited India and was on the same cab with Aruna Roy, he was shocked to see many mendicants on the road of our capital city. Roy, a social activist herself, told Chomsky, that in India, “you have to be blind in order to walk the roads.” Otherwise, the disparity in the conditions of the lives of people will engulf any sentient human being with a sense of guilt.
The reason that I am able to study in a premier institute in our country has to do with the financial stability that my family has gifted me with. Chances are, that if I had been exchanged at birth in the hospital where i was born, I would be leading a life of much less stability, and most probably without the freedom to pursue the career of my choice, which is to become a scientist.
When I was preparing for my entrance examinations after high school I was enrolled in a coaching institute where I was one of the more meritorious students, in the sense that the institute identified me as a potential “rank material” among my other colleagues. So my fees were waived off, and I was sent into a special batch with the most promising students in my batch and we were given the best set of tutors. On the other hand, lured by the promise of good rank, thousands others enrolled in the same institute paying the full fees, but they were not given the best professors. In a way, they were paying for us, and the system was rigged against them in such a way that they were not even getting the best education. If I extrapolate the situation to all aspects of human lives in our country, are we not a part of the privileged few with the opportunity to study in a premier educational institute, while our education is being subsidised by the thousands who are not getting the same opportunities as us?
So does that realisation not immediately handcuff my liberty as a scientist to choose my research topic? Am I not automatically expected to give back something concrete to the society that has invested in me, almost in an altruistic way?
This is where the ethics become murky. Such an attitude will immediately bring to question the usefulness of ‘fundamental’ or ‘basic’ scientific research, most notably in fields like theoretical physics or mathematics. My interest is in theoretical physics, and I am fully aware that if I pursue the field of my interest, I am not going to produce any work that will affect the lives of the disadvantaged people around me in any way, not in any foreseeable future.
At this stage of the realisation, the most obvious thing to justify your career choice is by questioning the true meaning of the pursuit of science, civilisation and humanity as a whole. If we, as a part of the society, are not going to invest in things like art, music or basic science, then what are we achieving as mankind, on the whole?
This is tricky business. While being perfectly acceptable, this borders on being escapist.
On the other hand, more applicable sciences, like bioscience and technology research have the potential to revolutionise human lives in ways ‘fundamental’ science can’t even hope to do. But the important thing to ask ourselves is, how are these applications going to really impact the society?
If it is about creating a positive difference to the deplorable conditions in our society, chances are that these applications are not going to affect the lives of these people in any significant manner. Research in Artificial Intelligence, though highly applicable in our day to day activities, will not be able to lift the poor beyond the poverty line. Neither can material research with ground-breaking implications in electronics engineering. And the skeptic in me also believes that cancer research, if it comes up with a solution, is also not going to improve the lives of the economically backward class in any obvious way.
So the reason why people do ‘applicable’ research is much the same as why some others do ‘basic’ research; they get a kick out of it. To live in the illusory premise of doing his/her bit for the betterment of the society tantamount to not recognising the true problems that cause disparity in our society. At the end of the day, we must realise that as scientists our roles in the changing of the social fabric is limited. Hence, a theoretical physicist who spends her weekends teaching school children from slums might be doing more useful work for the betterment of our society than an experimental chemist developing materials to improve the next generation of electronic devices, who doesn’t realise that his research is probably not going to change the social fabric one bit.
The choice is finally up to an individual scientist. Do you want to get a kick out of doing something applicable, or are you going to derive the same pleasure by discovering something fundamental about nature? In either case, if you want to make the world a better place, you should probably be taking an active effort outside your profession.
At least this is what we, a bunch of naive undergrads standing and discussing in the corridor outside our hostel rooms, felt.