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From left: Prof Rajeev Sangal Director IIIT-H, Dr D Balasubramiam, Karnataka state Governor ESL Narasimhan giving away the degree to a student and Dr Raj ReddyUniversity Professor of Computer Science & Robotics, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University US and member governing council IIT-H at the 11th annual comnvocation of the Indian Institute of Information Technology- Hyderabad on November 2 2012.
 
Engaging Society through Science? We can do IT!

The International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad (IIIT-H) has consistently been ranked among the top 10 technology schools in India  by a number of national surveys conducted by leading magazines such as Dataquest, Outlook and India Today  The institute actively incubates startups whether based-on technology coming out of research centers or based-on ideas that come from students/faculty/alumni. The Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, which spearheads this activity currently, houses 13 product startups, in the areas spanning: language & speech technology, augmented reality, data analytics, gaming, social networking, education etc.
We bring you the address of  biosciences guru, Dr D Balsubramaniam, Director of Research, L V Prasad Eye Institute, formerly Director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, and Professor and Dean, University of Hyderabad,  on the occasion of the 11th annual convocation day of IIIT-H on November 2 2012. His subject was Engaging society through science… with a focus on IT.

In a short while from now, during this convocation, you graduates-to-be will be awarded your well-deserved degree certificates. This is what is occasionally referred to as a rite of passage, from learning to doing, emerging from the cocoons of academia into the wild wide world- from having learnt science, technology and human sciences as well, into using what all you have learnt all these years for use in society. It is thus a birth, a debut, a transfer from secluded scholarship into engaging with society at large. I wish you all, each of you, well.
When we on the dais emerged likewise, decades ago, the world we were led into, confronted by and moulded by, was different. The horizons have changed and so have the transactions and interactions between science and society. It is these shifting contours of a changing horizon that I want to share my thoughts with you.
Engaging society or the community through science has some history. Early Greek, Hindu and Chinese thought leaders were branded correctly as natural philosophers- not as scientists or technologists. Indeed, technology was not their trade, thought was. Technology came before science (wheel, fire, arms and ammunition), and came from not philosophers but simpler folk. It was only after the Enlightenment that science has led to technology, at least in the West, though it came somewhat earlier in China (as Joseph Needham points out).
These natural philosophers were aloof from society at large, in forests, monasteries and such- and held what came to be known as the Upanishads, and symposia (which, incidentally, meant literally to drink together). And they thought and taught recondite and esoteric stuff- of not immediate concern to the needs of daily lives of the common people- such as logic, natural philosophy, language and literature, classical art and music. In time these became the fashion, even passion, of the kings and emperors, and landed gentry who supported practitioners of such classical thought. After the Age of Reformation and Enlightenment, science took form and captured the fascination of the well-to-do. It is some of these people who engaged society through their science- more as ‘magic’, ‘fun’, ‘curiosity’ and explanatory- recall Davy, Faraday, Darwin, Romano Cajals, Huxley, the Magdeburg Hemispheres and so on. Engaging science with society during this period- the 1700s to almost the 1900s- particularly in Europe and the US, was ‘celebratory’ in nature. It was also didactic, explanatory, informal, and even sneaky (teaching on the sly). But when ideas thoughts that were regarded as ‘unholy’ or unorthodox’, questioning faith, were propagated, the powers-that-be (namely the church), would not tolerate; recall Galileo or even Darwin. Some of it lingers even today; President George W Bush opposes embryonic stem cell research, and banned federal funding for it when he was President, and some Republican Party leaders in the US of today oppose abortion for even a raped woman.
The second phase, in my mind, of engaging science with society was already at a time when the contours of society had changed. Science began to be regarded as useful and utilitarian, thanks to its applications- electricity, transport, and tools for daily use. By the 19th century, society had slowly gotten used to the fruits of science, namely technology, and thus willing to accept science as something applicable and worthwhile. Science writers and philosophers began writing or explaining in a manner that showed the interdependence, the inclusivity and the consequences of scientific thought with other streams of human knowledge and intellectual ideas. Jacob Bronowski, Jacques Monod, Isaac Asi mov, David Bohm, Fritjof Capra and Carl Sagan are some recent examples. Arthur Clarke is a novel example of a science writer whose science fiction became science prediction or foretelling. Goddard and Sagan, and Clarke, influenced national efforts towards space missions!

In India too, the contours of societal thought began changing- some or much of it due to interactions with the world at large. Tagore, the Bengali Renaissance, Gandhi, and Nehru are some notable examples. And a great fillip for science came from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Cambridge educated leader. It was he who led the move to modernize India by saying “make friends with science”, and charting the course of developing free India using science and the fruits of science. It was a great conglomeration of thought leaders: Nehru, Bhabha, Bhatnagar, Mahalanobis, Raman, Bose, Ghosh, Saha and others. This period is unique to India- science for society at its most novel. Without Nehru, would we have had the IITs, JNU or the IIITs?
Put this in context. After the Second World War, over 70 countries became independent and free. Yet India, and India alone, is the lone example of encouraging, extolling and enhancing science and using its fruits for national development. Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi continued this sage policy. Look at all who have contributed to India’s growth through their science- Swaminathan, Ramalingaswami, Gopalan, Bhatnagar, Yousuf Hameid, Sarabhai, Dhawan, FC Kohli, Yash Pal (you will have your additions to this list)- all during the heady period of 1960-1990s.
Move on to the 1990s and we see IT and BT capturing India, and India capturing the world. Infosys, Wipro, Infotech, Biocon, Bharat Biotech, Shantha Biotech, Cipla, Dr Reddys are some illustrative examples. It is worth noting here that India supplies over 45% of the world’s need of childhood vaccines (and I so proud to state that I could play a small role- the squirrel in the Ramayana role- in this initiative). And think about it- a country that produced but 50 million tons of food-grains in 1950, now makes about 250, and exports 25 MT. A ship-to-mouth economy has become a silo-to-ship one. Science has done India good.
But, dark clouds are on the sky. The Green Revolution is being criticized as an environmental danger. As the Americans say, this is Monday-Morning-Quarterbacking. Or as we scientists sadly claim: it is so much better to be a referee than an author. When we started on genetically modified plants, concerns have been raised. When we think of setting up atomic power plants, when we build dams, mine ores- society asks questions. Much of this is relevant, environmentally sensitive, with concern for displaced people and ecosystems. Yes, a dialogue is vital. We cannot dismiss critics of these plans and facilities as ‘activists’ or ‘Luddites’. Sure, some of them are extreme, perhaps some of us too! But science and technology, if it is to serve people, must listen to people. Neither should take the high pedestal.
Engagement of science with society has moved from the celebratory, to inclusive and interactional, to applicable and translational to- now- confrontational. It is becoming ‘us’ versus ‘they’; ‘civil society’ versus ‘science mafia’. This situation will not hold, it will put us back from progress.
So, we need to engage in newer ways. We need to respect the opponent and listen to his point of view and prepare for course correction, each side. We are used to do so in science, every time we send a research paper for publication to a journal. More often than not, we respect the referee reports, criticism and suggestions, and submit to them, revising the manuscript. Shall we do so with the civil ‘activists’; as well? If we have a point that shows that they are overstating their case, let us point it out with logic and evidence. Yes, sometimes we do not agree. We then need to show how their point is not right, short on facts, high on opinion, and do so politely, with logic and with respect.
Let me conclude with one such example. A very learned judge, whose intellect and writings I admire, wrote recently in The Hindu that our tertiary education system does not serve the masses and that the huge amount of money spent on higher education in India is not raising the standard of living of the poor. Now, is he right?
You all know how the Planning Commission of India defines who is poor. A poor person is defined as one who has less than 32 rupees a day to live on. And most of you, in contrast, will soon earn 100 times that (Rs 3200 per day), and some of you will soon enough may even get Rs 32,000 per day. So has the degree you earned today, and the job you will be involved in, help raise the standard of living of the poor, serve the masses? Think about it. You are all experts in IT. Has information technology been of use to the masses? Has a PhD degree- be it in science, engineering, economics, or Telugu – been able to help the poor? I answered this question raised by the judge in my column in The Hindu of September 13, 2012, by quoting from the lecture given by Professor Ken Keniston of MIT, ten years ago in Bangalore, when he delivered the M N Srinivas Memorial Lecture. He showed how IT has helped the common man. For IT to do so, three things are essential- connectivity, computers and software. It is precisely these three requirements that Indian professors have worked on and found solutions. Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT Madras invented the loop connectivity technology that reaches and covers what is called ‘the last mile’, which would thus enable villagers go on line. Professor Vijay Chandru of IISc Bangalore invented the Simputer, with text speech capabilities in several Indian languages. The tablet currently in the news called “Akash” (which many politicians promise to give to school children and rural people) is a baby cousin of the Simputer. And regarding the third requirement, namely, software, Professor Keniston refers to the efforts of our own Professor Rajeev Sangal of IIIT Hyderabad, addressing the issue of the enormous difficulties faced in dozens of Indian languages.
Now, let us ask how IT can help the poor, needy Indian. One example I can cite is the Unique Identification-based Aadhar Card, initiated by Nandan NIlekani. This card helps assured personalized delivery of governmental benefits- money, healthcare, rations, vote and such, helping to eliminate the middleman and ‘mamool’.
Another example I can give is the applications that our IT-based entrepreneurs have put together for use in cell phones. Now that there are over 700 million cell phones in the country (perhaps at least half of them in the rural areas), and BSNL reaches out to all rural areas, here is a direct application for IT for personal needs- banking, healthcare, market prices, educational, games.... the list goes on. So, the learned judge can be answered, and with confidence, by you IT-wallahs!
Of course, higher education is not limited to IT, BT or science. Are Ph Ds in humanities and social sciences wasting precious resources- human, fiscal- and are they of any use to the poor? Well, the poor have their art, dance, music, languages. Sant Kabir was a poor man who made the world rich with his poetry. Don’t we want to study languages, music, art, tribal customs, analyse them, categorise them, learn from them? If we do not encourage and support higher education and research in humanities and social sciences, will we not be the poorer for it?
Sage Barthruhari said: Sahitya, Sangeeta, Kaka-viheenah Manushya Roopena Mrughascharanti. Cultural heritage, thinking, and creativity are human- and are for and by poor and rich. One who does not encourage them, enjoy them, learn from them and contribute to them does not leave a full life. So- go forth and broaden your mind, contribute to whatever activity, field, passion and interest that you have. Best of luck! www.iiit.ac.in  November 19 2012




    


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