Science, the new rock star

Science, the new rock star

The  Union Governme-nt’s Science Advisory Council, chaired by the eminent scientist Prof C N R Rao has a road map for making India competitive in science and a global innovation hub in the next five to 10 years. Naturally, the dream cannot be realised unless there are thousands of young ignited minds engaged in the pursuit of science.

Even as this article is being written, HRD minister Kapil Sibal is getting set to introduce five important Education Bills in the Parliament. The time for science education seems to be good again, making one wonder if science is back again as the ‘cool’ study option for youngsters.

Back when I studied science, science was for nerds, commerce was for kids from business families, and apart from a few who took up engineering, medicine or law, the rest studied arts. At the end of three years, one got a degree, and irrespective of what you studied or how much you learnt or did not learn, you could hope to get a job in a nationalised bank, an educational institute  or in the government.

This certainly wasn’t the time when people studied science like Archimedes did — for the pure pleasure of satiating natural curiosity. A scientist could go through days and weeks just working towards making  a  possible discovery or invention. Newton, Edison, Raman and Einstein were closer to being science hobbyists than being professional scientists, and their work rose out of an unquenchable urge to find answers for the miracles around them.

Making science fun

Today, science seems to be popular again. Workshops on science, summer courses in astronomy, holiday sessions in ‘science in the garden’ and well-illustrated books on hobby science are luring young people away from computers and into a fascinating world. Science is cool again, it seems.

A recent article in the Guardian, ‘How Science became Cool’, had readers reacting with great enthusiasm. Going by reactions to the article in the form of letters to the editors, tweets and online discussion threads, it does seem as though science is the new rock star in the United Kingdom. While many agreed that ‘cool’ science was still underfunded and undervalued, a large number of people were excited about the growth of interest in science among young people.

Crores of rupees are spent on science, and yet there aren’t enough jobs for people with PhDs in science, said a reader. In India too, a PhD is not a guarantee of the best or the most well-paid jobs, but things seem to be looking up.

“The UGC and CSIR have hiked the stipends for research fellows to Rs 16,000 a month for five years, apart from the Rs 20,000 given annually for books, periodicals and other such necessities,” says Bhooshan, a passionate basketball player working on a PhD in physics.

Like him, a small percentage of students believes that it is necessary to continue science research, and are pursuing their dream without thinking too hard about job prospects.

New science funding agency

Recent  rumblings in the Parliament auger well for science in India. The National Science and Engineering Research Board, a new science funding agency, will start functioning  soon, nearly two years after it was first approved by Parliament. Policymakers hope this will liberate Indian science funding from bureaucracy.

Scientific funding in India is already on the rise.  The government budget allotment for the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Biotechnology has more than doubled over the past five years, from an estimated Rs 1449 crore in the 2005-2006 budget to Rs 3225 crore in the budget recently announced for 2010-2011.

Passion fuels interest

Rupa, a determined young girl came to Bangalore from Coimbatore recently to write the entrance examination that would secure her an integrated BS-MS seat in IISER, and lead her hopefully to carry out research in space science at an ISRO establishment. While most of her classmates wrote entrance examinations to land seats in engineering colleges, Rupa was clear that she wanted to study space science. “Are you sure you want to do this? BSc then MSc and then PhD, and finally you may not earn as much as your contemporaries,” cautioned friends and family.

“I want to study science. And I want to do research. How much I earn does not matter, though I’m sure I’ll be able to earn enough,” answered Rupa.

The IISER five-year programme gives students a monthly scholarship through the course, and a decent stipend once they have enrolled in research programmes.

Nobody denies the fact that the study of basic science is intrinsic to human development.  Like in most fields, a good teacher can be an important catalyst to set students on the path of science. Former president A PJ Kalam has written books that have indeed ‘ignited minds’, and during his tenure, we’ve heard of many people taking up degrees in science rather than in professional courses.

Pavitra Prakash, a research fellow working in Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, in the field of Neurobiology, says: “If not for the passion with which my biology teacher Mercy John taught me in Kendriya Vidhyalaya in Mysore, I would have probably studied history in college. Instead, she made such an impact on me that I studied biochemistry, then went on to do a Master’s at the MS University, Baroda. Here too, it was the excellent guidance from Professor Shashikant Acharya that made me want to take up research in biology.”

Armed with a gold medal from MS Baroda, Pavitra has embarked on a research programme in Bangalore, and hopes to be able to understand Parkinson’s disease and Huntingston’s disease better.

If we have cures for so many diseases today, and if we have medicines to prevent so many more diseases, it is because of the study of science that has gone on in the world, by people who have studied it with or without the lure of the lucre.

With information being so freely and easily available from every corner of the world, the scientific community is able to share, discuss and collaborate on projects without a problem. The study of science is not so much the soaking in of content as much as developing a certain way of thinking and evaluating.

“For that, one must be able to study and carry out research in good institutions,” says Pavitra.

Funding remains an issue

If science went out of focus as a preferred choice of study at some point in history, it was probably because of the emergence of a myriad courses in applied sciences, engineering and technology.

While funding for the sciences has improved over the years, the output of work is still not in proportion with the input of funds.

Schools and colleges with insufficient laboratory facilities, and a skewed focus on ‘completing portions’ or ‘getting good marks’ have killed the passion for science among students. But all is not lost.

Curiosity is still alive in our minds, and where there is curiosity, the pursuit of science is sure to thrive. And, yes, it’s ‘cool’ to study science.

Scholarships

The ‘Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana’ is an ongoing programme started by the Department of Science and Technology , Government of India, to encourage students of Basic Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to take up research careers in these areas. The aim of the programme is to identify and encourage talented students with aptitude for research.

This programme strives to assist the students to realise their potential and to ensure that the best scientific talent is tapped for research and development in the country.

Generous scholarships will be provided (up to the pre-PhD level) to the selected students.

Source:  iisc.ernet.in/ kvpy/

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