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Tuesday, November 25, 2003

More social science research?

A few days ago on my way to work, I glanced at the book a fellow passenger on the train was reading. It was a 12th grade book and the subject was nuclear physics. It had diagrams of protons, neutrons, and electrons orbiting the nucleus and all that sort of stuff. After a bit, I asked the teenager why he was reading nuclear physics. He said that it was required. But, I asked, was he interested in the subject. No, he wasn't but he was in the science stream and therefore he had to learn that. Did he study any economics, psychology, history? No, that was not part of his curriculum.

I went back to my newspaper. On the op-ed page of the Business Standard of 18th November was Prof Kirit Parikh's opinion: Needed -- Indian institutes of social sciences. "We need toset up institutes of social sciences on the same high standards asthe IITs," said the sub-title. The piece started off with the observation that the returns to R&D are very high in areas of science and technology. Admitting the excellent results of insitutions such as the IITs, CSIR, ICAR, etc., he noted that the number of researchers per million population was not very impressive for India compared to other countries. In the mid-1990s, he reported, India had 150, Japan 4,900, Singapore 2,300, Korea 2,200, Mongolia 900, and China 450. Very interesting.

Then he went on to write:

We have had strong political support for science and technology. A strong case can be made for government support for research, for basic research, for crop variety research, for birth control or for environmental research, for defence or research related to critical so-called dual-use products and research in special areas that require the concerted efforts of many institutions. ...

... We need social science research to promote good governance. Economic and political research can help identify policy options and alternatives. It can also assess the costs and benefits of alternatives that help in selection of policies... social science
research is as important for development as scientific and technological research..."

With due respect to Prof Parikh, I would have to disagree. Mind you, I am not disagreeing with him on the importance of research. Some of my best friends are researchers. I am questioning the wisdom of spending resources on research when we have not yet neither learnt nor used what is already available for free in any well-stocked library.

Let me use an analogy. Suppose I have a very large stock of very nutritious basic food sitting at home unused. Suppose my family is starving. Further suppose that I am broke. And now suppose I decide to go out and spend money on buying expensive food which will be delivered in a few months to feed my family with. Would you call me stupid or what?

The stock of knowledge that is available for almost free is stupendous. We have yet to apply even a little bit of that in our policy making. We don't teach those fundamentals to our kids. They grow up to be intellectually uni-dimensional morons who cannot have an innovative idea in their heads. And then we propose that more research be done at more ivory tower institutions spending scarce resources that have a very high opportunity cost.

Coming back to that teenager: he will probably be able to rattle off the value of the electrical charge of an electron from memory. Or tell you the chemical structure of a sugar molecule. But he would not be able to solve a simple problem involving some degree of problem solving abilities. He probably has not the faintest clue about how markets work or how people interact. Imagine going easy on the structure of the atom bit, and giving him a bit of understanding of the prisoner's dilemma. Knowing the structure of an atom is important, but it should not be more than an afternoon's work at best to get that across. However, understanding what the prisoner's dilemma is and then considering the implications of that would take a lot of time and would teach
very valuable skills to the student.

Why this dismal state of affairs? Because the teachers themselves are clueless uni-dimensional card-board cutouts. They are as capable of entertaining an original thought as I am capable of holding a tune. It does not surprise me in the least that the
Indian educational system is a sad mockery of an institution that forms the bedrock of any sustainable society.

Is there a way out? I think there is. What we have to do is to actually create the curriculum ourselves. We have to create the content, then. After that, we have to use tools that are fortunately available from information and communications technologies to deliver the content. And I have a sneaky feeling that all this can be done profitably.

George Bernard Shaw had once remarked that when he wants to read a good book, he writes one. I think our desire to have a well-educated society must motivate us to educate our society well.

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