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Cultural weight dragging at Asian giants' feet

Nature volume 429, page 501 (03 June 2004) | Download Citation


Scientific progress is impeded by a tradition of conformity and respect for authority.


Reading the Commentary “Cultural reflections” by Mu-ming Poo, on the subject of Chinese science (Nature 428, 204; 2004), I was struck by the similarities between science in China and in India.

Poo concludes that mediocrity in Chinese science should be attributed to cultural factors such as conformity and respect for authority, rather than to pure economics. India, like other Asian countries, is at a crossroads. It is time for these countries to free themselves from the burden of their past and to develop a modern structural framework for fostering original scientific research.

Both India and China are emerging into modernity. Each has a booming urban economy (with vast problems in the rural areas) and India's gross domestic product (GDP) has suddenly increased in recent years, thanks to liberalization and private entrepreneurship. India's overall funding in basic research has also improved, and now it is 1.2% of GDP.

Yet although India has a considerable number of scientists, it cannot be counted as a major world player in basic sciences, notwithstanding its performance in space and nuclear technologies.

Not a single recent issue of Current Science, India's premier science journal, has appeared without at least one critique of India's performance in basic sciences, for example concluding that India and China face very similar problems (P. Balaram Curr. Sci. 86, 755–756; 2004).

Twenty years ago, John Maddox wrote, about science in India, “Among developing nations, India has by far the best chance of succeeding” (Nature 308, 581–584; 1984). However, he also wrote, “India has set ambitious goals for science and technology — self-reliance and the relief of poverty. Some great things have been accomplished, but much effort is frustrated.”

The Pakistani physicist and Nobel laureate Abdus Salam has been quoted as saying during a visit to India in 1981, “Not a drop ... has been added by India and other developing countries to ‘the pool of world knowledge‘,“ (H. Narain Curr. Sci. 65, 739–742; 1993).

I believe that nothing much has changed during the intervening years.

Why cannot India and China, two Asian giants, break the mediocrity barrier, despite their strong fundamentals?

Culture is a major impediment, as Poo points out. Although India is a democracy, the Asian tradition of respecting authority and hierarchy remains strong in our society, spawning conformity and nepotism. Creativity in science can be fostered only in a free and unfettered intellectual environment.

Cultural shifts take time. Meanwhile, I believe structural changes can help these fast-developing Asian countries to achieve more in terms of high-impact scientific research, whatever the level of investment.

Starting with universities and other centres of higher learning, such measures should include introducing innovative courses in basic sciences at post-graduate levels (in India, the institutes of technology are a good place to start) and fostering better links between research organizations and industries.

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  1. Centre for Earth Science Studies, Akkulam, Trivandrum 695031, India

    • C. P. Rajendran


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