ails Indian science*
J.B.S. Haldane (18921964)
Various observations of J.B.S. Haldane on slow growth and unworthiness
of Indian science written in different contexts and at different times have been culled
from his articles collected in the book Science and Indian Culture (New Age Publ.,
Calcutta 1965, (second edition 1991)) and put together here. They deal with such issues as
un-professionalism, narrow specialization, new caste system in academia, teaching and
learning of science, brain drain, etc. Haldanes criticisms and suggestions for
betterment of Indian science are still valid.
Haldane needs no introduction. A graduate in Classics (i.e.
Greek and Latin literature and language) from Oxford, he taught mathematics, statistics,
physiology, biochemistry and many other subjects in different universities. He started
helping his father in scientific research from the age of eleven. His first research paper
was written jointly with his illustrious father J. S. Haldane and his colleague C. G.
Doglous which J.B.S. read before a meeting of the Physiological Society in London when he
was only seventeen years of age. At the age of twenty, he published important research
results in 1912 in Journal of Physiology. He was a prolific writer and was recipient of
Kalinga Prize of UNESCO for science popularization. He migrated to India in
1957 where he spent the rest of his life. He and his wife Helen Spurway adapted an Indian
way of life. He mentioned this as an example of reverse brain drain. Some Indian
scientists feel that Haldane could induce a radical change in biological research in
India. Some of them also feel that he himself was a spent up force as scientist when he
came to India. All the same his greatness as a teacher, scientist and as a
human being is remembered affectionately by all who came to know him. Subir K. Sen (Department of Library and Information Science, University of Calcutta, Asutosh
Building, 3rd Floor, College Street, Calcutta 700 073, India)
I[JBS] have already come to
one conclusion as to why science in India is developing with disappointing slowness. It is
not because Indians are stupid or lazy. It is because they are too polite. They spend
hours daily in conversation with others, not on professional matters, but on personal
topics. In London, I talked with colleagues for an hour or more, daily, but it was mostly
about the details of our work. In the Indian Statistical Institute (Calcutta) the same is
true. But it is not true in most academic institutions where I have been in India. Again
at scientific meetings and usually in ordinary discussion my Indian colleagues are polite
about one anothers work. In Europe, we are usually polite about the work of juniors,
and highly critical of that of men and women of established reputation. At a recent
international meeting on genetics, an American got up after a paper read by my wife and
said that he could not let her highly misleading views pass without criticism. She felt
that she had at last reached the status where one is criticized without mercy. She and I
at once formed a friendship with the critic. We had something to talk about. In my
opinion, only a few branches of Indian science have reached the stage of maturity where
this is possible. I may criticize some of my colleagues as I would criticize British
colleagues, and hurt their feelings severely. Once again I am up against the choice
between politeness and efficiency. I do not know how I shall resolve this dilemma. I hope
that as Indian science grows up, it will become less acute1.
New caste system
I notice that in India a new caste system is
developing before the old one has disappeared. The new system is based on academic
degrees. One cannot teach Bengali, chemistry, history, or what you will, without a degree
in that subject. And a higher degree given for research is almost obligatory if one hopes
for a professional chair. It is only a question of time before I am debarred from teaching
science or statistics, since I have no degree of any kind in these subjects. But in terms
of the new caste system, I am qualified to teach the classics since I secured a some-
what marginal first class in Literae Humaniores, vulgarly called Greats at
In India it appears to be necessary to have a degree
in a subject before one can teach it in a university or even a college. This requirement
is perhaps most utterly ludicrous in the case of the various languages spoken in India. A
friend of mine was refused a post to teach his native language because he had no degree in
it although he had published a fair amount of verse in it, which many people regard as
poetry. He has a degree in another subject. But even more fatal is the practice, which
prevails in one university at least, of refusing to accept a student for the M A
course in any science unless he has taken a B Sc degree with Honours in that
particular science. This is calculated to ensure, so far as is possible, that Indian
scientists will be specialists, whereas men like Jagadish Bose, Meghnad Saha, and Prasanta
Chandra Mahalanobis have achieved eminence precisely by bridging the gaps between
I have just declined a request to propose a
candidate for a professorship of statistics in a certain university because the
qualifications included a degree awarded for research in mathematical statistics. I know
many of the worlds leading statisticians, and very few of them have such degrees.
They improved statistical practice because they had to deal with large numbers of
observations about atoms like S. N. Bose, jute yields like P. C. Mahalanobis, heights of
human beings and their relatives like R. A. Fisher, earthquakes like H. Jeffreys, and so
on. They had degrees, but not in statistics.
Someone might however, say that statistics as a
special case, being a very young science, but that in the older sciences such
specialization was needed. This is utter nonsense. Let me take some examples.
Prof. P. A. M. Dirac is Professor of mathematics at
Cambridge. He might equally well be called a Professor of mathematical physics or even of
statistics. He took his degree in engineering. On the continent of Europe many of the
Professors not merely of such sciences as physiology and anatomy, but of zoology and
botany, have medical degrees only. At University College London, the Professor of anatomy,
J. Z. Young, has a degree in zoology. He had not dissected a human corpse systematically
until he got his present post, though he had made distinguished contributions to human
anatomy by his work on the healing of severed human nerves. I could go on almost
The old caste system had this merit, that the
richest merchant or Zamindar could not buy the status of brahmin for his son, even if the
son was learned and pious. Whatever the defects of that system and I
think that they were and are grievous it was not subservient to wealth.
The new caste system which the university administrative authorities, with the connivance
of many government officials, are trying with some success to impose upon India, has no
such excuse. I hope that steps may be taken to break it before it exercises the same
paralytic effect on India as the old one did in the past5.
Teaching and learning
I have been teaching science for just forty years,
and it was a shock to me when I found that my basic assumptions about such teaching do not
work in India.
I was walking near my house one Sunday afternoon
when I was listening to some mantras, and asked my companion if he could identify them.
The practice of repeating religious formulae is of course about as common in Europe as in
India, and I have little doubt that it has an effect in guiding the thoughts of the
chanter in a certain direction, even when the chanting has become quite automatic. It is
not so sure that it guides them towards the kind of experience which a few holy men all
over the world have shared, even though they described it in different words, or stated
that it could not be described in words.
But my companion stated that the language of the
chant was English and the subject organic chemistry. We returned, and I found that he was
right. The subject of the chant was the preparation of aliphatic amines, with special
reference to various precautions. I have learnt a great deal in this way, and have very
considerable stock of poetry, in at least ten languages, and eleven if you consider, as I
do, that some parts of the Koran are great poetry. Clearly one must learn poetry exactly.
But I have never learned any scientific fact in this
way. On the contrary, I try to learn them in as many different ways as I can and to teach
them from many points of view. For example, in teaching medical students about the parts
of the human heart, I tried to make them imagine where these parts were within their own
chest and what course the blood took through them. In teaching statistics, I try to jump
from the duration of human lives to those of safety razor blades and back, to encourage a
similar agility of mind in my hearers.
The knowledge of science is, or rather should be,
something quite different from the knowledge of poetry.
The kind knowledge, which is most useful in science,
is a very long way from that which gets one a first class in a written examination. I am
remarkably ignorant of many facts which some of my junior colleagues know. But I know
where to look them up, though unfortunately some of the books and journals are not
available in India. What is even more important, I know fairly well what is not known.
When one of my young colleagues made what turned out to be a completely original
observation I said that I thought nobody had ever noticed such a thing before, and told
him to write to two men in Europe and USA to confirm this. Much of my success in research
has been due to my knowledge concerning human ignorance. So far as I know this peculiar
kind of knowledge is never taught6.
Double loyalty of a scientist
Every year hundreds of Indian students of science go
abroad hoping to return as Doctors of Philosophy. I am absolutely opposed to this
practice, and regard a foreign degree as a point against anyone who wishes to work with
me. But I am aware that such degrees are a help in obtaining posts in universities and
elsewhere in India. In the three universities where I worked in England, namely Oxford,
Cambridge and London, we were sufficiently confident of ourselves to ignore degrees. Men
and women were chosen for academic posts mainly on their published work and their record
as teachers. It was unusual, though not unique, to get a series of professorships, as I
did, without any scientific degree at all. It is quite common to take a degree in one
science and do teaching and research in another. I hope to see this common in India also.
One reason why Indian graduate students wish to go abroad is a very simple one. They are
systematically humiliated by the administrative staff of many institutions, and sometime
by professors, in a manner, which is not tolerated in western Europe or United States.
Again I hope to live to see this remedied7.
Every scientist who is worth anything has a double
loyalty, to science as well as to his country. In India, there are numerous laboratories
where scientists are forbidden to work. I can think of one in Calcutta where a worker drew
Rs 400/- per month for at least six months without doing anything but filling in forms
about work in contemplation and showing visitors around. The worker in question could have
done some research, not probably very important, but was ordered to remain in the
laboratory beside an incomplete apparatus, and explain the project to visitors. This is
not an isolated case. All over the country, junior workers are regarded with jealousy by
their superiors, who either discourage originality or steal its results. I recently saw a
bibliography of publications by the head of a well-known Indian laboratory. This
remarkable man had published over fifty scientific papers in one year. No single human
being before him has ever made discoveries at this rate! No doubt junior colleagues had
done most of the work, or all of it. But their names were not mentioned. It is not
surprising that young men do not care to work under such conditions, particularly, if like
the unfortunate agricultural scientist who recently hanged himself in Delhi, they are
forbidden to apply for posts elsewhere. So long as the Government concerned does nothing
to discourage persons responsible, bright young men will take jobs abroad8.
The root cause of all this incompetence and worse is
not far to seek. A large number of Indian scientists have no pride in their profession,
though they are proud of their salaries and positions. The opposite attitude is common in
Europe, as it was in ancient India. I have seen a member of the council of the Royal
Society (R. A. McCance, to be precise) turn up at a council meeting in shabby clothes with
his luggage on his back in a knapsack. In India today the unworthy successors of Durvasa
and Vishvamitra actually invite governors, vice-chancellors, and the like, to address
them. This may be a relic of British Rule. If so, it is a regrettable one9.
India has made many contributions to world culture.
Perhaps, the greatest is the ideal of non-violence. Europes greatest contribution is
the scientific method. If these can be married, their offspring may raise mankind to a new
Extracted from Science and Indian Culture, New Age Publishers,
Calcutta, 1965, p. 3.
ibid, p. 163.
ibid, p. 15.
ibid, pp. 1415.
ibid, p. 19. It is regrettable that these ills have proliferated
like cancer, instead of being removed.
ibid, pp. 7680.
ibid, p. 26.
ibid, pp. 2021.
ibid, pp. 2324.
ibid, p. 58.