The Time Press

India’s shrinking pot in an expanding universe

Last Christmas, NASA sent a giant telescope soaring into space. The US space agency placed it a million miles from earth—to orbit the sun with its 21-foot wide mirror, a sun-shield the size of a tennis court and a quarter of a million tiny shutters, each smaller than a grain of sand. Amid the carnage following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rocketing inflation and a looming global recession, the James Webb Space Telescope sent back its first stunning images, unveiled on 12 July. The occasion was historic. For the first time, we saw a speck of the cosmos as it was 13.5 billion years ago, just ‘a bit later’ than our estimate of the Big Bang—about 3 million centuries prior. Thanks to tech advances and how long light takes to get here, we are now promised a peek into the very origins of the universe. What has lived so far in the realms of mathematics, physics, literature and philosophy will soon have a data grab to check with. The occasion was also laden with a spot of temporal symbolism: the images were presented at the White House in the presence of US President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris and leaders of NASA and US science policy. This is no coincidence: science and tech innovations have long been led by governments, with public funding. The Webb project is expected to cost around $9.7 billion over its lifetime. As NASA partners, the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency chipped in with €700 million and Canadian $200 million respectively. Scientific exploration at the frontiers of what we know is never cheap.

The images remind us that just as knowledge is hard to price, the value of basic research can defy estimation. Like the US, India was also an early investor in space, and our low-budget success in developing this sector—newly opened to private participation—has long been led by a scientific temper, as fostered by our education policy. It was a path laid out by Nehru, who wrote in his Discovery of India: “The scientific temper points out the way along which man should travel. It is the temper of a free man. We live in a scientific age, so we are told, but there is little evidence of this temper in the people anywhere or even in their leaders.” Yet, with nearly 75 years of freedom, our state spending on science and technology languishes. The ministry’s budget was cut by more than 3% this fiscal year. We have too little money in a shrinking pot for fundamental research, say Indian scientists. They face other pressures too. Frequent calls to study ‘Vedic science’, a catch-all term for anything from ancient texts to star alignments, for example, have been a distraction. For real progress, a scientific temper must suffuse our ministries as much as academia and national laboratories.

While the West has stormed ahead in recent centuries, India has a record of science that we are duly proud of. Ancient Indians were spot on with many observations of the cosmos, correctly conceptualizing the spherical shape of planets, for instance. But it is perhaps time for a stock check. Lucknow-born scientist Hashima Hasan, who played a key role in the Webb project, writes on of the “almost hostile environment” faced by a young Indian woman trying to pursue a career in science. But she also speaks of growing up in a “free, democratic nation, where I had the same constitutional rights as my brother.” This balance of views may hold a lesson in nurturing a scientific temper.

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