Some years ago, talking to pressmen of the work being done at India’s internationally famous School of Mathematics (which is a wing of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai), Prof K.G. Ramanathan is reported to have remarked, “No work is done here with a view to application.”
The statement may appear as somewhat astounding to an economist or industrialist used to thinking in terms of investments and returns, and if such a one has the authority, he may even feel provoked to order the immediate closing down of such an institution as a flagrant waste of national wealth. Because, of what use is effort which cannot be turned to advantage in economic terms, and why should money be wasted in such idle pursuits?
But if we follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, we shall end up with throwing overboard and prohibiting all intellectual and artistic pursuits which, to all appearances, do not yield any tangible returns. And science, which in its purest form is nothing but a spirit of doubt and inquiry should also figure in a list of such useless pastimes.
But the fallacy in this type of thinking is too obvious to need any proof. We are living in the age of science. It pervades all aspects of our lives, and has made life much easier and less toilsome for us that it was for our ancestors a few centuries ago. We shall, therefore, rightly feel inclined to question the mental state of a person who tries to tell us that it is a useless pastime.
It is true the benefits of science may not have reached the people at all or in such ample measure without the aid of technology. But that cannot in any way minimize the important role scientists have played in promoting human welfare.
Edison may not have been able to visualize or effect all the progress or improvements made by technologists in telecommunications since he invented the telegraph, but it was he who first showed the way for the technologists to follow. So it has been in the case of every scientific invention.
Scientists, with their childlike curiosity and sense of wonder have unraveled the secrets of nature, and technologists have followed them scooping up the treasures unearthed for the whole of mankind to share. The former have gone ahead obsessed with the spirit of inquiry, disregardful of everything else, while the latter have stepped is as soon as something of practical value has been discovered and invented, and turned it over to the world.
The net result of their combined efforts has been that the rigours of life on this planet have been considerably reduced.
Both science and technology are thus equally important for the purposes of man. Technology is important because through its medium man derives the benefit of science. It is technology, which extracts a hard economic return from money spent on scientific research and helps to bring science to the people.
But is that enough reason for man to insist that science should only be a handmaid of technology and nothing more? Or, in other words, can he make it obligatory on science or scientists to remain exclusively engaged in catering to his needs only? Or, to put it in another way, can he lay down that all scientific research should be geared to practical uses only?
The way we answer these questions depends upon how we look at the funds earmarked for scientific research.
If we look on the resources made available for fundamental research as expenditure, we shall naturally feel disappointed at delayed or uneconomic returns, and will have to write it off as total waste in case -here is no return at all. This is patently a wrong approach because, no scientist can afford to be or allow him to be so tied down.
His mind will simply refuse to function if he is constantly weighed down by a feeling that someone is peering down his shoulder to see a process of alchemy in action and results being produced. He may be as anxious as anybody else that his labour should yield some practical value, but he cannot be made to accept this as his sole aim.
When such limitations are imposed, the first casualty is the scientific spirit. They are highly repugnant to a scientist’s temperament. Even if he is somehow forced to accept them, they are bound to cramp his style and eventually make him quit sooner or later.
Such parsimoniousness is quite often wrongly applauded as denoting a practical approach. As a matter of fact, it betrays a bias in favour of technology at the cost of science. This is a common administrative failing encountered particularly in the underdeveloped countries the resources of which do not match the goals sought by them to be achieved.
Too often scientists in such countries cannot obtain adequate research facilities. And even if some facilities are given, there are always some wise men who make it their business to go on reminding them of the money being spent on them (not on science) and so persistently pester them for returns that they quit in sheer exasperation. The result of such attitudes is apparent in the phenomenon of “brain drain”.
If a scientist feels obliged to leave the country of his birth, and to go abroad in pursuit of his life’s work, it is unjust to presume that he is unpatriotic. He is perhaps as patriotic as anybody else, but as is the case with everyone who carries the curse of creativity on his being, his work comes before everything else.
He can live and breathe freely in that atmosphere where he is free to carry on with his work without let or hindrance. We cannot, however, say the same of a majority of the technologists who migrate from their native lands or refuse to return after having completed their professional training.
If, however, we consider money set apart for scientific research as an investment, and have patience enough to wait till such investment yield some return, remaining at the same time prepared for the eventuality that no return at all may be forthcoming, we may be sure that we are of the right course.
The economist or the administrator may well point over that we are running a risk, and he will be right because from the layman point of view it is a gamble, which may or may not pay off. But sue calculations are relevant only before we have chosen our man, and no afterwards. Once the die is cast, we have nothing to do but to wait.
And we have backed the right man; results are bound to follow, because have conceded to him the freedom he must have to give of his best.
From the foregoing discussion it is clear that we can derive to maximum benefit from science only if we give it precedence over technology. Let us see what happens if the roles are reversed. When science is reduced to the position of a handmaid of technology, the latter con to acquire a lot of capacity for making mischief.
While science left free finds its highest reward in the intellectual pleasure and creative satisfaction it affords, technology seeks compensation in furthering human purposes, which can be either noble or evil. We hear quite a lot of criticism of science as a force, which lends itself to destructive purposes like manufacture of nuclear bombs etc.
But as a matter of fact such criticism is ill-informed because it is not science but technology which twists the discoveries science to fashion death-dealing devices. Scientists who first split the may never have dreamt of using for destructive purposes the immense energies they had managed to release, but the technologists did and the politicians wise about them. Thus, we see that when technology rules supreme, man is tempted to abuse science.
We can hope to utilize science to sub serve human welfare and to give of its best only if we assign to it the primacy, which is its due. It can never be and should never be forced to become the handmaid of technology.