EDITORIAL

India's “Science for All” Academy

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Science  24 Feb 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6071, pp. 891
DOI: 10.1126/science.1220166
CREDIT: PETER FIRUS

In 1905, Sir William Osler, the most influential physician of his time, stepped down from the medical faculty of Johns Hopkins University at the age of 55. At his farewell, he emphasized that the “effective, moving, vitalizing work of the world is done between the ages of 25 and 40—these 15 golden years of plenty.” Many of us, who are old but still active like myself, may like to strongly disagree. But the power of the creative prime in this age group is irrefutable. Therefore, when the Global Young Academy was established in 2010 to catalyze the formation of national Young Academies that promote leadership by a country's most outstanding scientists aged 30 to 40 (www.globalyoungacademy.org), it was enthusiastically applauded by the international science community. One country that urgently needs a Young Academy is India, a nation of 1.2 billion people, 55% of whom are under 25 years old. What would be a good design for a Young Academy of India?

After experiencing stagnation over the past decade, Indian science is showing signs of a great recovery. But it continues to deal with its frustrating contradictions. India's Moon mission Chandrayan-1 led to the detection of water on the Moon, yet rural Indian women continue to walk kilometers each day in search of water. To achieve her quest for growth and innovation that include the entire population, India does not need yet another science academy. She needs a “science for all” academy. By this I mean an academy that simultaneously pursues a quest for both excellence and relevance. Indian science should not be judged only by the “H index,” which aims at a global measure of excellence, but also by an “I index,” which should measure the ability to provide Indian solutions to the specifically Indian problems of 800 million resource-poor people.

CREDIT: ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

Are young Indian scientists ready to accept this challenge? The answer is a resounding yes. India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research launched its Open Source Drug Discovery challenge in 2008. Since then, the 3000 young graduate student participants have made some breathtakingly creative contributions, ranging from increasing our understanding of Mycobacterium tuberculosis to the synthesis of novel compounds that could lead to drugs for tuberculosis treatment. Techpedia (www.techpedia.in/) has posted over 100,000 undergraduate projects by students in their early 20's, the majority of which reflect their impatience with crippling societal problems. I witnessed this impatience in rural Maharashtra last month: Vidarbha has the highest incidence of farmer suicides, and the young scientists there asked me only one question: What can scientists do to stop these suicides? So there is a community of energetic and compassionate young Indian scientists with great passion in their bellies. And this community is set to grow exponentially, as India's Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE) scheme aims to support a whopping 1 million science students by the end of 2013.

India should be listening seriously to its future scientific leaders. Yet, disappointingly, young scientists have no venue in which to express their views on the big questions facing India—from the huge recent controversy about genetically modified eggplant, to the public protests at Jaitapur regarding new nuclear power plants. Nor have young researchers been involved in the design of the Indian Planning Commission's 12th 5-year (2012–2017) plan on science and technology. A new Young Academy should, therefore, provide an influential voice for the next generation of Indian scientists. This Young Academy should be borderless, taking the disciplines of the natural sciences, engineering, social sciences, arts, and humanities into its fold; and dynamic, harnessing the power of technology and social media. And it should have a mind of its own, with a constantly questioning, “yes, we can” mindset. The youth of India are ready for a Young Academy. It's time to get to work to form it.

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