The Underreported Narrative of ISRO’s Remarkable Success Story
The representational diversity of the truly outstanding scientists and technologists of ISRO
India’s second lunar exploration Chandrayaan-2’s scale of success may have become a matter of debate after the deviation of the Vikram Lander from its intended trajectory and subsequent break in communication on 7 September. At the same time, the successful deployment and launch of the mission itself has justifiably received wide public support across the country, and indeed, the world. The emotional outpouring of support and pride concerning the mission since its launch in July this year as of Mid September (when the attempts to communicate with the lander is still on after its suggested hard landing) is a testament to ISRO’s remarkable success story.
No doubt, ISRO has been exemplary in positioning itself as a scientific organization which reflects the wider public sentiment with regard to the ‘arrival of India’ on the global stage. This sense of emergence and arrival can be linked to both the latest achievements of India’s scientific community in the fields of technology across disciplines and also to a push of India’s cultural soft power.
ISRO’s credibility and reputation as a flagship scientific organization of independent India has been quite cleverly utilized by successive governments to enhance the optics of their success in different times. At present, as in the past, the irony of such attempts is not lost.
India under the current government in its second term has witnessed a drastic degradation of scientific temperament in its public discourse. There is a stark double standard of tapping into the symbolic value of space discovery as a metaphor for aspiration, and looking the other way when vengeful attacks against rational thinkers have gone to the extent of taking lives across the country under its regime.
Leave aside creating an environment for scientific thought to flourish in the country, the current dispensation’s money is not where its mouth is even when it comes to funding scientific research in a decentralized and equitable manner. The representational diversity of the truly outstanding scientists and technologists of ISRO can work as a case in point.
One of the heartening aspects of ISRO's remarkable success story is also an under-reported narrative about the more inclusive representation and diversity of state public universities in India. None of the key project members of this accomplished team come with degrees from either self proclaimed Indian "elite" institutions or fancy advanced degrees from foreign university "brands”. Rather, they are all alumni of State public (some would say, 'regional') universities across India.
It can be safely assumed that there was a considerable discrimination in terms of research funding and scope for original research during their student years. Sadly in scientific establishment still a lot of prestige points are meaninglessly added for doing research from "elite" institutions even if the quality of research is not at par with work done in many state public university labs. The lesser said about the false sense of intellectual superiority concerning the same in humanities-social science disciplines the better.
One may argue whether absolutely delusional sense of self elevation still existing in the deeply casteist and class arrogance imbued discourse of humanities academia connected to the rapid loss of relevance of its disciplines in meaningfully contributing to the public discourse.
Perhaps this is a matter of a separate debate, but the argument majorly holds true for scientific disciplines as well.
A careful look at the official research profiles of the core team of Chandrayaan-2 very much establishes this diversity of background.
The project director of Chandrayaan-2 M Annadurai did his PhD from Anna University (one of the two state public universities in the newly ascribed category of “Institution of Eminence” granted by the central government).
Muthayya Vanitha, also the Project Director for the mission, holds the distinction of being first female project director of an Indian interplanetary mission. She is an alumna of College of Engineering at Guindy, Tamil Nadu.
Ritu Karidhal, the Mission Director, is a University of Lucknow graduate before joining the Indian Institute of Science for her postgraduate degree.
Chandrakanta Kumar ( Head, Electromagnetics division of URSC for the mission) did his PhD from Calcutta University according to his profile on Researchgate.
Last but not the least: K Sivan, the Chairperson of ISRO and the person who received wide media coverage for his emotional interaction with the Prime Minister is a Madras Institute of Technology Graduate. He did his PhD from IIT Bombay much later in his career.
These are all outstanding scientists, and if their educational background rooted in public and regional setup is a rare exception in India's scientific establishment at the top, it is an example to emulate. Good news is, things are changing a little across disciplines with greater access to academic knowledge and end of false mystification surrounding discourses.
The separate yet supplemental debate concerning the funding for central vs. state universities is also worth bringing up here, especially in addressing the massive disparity of resources between state and central public universities.
My own alma mater Jadavpur University can act as a good example here. Jadavpur, along with Anna University, are among the only two state funded public universities in the IOE list, though the total number of public institutions in the list ( including central ones) are obviously higher. After a lengthy process of application, consultation and negotiation, Jadavpur has been provisionally promised (with a lot of strict qualifiers nonetheless) a funding of one thousand crores by the central government over the course of the next five years. Though, according to the same reports the exact contribution and nature of the state government of West Bengal in this process is still a matter of dispute.
So far, it seems that the funding is not tied to any financial commitment by the already cash strapped state government. But considering the rapid mood swings of India’s educational bureaucracy, if things change and Jadavpur loses out on the funding, it will prove to be a costly mistake. It will affect hundreds of outstanding researchers in this institution whose capabilities and accomplishments are no different from good central institutions with greater funding.
In some of JU's natural science departments (Chemistry, for example) quality of research produced is as good as many IITs which I experienced during working on a university wide NAAC assessment project some years ago. Leave aside Jadavpur, even the work that a university like Vidysagar University ( in Midnapore) or Burdwan University does in serving the regional development of researchers cannot be measured with any pre existing ranking index/factors.
It is also interesting that under the centrally sponsored MHRD scheme of Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA), Jadavpur has been a rare success story in the quick and successful utilization of funds given under a specific component aimed at state public universities. I spoke to Samantak Das, Professor of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University and director of the Internal Quality Assurance Cell (IQAC) of the same institution, regarding this comparative neglect of state public institutions by the center. According to Das, who has been writing about higher education in India for almost three decades now, “there has not been any fundamental change in the attitude of successive Central governments towards improving the quality of education imparted in State universities.
This government seems to be obsessed with rankings on global lists (THE, QS, and so on), virtually to the neglect of everything else, especially the recruitment of teachers - without which we cannot hope to bring about any real improvement in the quality of education imparted in our institutions”.
But with certain initiatives like RUSA or IOE, has there been a change of attitude towards state public universities? Das, who has seen the process of both schemes closely at hand, is cautious: “By appearance, that seems to be the case, but these are early days yet, and we do not know if these initiatives (which are basically means of giving more money to already-well-performing HEIs) will bear fruit. Unless there is a substantial increase in government spending on education (at both Central and State levels) all our well-intentioned plans will come to nought. “
I agree with him. I hope that to stop the rapid devaluation of the idea of public education itself governments at both central and state level realize the potential of state public universities and stop discriminating against researchers from the so called "non-elite" institutions. May the success of Chandrayaan 2 serve as a good example for us to consider.
Somak Mukherjee is PhD Student at Department of English, University of California-Santa Barbara. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org