Need to liberate science: My reflections on the SCB award.

My lifetime goal is to liberate science from science institutions and the SCB award has assured me that yes, it can be done and is worth doing.

In the history of science, a number of major advancements were achieved by someone outside the academic circles. Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel are the most prominent examples who completely changed our understanding of biology, but who were not academic scholars in any formal capacity. A question worth asking is whether this can happen today. Science is increasingly getting monopolized by Universities and Institutes, so much so that it is almost impossible now to imagine someone doing high quality science outside academia. The monopolization of science is driven by two key processes, namely funding and publication. Most funding agencies simply do not have any norm to fund an individual researcher who has a proven record of high quality output but who is not affiliated to any institution currently. Scientific journals, on the other hand do not have any written rule of not publishing anything from a person without affiliation, but most journals now have huge author charges, so that no one without substantial funding can publish in them.

Science itself is at loss by such monopolization. Although Institutions are built to support science, they simultaneously put limits on doing science. Every institute has a set of bureaucratic rules and procedural routines and they expect science to fit into these routines. Science needs to modify itself to fit into the routines rather than the routines being flexible enough to accommodate the requirements of research. The routines are designed to support certain types of research requirements and researchers doing those types can happily work within the system. But by definition research cannot be bound by routines. There are no routine questions in research, only questionable routines. Institutes can cater for research routines easily and it is extremely difficult to do creative science within those stone walls.

For example, in order to purchase equipment there is a procedure in any institute, which is designed for some of the equipment to be used within the institute. I had a behavioural intervention based project for farmers in a farmer-wildlife conflict area. I wanted the farmers to install solar fencing, for which funding was available in a research project with me. But I wanted the farmers to decide which equipment they wanted and how would they like to purchase it. This was behaviourally important. If they take a decision themselves, they are responsible for the decision. If the researcher takes a decision for them, they are not. The behavioural consequences and the outcomes would obviously be different. However, since the funding was routed through the institute, the institute said you should follow the institute procedure for purchase. We will invite quotations and we will purchase for the farmers. They cannot have any say in the purchase procedure. There was another caveat, the equipment will belong to the institute and when the project was over, farmers will have to return it. This was just not compatible with the behavioural intervention principles on which the project was based. So either I had to compromise with my science or let go the funding and spend the necessary amount from my pocket. Needless to say, I preferred the latter.

The example is not the only one by which institutes arrest the spirit of science. They have multiple ways of doing it. Since there is a limit to which institutes can pursue good science, we need to look beyond institutes to implement any novel, out of the box, creative and socially useful science. For a large part of my career I worked as a teacher in an undergraduate college, where one is supposed to teach science, without actually “doing” science. I thought this was impossible, and the only way to effectively teach science was to DO science in partnership with the young minds. Later, for 10 years I worked in a leading science institute which was also supposed to teach science. Here I experienced that although there were many good researchers here, the ones having a vision for using it to inculcate the spirit of science were exceptionally few. I think now, that this is an inevitable result of the way we have been “institutionalizing” science. I was convinced even more when I decided to liberate myself from mainstream science organizations and started working in an individual capacity in association with people and without being affiliated to any organization. It was a blessing in disguise that I left “formal” science.

When you start working with people, entirely new avenues of science open up for you. Illiterate people are great mathematicians. They have their own ways of modelling, calculating, judging and making decisions. They have an inbuilt intuitive economics which is different from the economics being taught at universities and often it is more insightful. They make statistical inferences which are based on a set of principles somewhat different from what is taught in University Statistics. For example trained statisticians use a fixed significance level, people appear to vary the significance cut off based on the cost-benefits of the inference, which is much more sensible. But their great strengths become their weaknesses in some contexts. Academia has so far failed to understand the evolved innate mathematical, economic and statistical algorithms of people. Academics have developed methods of statistics, economics and computation without any regard to the evolved and innate statistical, economics and computational methods of people. Now we expect them to understand our methods while we have failed to understand theirs. As a result many of our schemes intended for their development are failures. Understanding principles of people’s behaviour is a highly challenging field of science and is yet in its infancy. So doing science with people is certainly no inferior than doing high tech ivory tower science. The kind of questions you can handle in fields and forests and grasslands cannot even be imagined sitting in those ivory towers.

Understanding human mind and human behaviour is the toughest business and needs very high quality science. Unfortunately classical social sciences are bound by ideologies and isms. The science of people needs to evolve from people, not from ideologies and the only way to do this is liberation again; liberation from ideologies, from traditional mind sets, from what you learnt in textbooks, from organizational routines and from premeditated goals and protocols. I don’t have any tall claims of having discovered something great in my attempts to study people, but can certainly share my experience that it feels great to work with them when you are free from all these handcuffs.

The piece of work, which led to the SCB award is an attempt to establish a novel principle on which the foundation of community management can be laid. This idea evolved from the interaction with people. On the one hand it’s a new game in game theory; much more complex than all the classical games dealt by the theory. Dr. Neelesh Dahanukar, a former student of mine has been a valuable contributor to developing a formal model. But more remarkable is the actual experimental implementation of the game for addressing a real life problem, with real money. I am a pretty bad organizer, so I couldn’t have done the organizational part of the empirical work myself efficiently. But I was fortunate to be backed by a whole team of efficient people including Poorva Joshi of Bioconcepts, Vijay Dethe, Smita Dathe, Shankar Bharade and other volunteers of the NGO: Paryavaran Mitra, and of course all the farmers, who I consider not the subjects of my research but my research collaborators. We could do the experiment with real money owing to the generosity of Vidarbh Development Board, DeFries Bajpei Foundation and NAAM Foundation.

With the only exception of Neelesh, none of my co-workers had any formal background in research, but together we came up with a scientifically novel and socially useful outcome, certainly the first real life, real problem, real money game theory experiment in India and perhaps in the world. I have at least one case to demonstrate now where science, liberated from institutions worked well.

While this is certainly not the first example of people’s science, the tradition needs to be revived and strengthened. The trend of institutional monopolization of science needs to balanced by alternative avenues of science. While we certainly need science institutes on the one hand, an alternative to institutional science is needed to do the kind of science that Institutes and Universities can’t.

About the award:

An account of the work with farmers: In English:

In Marathi:

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