Need to revive the “marhaba” culture in science:

Marhaba (مرحبا, मर्हबा), a word of Arabic origin, used in Persian, Urdu and even in Hindi is an expression with multiple contextual meanings. Its original literal meaning is said to be “God is love”; but its use is not religious. The context in which I came across this word is in welcoming and appreciating a novel and somewhat surprising idea, art form or achievement. It’s an appreciation of the idea as well as of the thinker, art as well as artist, achievement as well as achiever. So often used in art, music or poetry appreciation, marhaba comes immediately and spontaneously when an unexpected and pleasant piece of melody, an astonishing phrase of words or an unusual imaginative idea is recited. Appreciation is a universal human attribute but a marhaba kind of appreciation is a different culture, prevalent in certain languages, certain schools of music and certain forms of poetry. A marhaba cannot be replaced by a clapping applause, how so ever loud it is. Clapping is a monotonous collective act. Marhaba has a private, personal, informal and insider’s touch. Clapping is more appropriate at the end of the performance. If people clap in between it is disturbing. A marhaba comes spontaneously the moment you like something and it is not disturbing. There is not one but many phrases of this appreciation including vaah, kya baat hai, shabash, sunder, aha or just with a different shade of meaning which correlates with subtle but wide vocabulary of facial expressions and body language. Unlike clapping, each expression reaches the performer separately as if the performer has a separate receptor for each of these expressions. I am using Marhaba here as a generic name that represents the entire repertoire of dialogues between the artist and the audience. Hindustani classical music, Persian and Urdu poetry had this marhaba culture until very recently, or is still there to some extent, but as the distance between the performer and audience is increasing in the modern theatres, and the audience itself is changing, the clapping culture is rapidly replacing the marhaba culture. Incidentally the same change of scenario seems to be happening in science too.

I am fortunate to have experienced many marhaba responses in music-poetry as well as in science; in both the fields from both sides, as a performer and as an appreciator. I came to science and remained committed to it for life, not because I got a well-paying job as a scientist, or had prestigious publications, breakthrough discoveries or sumptuous funding but because I experienced many marhaba moments. Although qualitatively I experienced them throughout my career, quantitatively, my feeling is that, the marhaba culture is vanishing rapidly and being replaced by a ‘success’ culture. While marhaba is not objectively measurable, ‘success’ is measurable in terms of high impact publications, successful grant proposals, promotions and prestigious positions.

While reading Erwin Chargaff, “…our era is extremely ambivalent when it comes to the problem of how scientific research ought to be supported. … The less the people are willing (to support science), the more promises must be made. Instant longevity, freedom from all diseases, a cure for cancer – soon, perhaps, the abolishment of death – and what else? Whereas, no singer did ever have to promise to make a better man of me if I listen to her trills.” I had to stop at this sentence, it was just impossible to go ahead. Is it possible, I wondered, that listening to science can be as absorbing as listening to music. And I said why not? I have experienced it at times, but at rare times. Throughout so many talks, lectures, seminar and conference presentations not more than a dozen times I felt I was listening to music. Not only there was very interesting science being talked about, but it was being delivered in an artistic way. On at least three occasions, I received precisely this comment after my talks. Three listeners from three different countries and three different cultures expressed it as “There were moments we felt like saying kay baat hai”. In Arizona once an old American lady who knew nothing about me came straight to me after my talk and asked “Are you a singer?” I said “No, my father was.” “But you talk like music.” I still don’t understand why she felt so. Perhaps the performer in me is not dead. So what Chargaff remarked is not a fantasy, science can become music. It would attract people as if music would. Just that it is rare, and the reason it is rare is not that it is uninteresting but because it is not there in the culture of scientists. Science is not dry, scientists are.   

But since the performer culture is lacking, are we trying to engage people in a different way? Are we trying to create a culture where claims of breakthroughs, tall promises, triumphs of publishing in high impact journals, successes of obtaining massive grants overwhelm so much that the joy of understanding some mystery of nature, an opportunity to say marhaba to nature or to oneself for getting insights into one, is of little value?

When in my 20s and 30s I started intermingling with the research community, I could overhear across coffee tables people talking about novel and crazy ideas frequently. My time in the C mess of IISc was always enriched with crazy ideas cutting across all fields of science. If I overhear now, it’s a different picture. I hear more about celebrations of getting papers accepted, remorse over rejections of funding proposals, obsession over getting latest tools and technologies in one’s lab, worries about how to handle notorious students and how to manage the routines. These are being talked about more frequently than ideas and insights. Young researchers are being nurtured to think about how to publish in high impact journals rather than about the feel of the moment of having made sense out of a puzzling data set. My sample size is bound to be small and perhaps biased too. Is this happening everywhere? I have no idea.There is this field of research called meta-science. Researchers in meta-science need to look into whether there really is such a trend in the researcher community. If there is one, it is a matter of serious concern. Are all advances in science henceforth going to be Galisonian over Kuhnian? Tool and data intensive over concept intensive? If yes, people of my nature should better keep away from the field. Is the marhaba culture vanishing from science? Meta-science should answer such questions. But the chains and the handcuffs of objective and measurable variables are so heavy that meta-science is only busy looking at quantifiable trends in published research. Isn’t what goes on in the mind of a researcher worthy of research by itself?

Erwin Chargaff and I

What an unequal comparison!!

Sure, grossly unequal it is. Chargaff happens to be the pioneer of modern biochemistry and particularly the chemistry of DNA, evidently underappreciated by science historians about which he himself was quite aware and somewhat apprehensive; contrasts with the small man that I am with my science that I can’t evaluate myself. If at all I contributed anything that will be seen only 20-30 years from now. But I am still tempted to compare my experiences in the field of science with his, after reading his book “Heraclitean fire: Sketches from a life before nature”. Although I had heard the name Chargaff vaguely before, as every biologist does, I was not aware of this book until Prof. Niranjan Joshi, from whom I mainly learnt the art of making simple but insightful models, referred to it in a thread of Facebook messages. Fortunately the book was free online, but I found it extremely hard to read. The 200 and odd pages took me about a month to finish, I mean only the first reading.

Although the book is supposed to be an autobiography of a scientist, it is far from what one can imagine by the word autobiography of someone who is far from what one can imagine by the word scientist. A stark difference between scientific writing and poetry is that in the former every sentence has only one possible meaning. A characteristic of good poetry is that every time you read it, you perceive a new meaning. “Heraclitean fire” belongs to the latter. You need to read many of the sentences repeatedly and find a deeper meaning every time. That is why I took so long to read.

The reasons I kept on finding my own reflection as I read through are multiple. Chargaff often calls himself a teacher more than a scientist. He says, “A good teacher can only have dissident pupils, and in this respect I may have done some good.” He has a fascination for literature, music and poetry which we share qualitatively but not quantitatively since he knew classical literature from 15 languages and he cites so many paras and phrases from all of them so often.  He could easily have been a celebrated writer or poet. What is evident throughout the book is his deepest engagement with science and at the same time a deepest unhappiness about the working of science organizations and the behaviour of the scientific community.

He thinks that the scientific community is becoming increasingly more arrogant. Peaceful and insightful quest of the mysteries of nature has taken a back seat and dazzling advertisement of ephemeral “breakthroughs” is aggressively on the forefront. He is particularly unhappy about the way in which Universities and Institutes are administered. He is critical of peer reviews and big mega-funded projects which are distorting the spirit of science.

Resentment, bitterness and sarcasm but at the same time a philosopher’s detachment trickles through every chapter of the book. I used to think, believe and experience that when one develops a detachment with oneself, bitterness vanishes. But Chargaff’s case is more complex. You feel the detachment along with bitterness. Bitterness is there everywhere and not there at all.  He sounds sarcastic too often but his sarcastic statements are astonishingly true and convincing. 

A number of times I could find exact parallels between what he writes and what I have written earlier in my talks or in my writing, prose or poetry. So many times I have said in the first year class that I don’t want to teach Biology, I want to teach the principles of science only giving examples from biology. But most students attended to complete the biology curricular course. Chargaff says, “… people came to me not to learn about the chemistry of life but to learn about nucleic acids.” In a blog article earlier I wrote my distinction about doing good science versus doing a successful science career. Chargaff writes, “Here I must immediately make a distinction between science as a profession and science as the expression of some of the faculties of the human mind. The two are not necessarily connected.”

In another blog article I wrote about institutional rituals in science which I thought were not different from religion. He writes, “There can, however, be little doubt that the whole complex of the natural sciences has become a substitute religion, fulfilling the double role of mysterious incomprehensibility to the lay public and a means of livelihood for its practitioners.”

I was uncomfortable with the IISER protocol of selecting PhD candidates. I thought hunting for brilliance alone was not enough. PhD is like marriage. The two need to click. Others cannot tell me which qualities I should be looking for in a student. Chargaff says, “It so happens that I have never been very fond of brilliancy. I have been looking for entirely different qualities and I have often found them in people who were not outstandingly clever.”

One thing he repeatedly says is, “Once you embark, you never land. You will, in fact, after a short time, forget that there is such a thing as land; ever changing unattainable horizons will lure you into the unknown that few people, it is true, really want to know. But you are paid to know.”

“How often have I said that only the road counted not the goal”

“I was a monad searching for destiny that did not exist”

Quite independently I too wrote repeatedly

मंज़िल जिसकी अनजानी वो सिरात अभी है मुझमें (A road that does not know a destination is still there in me)

राह जब मंज़िल बने रफ़्तार बेबस हो तो क्या है (When the road itself becomes the destination, how does speed matter?)

What I like the most is his vision of a dark night. He does not think that science is about illuminating the unknown. He thinks it is a search in the darkness. Darkness is what a researcher always lives with and therefore is a friend of. Throwing dazzling lights is not in the spirit of science. “The great biologists worked in the very light of darkness. We have been deprived of this fertile night.”

“Illuminated darkness is not light”

My own favourite couplet is

जुस्ते हक़ की रहगुजर में जो सियाही है, मेरी है

उस मजाज़े आराइश में तेरा ही बस हो तो क्या है

(The darkness on the path to truth is my home-ground. If the dazzling lights in the rest of the world are under your command, why should I care!!)

At many other places, I felt, this is precisely my experience too, but may be I wouldn’t have expressed it this way.

“The sciences are extremely pedigree conscious, and the road to the top of Mount Olympus is paved with letters of recommendation, friendly whispers at meetings, telephone calls at night. From all this I have never been able to benefit. I am, to an unusual extent, my own product.”

“A teacher is one who can show you the way to yourself; and this no one has done for me.”

“At the time the publication appeared, most people – including the Nobel Prize Committee, as it was then constituted – did not pay the slightest attention to it. Those who should have known were all too busy spinning their own tops through the corridors of power. Never having found the entrance to the useful burrows, I was not one of them”

He describes himself as, “…imaginative rather than analytical, apocalyptic rather than dogmatic; brought up to despise publicity; uncomfortable in scientific gatherings; fleeing all contacts; always happier with my younger than with my better….but ever conscious, day and night, that there is more to see than I can see, more to say than I can say and even more to be silent about.”

One characteristic of the Gazal from of poetry is that every couplet is modular. You can interpret it independent of other couplets. Every statement of Chargaff has this modularity. So I will now take the freedom of simply copying some of his lines. There is no risk of interpreting anything out of context.

“Child though I was, I soon became a non-observing spectator, for my eyes had been opened early.”

“My long life in the midst of explanatory sciences has made me tired of explanations”

On the aura created by the DNA double helix model “The orderly, loving and careful study of life had been replaced by a frantic and noisy search for stunts and “break-throughs”.

“Among the thousands of practitioners of science I have met in my life, there were perhaps twenty or thirty to whom I should have granted the name of scientist.”

“The modern American University has become a monstrosity.”

“When I first went to Yale University in 1928, the conviction that wisdom was cheaper wholesale had not yet penetrated to the surface.”

About today’s scientists, “Slaves or prisoners of NIH or NSF, of Xerox and Beckman – they are really the narrowest, the dullest kinds of experts or specialists, they are essentially molecular podiatrists: people who know about the fifteenth foot of the centipede.”

“At the end of the war, hundreds, yes, thousands of “pure scientists” had been used to working in scientific concentration camps.”

“The library is burnt.

……. And still it is too cold here.”

“You always saw both faces of the coin at the same time.

…………. No I was looking for the third face of the coin.”

“The do-gooders have done so much evil that not to do this kind of good has become a virtue”

“Our present natural sciences have nothing to do with nature”

“Every day I am a different man but I wear the same overcoat and that’s what people see.”

“Do you want to imply that most scientists don’t deserve science?

………. Yes but they have made science into something that they deserve”

“I am sure the dinosaurs also had their biohazards committees and they were as effective as ours.”

Black and white perception and the positive side of depression:

In popular literature, movies and theatre, the depicted characters are generally either good or bad. Everything about the good people is good. Everything about the bad people is bad. There is a hero and people on hero’s side are good. There is villain with a set of bad people on his side. The popular perception of good and bad is in black and white. In real life there are all shades of grey, but in popular perception we perceive things in black and white. In the original Mahabharata, for example, we do see the shades of grey for many of the depicted personalities. But in all folk versions of Mahabharata they are all either black or white. Most people perceive political parties and decisions the same way. They are either good or bad.

Why is the popular perception so dichotomous when in reality it is hardly so? Is it because the childhood stories are oversimplified and we grow up listening to them? Is it because things are painted in black and white in stories and movies and therefore we are trained to perceive that way? Or is it because it is in human nature that we innately perceive and label things in black and white and that is simply reflected in literature? Which way goes the arrow of causation? Are we trained to perceive things in black and white because popular literature has it so, or do we have it as an evolved innate tendency and literature only reflects that?

In the first batch of IISER, one student decided to address this question as his final year dissertation project. He had a tough time because in IISER, this was not considered a science question by most faculty. Only molecular biology was science. How can human behaviour be science? But quite undeterred, he pursued the question and had interesting findings. He asked people of various backgrounds to answer a questionnaire. In the questionnaire they had to label various entities as good, bad or shades of intermediate. The entities included mythological characters, historical characters, real life characters along with animals, trees and even non-living entities. It turned out that most people rated everything either as entirely good or entirely bad, very few opting for shades of grey. We expected that with age and with education people will become more realistic and perceive more grey shades, but age and education had little effect. We expected that mythological characters will be viewed more in black and white but real life characters more realistically. That also was not significantly true. The variance in the index of contrast was explained predominantly by the tendency of the respondents. There were some individuals that viewed different shades of grey and this they did for everything real or mythological, human or nonhuman, living or non-living. On the other hand those who viewed in black and white did so across all categories. Our interpretation of the patterns was suggestive of a primary innate human tendency being secondarily reflected in stories. It was an interesting piece of work, no doubt, but a total misfit for IISER. So he got very poor grades for not being able to do good science! Further we also could not publish this study because it did not get the ethics committee clearance.

Nevertheless, I stand amazed at the findings. For an evolutionary biologist it may not be a big surprise. Our perception has not evolved for judgment of truth. It evolved to increase individual fitness. In a social animal that we are, even individual fights quickly take the form of group conflicts. If two individuals fight, others tend to take sides. Taking a side in someone else’s fight has an advantage that you can assess, gain or strengthen your individual social rank at a lower cost. You also build bonds that will help you later if and when you are in conflict yourself. Therefore we have evolved primarily to take sides, not to make impartial judgments. However, the advantage of taking sides aggressively is negatively frequency dependent. As a result, similar to the hawk and dove game, there is frequency dependent selection for some fence-sitters as well. These are presumably people who perceive the shades of grey.

Our tendency to see things in black and white percolates to everything. Cholesterol is seen as bad, although it has so many vital metabolic functions. Dietary sugar or fat is painted as villain. Vitamins are perceived all time good, although hypervitaminosis can cause problems. In psychology people talk about “positive” and “negative” emotions. There are more deceptive terms such as positive or negative energy and so on. Reality is far different than the black and white, positive-negative perception.

Is “depression” good or bad? You might be surprised if I plead for the useful dimension of depression. Again for an evolutionary biologist, it is no surprise. Depression is an evolved state of mind and it evolved because it is adaptive. The adaptive role is quite relevant even today. Depression is demonstrably correlated to creativity and many studies show that. There are several examples of artists, writers, poets and scientists having frequent bouts of depression. The link between depression and creativity is quite natural. You are depressed when your ways to “success” (whatever it means in the prevailing context) are blocked for reasons beyond your control. This is precisely the time to try something new, something unconventional, something that would surprize everyone – perhaps your opponents. This needs creativity. So evolving a neuronal and physiological link between depression and creativity is quite logical.

There is some literature on the depression-creativity link. But there is another “positive” side to depression that I experience, and perhaps has no literature on it. Depression allows me to have a sound sleep. Rarely ever in my life worries and tensions could disturb my sleep. They say sleeplessness increases with age, but so far I have seen no signs. I can still sleep for 10 hours, if I have that much time. Because of a chronic back pain, I can’t lie down for hours. So at times I have to get up in the middle of the night. I have to stand erect, may be walk a few steps like washroom and back, or stretch the body. That generally relieves the pain. Once back to bed, within a few seconds I am fast asleep. What has made me sleepless frequently are ideas, excitements, planning new work, anticipation of exciting results, potentially path breaking results or achievements. Quite a few times solution to a long standing problem has appeared in the middle of the night. I have sometimes got up at midnight to articulate an idea, write a thought or something close to a theorem or may even be a poem.

Losing sleep for any reason is not good for health, and this is precisely where depression is helping me. After years of experience I have learnt that all those creative ideas and ingenious solutions to problems have no value in the field of research. Nobody wants any. People love problems more than solutions. Those who suffer, try to capitalize on the problem. Poor sufferers get help and charity as long as the problem exists. The rich get a big name from the little charity that they do. Journalists get breaking news from the broken people. Writers, poets and artists get a platform to sell their creations. Politicians get votes by blowing up the problem. Above all, scientists and academicians get more grants by making simple problems look complex. So everyone is happy with the problems, why would anyone want a solution?  If anybody offers a simple but effective solution, everyone will attack the solution and see to it that it won’t be allowed to work. Alternatively they will personally attack the one who suggested the solution. How a good solution can come from a bad person? We all know that this is what happens in politics. But In this regard, the field of research is no different.

Even in the field of pure science, hardly anyone is interested in fundamentally new ideas and simple solutions even when they exist. Complex problems get huge funding, so the attempt is to make a simple problem complex by generating lots of data and leaving it under-interpreted or better un-interpreted. This is precisely the on-going trend in mainstream biology. It is currently a field for data generators, not data interpreters. Complex data and complex analysis without much useful insights is what gets published routinely in all flagship journals. If simple insights are available, opportunities of huge funding would be lost. So researchers resist clean interpretations and just keep on generating complex data. Then we leave interpretations to journalists who make simple and wrong interpretations. That is what common people read and perceive as science.

The above thoughts are typical of a depressed mind that almost invariably turns sarcastic. Perhaps the field out there is not that bad, but one cannot deny that even the perspective of the depressed mind has substantial truth in it. To me the depressed interpretation helps in toning down my excitement of finding new things. Since now I know that no one cares for good science, I have stopped getting excited by new findings. I no more feel the urge to articulate ideas as they arise. I am no more eager to complete a model, write code and see the results. Ideas keep on coming as they used to, since that is in my nature, but they no more give me sleepless nights. I know I have thought of certain questions that science is unlikely to ask for a few more decades. I know I have clean interpretations of the huge amount of data messing around. But things like that hardly matter to me now. As a habit I ask questions, think of ideas, work on solutions, develop insights, stumble upon new findings. All this will continue on its own because it is natural. I won’t have to passionately do it anymore. And now, I don’t care whether it gets published or not. I am neither going to get any career advantage by publishing in a high impact journal nor will I lose anything by not getting published. So I can really enjoy doing uncompromised science, all for myself now and have a sound sleep. There is high cost in being active, creative and passionate. Depression saves the cost when returns are unlikely to come and does a balancing and optimizing job.

The dichotomy of positive and negative feelings is an illusion that we are trained to accept as truth. I just gave one example: that depression is not always bad. This is true of almost everything perceived as good or bad. The dichotomous perception of good versus bad, positive versus negative, right versus wrong, happy versus sad vanishes as you find yourself closer to reality. This reality is difficult to share with someone who has not experienced it, someone who takes the illusion of ideology as truth, someone who is still far away from truth. Most researchers live in a world of illusion of science because that gives them success. So very few researchers are likely to understand what I said in this article. Few will bother to read anyway!!

The healing touch of science:

Recently Nature published a survey of mental health of PhD students ( along with an editorial  ( It shows that an alarming proportion of PhD students (36% in one study and 86% in another) suffer from anxiety, depression or other undesirable mental states; a proportion substantially higher than the general population. This is despite the finding that most perceive research as a fascinating field.

This is a surprise as well as no surprise. It is a surprise because the science I know goes exactly the other way. Science brought beauty to my life. I owe the best moments and memories of my life to science. But more than that as a science teacher I have seen so many problems and agonies of young minds being resolved by the pursuit of science. I have dozens of stories but I will relate just a couple of them.

A girl got married quite early (something not a surprise in the Indian society and this was two decades ago) but soon suffered a family disaster and was completely broke. I suspect I have an eye for talented but derailed students. Even in a class of 60, I could easily note that something was wrong with her. Later I asked her what was wrong. She told her unimaginable story. I don’t feel the need to relate that story here, but just that any girl would have collapsed under such a situation. I spent a lot of time talking to her. The only thing I could do was to engage her in science to keep her mind occupied. It worked surprisingly fast. With some stroke of luck, her exploration returned something exciting. She picked up a curious looking colony from a plate and isolated the organism. There was no specific aim, it looked different so it was just a curiosity pursuit. We found an interesting enzyme in that organism that had a completely novel potential industrial application. She filed a patent while still in her second year of B. Sc., presented a conference paper, got a national level award. We tried to take the process to commercialization which did not materialize. But in the course of these events she got her confidence back, had a new motivation, a new meaning for existence. Something pursued only out of curiosity, with no pre-decided objective, paid an unexpected dividend. In due course she graduated, had a good job, got married again and settled well. I don’t count the failure to find a buyer for the patent. Our failure to scale up the process is not a failure for me. This is a success story. One person going from a totally broke, depressed state to a confident and self-reliant new life is the success of research. A PhD was not the outcome of this research, a new life was.

Another boy was in a typical old Hindi movie situation in which he was involved with a girl, and her father refused to allow her to meet with him. At one stage he was seriously considering suicide. I spent a lot of time with him. Again the only tool I had was science. He was creative, had his own ideas.  He graduated, while still in a bad state of mind, but soon developed a techno-concept of his own into a business proposal. His business plans and the initial success was so impressive that the girl’s father got impressed, changed his mind. Ultimately he married the girl he loved. The change was brought about by his creative ideas in science and technology.

I have witnessed much more bizarre types of problems that youngsters go through. Every time the only tool that I could use to help them was science. Every time what they worked on was different, ways of working were different. The projects “failed” quite often. Experiments did not work, ideas did not materialize. Once in while they did, undergraduate students ended up publishing papers or filing patents. But in almost every case the pursuit of science succeeded in making someone’s life. In dozens of cases I could bring someone out of anxiety, depression, confusion, conflicts, strained relations, stress and what not. I am fully convinced that science has a healing touch. The healing effect is unimaginable, miraculous, almost spiritual.

The students who went through such phases are dispersed globally now but many are still in touch and communicate once in a while. They are as convinced as I am that science made the miracle happen. I have many interesting feedbacks. One girl, who had suffered child abuse at an early age and therefore had closed herself to any kind of relationship with anyone, ultimately ended up being in love with someone, marrying and being a mother. She told me once, “While I worked with you and with the team, at some stage I realized men can be good as well.” Another girl, who had lost her mother quite early messaged me one day after returning from the lab, “I feel like having met my mom again!!” Feedbacks like this are the biggest rewards of my life. Nobel prize doesn’t stand anywhere in comparison with them.

All I did was to get them interested in a question, make them own a question, open for them the beauty of logic, experimental design, pursuit of something unknown, the feeling of having achieved something, the spirit of facing failures, at times facing voids. There was more than that. I was always interested in evolution of behaviour, so I kept on talking about human behaviour. Why people are what they are, what is the meaning of a relation, why conflicts arise, why we feel what we feel and the like. Talking about these things with a logical framework was completely new to them. There is a science of emotions and if you understand that you can manage your emotions better. I believe it gave them a new insight, a different way of looking at themselves, a mature analysis of the problems they were facing.

On this background, it should be a real surprise that research students have so much of stress, anxiety, depression. But it’s no surprise for me because I have seen the other side too. Science is a relief, excitement and enjoyment all the time. But is doing a PhD equal to doing science? Science is an exploration, adventure, a journey of the unknown, uncertainty about what is at the other end, uncertainty about how long it will take to solve a problem. Completely contradictory to that is the expectation of completing a thesis in five years, having a complete research plan right at the beginning. In some universities even the title of the thesis is to be given at the time of registration itself. What can be more ridiculous than this? How can you know what you are going to get at the end, even before you begin the investigation? How can you design your research plan for a long period of 5-6 years? In reality, I can design my next experiment only after getting the results of the first. I should have the freedom to completely change my objectives and start investing something else if I serendipitously discover what look more interesting. Starting with prefixed objectives and not having the freedom to change them is wrong. But universities and institutions expect you to spell out you research plans and even register a title of the thesis in advance. In case you want to change, a committee has to approve it!! All this is in complete contradiction with the spirit of research. What you get out from such a system is lots of data, not necessarily new insights. The PhD system does not prepare you for bigger surprises. PhD programme is a paper mill, not an abode of research.

PhD is bound to be stressful because of the unscientific and ritualistic concept of PhD itself. The rituals that one has to follow to make a career in science are the cause of all problems. After having spent my full life in science, I have still not understood why a PhD is necessary to do a science career. The burden of the stereotyped expectations of “finishing” research in five years, publishing two or three papers in “high impact” journals, generating enough stuff for writing a thesis causes the anxiety. Working hard on one’s own ideas is enjoyable. Compulsion to work hard on someone else’s ideas is torturous. The most illogical and often stupid peer reviews that you get after years of painstaking work are depressing. Rejection recommendation by someone who doesn’t even bother to read your manuscript completely is disheartening. Research by itself is not stressful, the social and institutional rituals are.

The answer to the question why I do research should be because I have a question, because there is something funny there which I haven’t understood, because I can see the agonies of someone and feel like trying whether I can find a long term solution. Doing research for getting a PhD is like prostitution, which we institutionalize to replace love.

In literature short stories, poems and even haiku is valid and valued. Writers of these things are no way inferior to writers of novels. But in science only a thesis makes the gateway to a science career. There are short story writers in science as well and that kind of science is very much needed, but they never get a PhD or are not considered for a science position anywhere. If you have a new and interesting theorem that can be stated in three pages, they say it can’t make a “thesis”. I have seen people saying you don’t have sufficient volume of work for a thesis. Is science being sold in gallons? How does the volume of work matter over the novelty of ideas and soundness of logic? I see no basis for the expectation of writing only in the form of a thesis to get a PhD, I don’t see a reason why a PhD should be a necessary qualification for a science career. The only justification is that it is a ritual. It is baptism of the religion of institutionalized science.

People who do science as a religious ritual perhaps deserve all the stress, anxiety and depression.

…. but mangoes are out of syllabus!!

The father of a primary school kid went to his school teacher and said, “ You failed my son in maths? He knew by heart everything that you taught. But you asked a question out of syllabus.”

“No, I didn’t. I only asked whatever was taught in the class.”

“No, he says you taught them sums of purchasing and selling apples, but you asked questions on purchasing and selling mangoes!! How can the kids answer what they have not been taught?”

I am sure you will read this as a joke and would leave it at that. But this is precisely how highly educated people of science often behave. I will relate only a couple of incidents although things like this happen much more frequently.

A few months ago, I communicated a manuscript to BBS (Behavioral and Brain Sciences). This journal publishes many thought provoking articles in the area of psychology, cognition and neuro- behavioural studies. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading many of them quite often. BBS has an impact factor of 15 and odd, if impact factors make any sense. The title of my article was “The evolutionary psychology of scientific publishing: cost-benefit optimization of players in the game”. The article, as the title itself reveals, was about the psychological, behavioural and cognitive aspects of editors’ and reviewers’ decision making. It analysed how optimization principles of behavioural ecology explains the origin of commonly observed biases in peer reviews and editorial decisions. The behavioural and cognitive principles I used in the analysis included many that have been highlighted by articles in BBS itself. I used behavioural optimization models and cited behavioural optimization papers from BBS itself along with others. I also used the principle of “rationalization” again inspired by an excellent article in BBS itself.

I expected a rejection without review for this article and that is precisely what happened. The reason I expected a rejection without review was spelt out in the article itself. Rejection of this article was a testable prediction of the hypothesis in the article itself. So I was glad to receive a rejection, which was very much in support of my hypothesis. But the “reason” given for the rejection was very interesting. It gave a stronger support to the hypothesis in the paper which I had not expected. The email I received from the editor Prof Paul Bloom said “We consider submissions that bear on broad theoretical issues within neuroscience and cognitive science. A discussion of biases in peer review just isn’t a good fit with us.” This is precisely the same phenomenon – mathematics might be the same but mangoes are not in the syllabus. The underlying cognitive processes might be the same, but the example to which you are applying them is not of our interest. The rejection was not based on my analysis being flawed or inadequate. It didn’t say anything about the psychological, cognitive content of the paper. It pretended that there was nothing psychological, behavioural or cognitive in it and it only discussed peer review biases. The article preprint is available here ( ) and the editorial correspondence here ( Readers are free to decided whether the reason or justification given for rejection makes any sense.

Prof Paul Bloom was kind enough this time to allow me publish the correspondence. In an earlier interaction he had objected to make public our correspondence on rejection of an article which was about how alterations in interactions of neuropeptides in the brain that have evolved for foraging optimization are responsible for the prevalent global obesity epidemic. Paul had rejected this paper saying that BBS does not publish many articles on the same topic. In the previous year BBS had published an article on obesity and this was the reason given for rejecting our manuscript. Interestingly within a few months of rejecting our manuscript another one on the same topic was accepted and I happened to receive a call for commentary on that article!! So BBS does not publish more than one article in the same field was obviously not true. Our article on foraging optimization and obesity was published later elsewhere which is available here ( ) and the rejection related correspondence here ( ).

This is not to blame any editor or journal. This is an interesting behavioural phenomenon. Every editor works in a set of constraints and the cost-benefit optimization under those constraints decides how editorial decisions are made. But we all pretend as well as believe that editorial decisions are based on the merit of the manuscript alone. Further by well documented principles of psychology, the contextual behavioural reasons behind the act are not completely known even to the actor. This is a well demonstrated phenomenon in cognitive science. The actor does not know the true reasons behind a decision to act. But if the context demands so, one or more reasons are invented to justify the act. A decision is not based on a set of consciously perceived reasons. The decision comes first and “reasons” come later. BBS itself has published excellent reviews on this phenomenon. If this is a fundamental psychological phenomenon, obviously BBS editors are not an exception. They have a set of reasons for rejecting a manuscript which they themselves are not fully aware. But they are compelled to give some reason so they hunt for one. Fortunately or unfortunately hardly anybody challenges the reason behind the editorial decision. So they can get away by giving illogical or self-contradicting reasons. I did not challenge the editorial decision to reject, but I did challenge the “reason” given with obvious evidence that it was not true. I did not challenge it out of anger or frustration triggered by rejection but because I wanted to probe the editor’s behaviour a little more.

Hopefully the editors of BBS, being psychologists themselves, are in a position to understand the behavioural analysis behind editorial processes and therefore won’t take this as a personal criticism. What interests me is the fact that a person follows the same behavioural patterns even after knowing that it is driven by some evolved subconscious mechanisms. But I don’t believe in behavioural determinism. We do have the ability to consciously control our behaviour, which journal editors certainly have, but currently there is no incentive for doing so. Only if the editorial process is made completely transparent, there will be a pressure on editors to be more responsible, logical, consistent and perhaps somewhat honest in justifying their decisions. Biases in scientific publishing will substantially reduce if not eliminated by this single measure. I have written earlier about how transparency in the editorial process can be brought in (See the preprint and my earlier blog articles: ; ). If we do so, the phenomenon of “mangoes are not in the syllabus” will be seen less commonly.

शेतकरी आधार-ईनाम योजना Farmer Support cum Reward Scheme

शेती अर्थकारण आणि शेतक-याच्या मानसिकतेत आमूलाग्र बदलासाठी:

शेतीवर शासन वेगवेगळ्या स्वरूपात बरीच गुंतवणूक करते. ती सबसीडी, कर्जमाफी, दुष्काळग्रस्तांसाठी योजना, पीक विमा, शेतीविषयक संशोधन अशा अनेकविध स्वरूपामधे केली जाते. तरीही बहुसंख्य शेतक-यांची आर्थिक परिस्थिती दारिद्र्याची आणि अस्थिर आहे. आजच्या परिस्थितीत शेतीला आधाराची आवश्यकता तर आहेच पण आधारचं स्वरुप असं असलं पाहिजे की आधारामुळे परावलंबित्व, दुबळेपणा आणि नेहमीच शासनापुढे हात पसरण्याची वृत्ती वाढता कामा नये. आजपर्यंत शेतक-यांना ज्या स्वरूपात सहाय्य देण्यात आले त्याचे स्वरुप शेतक-याला पांगळे आणि लाचार करणारे होते. शेतक-याला आत्मनिर्भर करणा-या आधाराची योजना इथे मांडत आहोत.

यापूर्वी २००८ सालापासून आम्ही वन्यजीव अभयारण्याजवळील शेतक-यांबरोबर काम करताना वन्यप्राण्यांपासून होंणा-या पीक विनाशावर तोडगा शोधण्याचा प्रयत्न केला. यातून एक अभिनव योजना सुचली आणि ती आम्ही गेली दोन वर्षे दोन गावांमध्ये राबवीत आहोत. या योजनेमुळे वन्यप्राण्यांचा उपद्रव तसाच असूनही दोन वर्षांत शेतीचे उत्पादन लक्षणीय रित्या वाढले. या योजनेमुळे अधिक चांगल्या पद्धतीने शेती करणे, उत्पादन वाढवणे आणि अधिक स्वयंपूर्ण होण्याच्या दिशेने शेतक-यांची मानसिकता तयार झाली. या अनुभवावरून असे वाटले की वन्यजीवांच्या समस्येच्या पलिकडे जाऊन शेतीच्या सर्वंकष विकासासाठी अशाच तत्वांवर आधारित योजना राबविता येईल. त्यातून दुष्काळ, पिकांचे रोग, पूर आणि इतर कोणत्याही प्रकारचे नुकसान झाल्यास आधार मिळेल आणि त्याचबरोबर कष्टाने अधिक उत्पादन घेणा-यास उत्पादकतेच्या प्रमाणात ईनामही मिळेल. संकटाच्या प्रमाणात आधार मिळेल आणि घेतलेल्या कष्टांच्या प्रमाणात ईनाम. त्यामुळे अधिक कष्ट आणि योग्य मशागत करण्यास प्रोत्साहन मिळेल आणि त्याचबरोबर नुकसान करणारे संकट आल्यास सर्वनाशाला सामोरे जावे लागणार नाही. ही सर्व योजना संगणकाकडून स्वयंचालित रीतीने राबविणे शक्य असल्यामुळे शासनयंत्रणांवर कमीतकमी ताण पडेल आणि भ्रष्टाचार होण्यास वाव राहणार नाही. शासन कृषि क्षेत्रासाठी सबसिडी, कर्जमाफी या स्वरूपात जो खर्च करते तो या मार्गाने केल्यास तेवढ्याच खर्चाचे अधिक फळ पदरी पडेल. सर्व प्रकारच्या नुकसानीविरुद्ध आधार आणि अधिक उत्पादकता दाखविणा-यास पारितोषिक एकाच योजनेमधून मिळत असल्यामुळे वेगळ्या पीक विमा, सबसिडी, कर्जमाफी सारख्या योजनांची गरज कालांतराने संपून जाईल.

शेतीचे नुकसान दोन प्रकारच्या कारणांनी होते. एका प्रकारची कारणे पूर्णपणे दैवाधीन असतात. पूर, गारपीट, तीव्र दुष्काळ अशा गोष्टी यात येतात. दुस-या प्रकारची कारणे अशी असतात की योग्य वेळी योग्य प्रयत्न केले तर नुकसान पूर्णपणे नाही तरी ब-याच प्रमाणात टाळता येते. पिकांचे रोग, कीड, वन्यप्राण्यांकडून होणारे नुकसान हे यात येतात. पाण्याच्या योग्य नियोजनाने दुष्काळाचे परिणामही कमीतकमी कसे जाणवतील हे पाहता येते. या सगळ्या संकटांमधे शेतक-याच्या कष्टाला आणि शहाणपणाला महत्व आहे. असे प्रयत्न करूनही नुकसान पूर्णपणे टाळता येत नाही. पण ज्याने शहाणपणा आणि कष्टानी जास्तीत जास्त पीक वाचवलं आहे त्याच्या कष्टांचं कौतुक व्हायला हवं म्हणजे इतरांना त्याचं अनुकरण करण्याची प्रेरणा मिळेल. सगळ्यांना सरसकट भरघोस मदत दिली तर असं होणार नाही. सरसकट सारखी मदत देणे हा अधिक कष्ट घेणा-या शेतक-यावर एक प्रकारे अन्यायच आहे. आपली योजना अशी पाहिजे की अधिक कष्ट घेणा-या शेतक-याला अधिक मिळेल. हेच आमच्या मॉडेलचं तत्व आहे.  

ही योजना गणित, संख्याशास्त्र, अर्थशास्त्र आणि मानसशास्त्रातील तत्वांवर आधारित असून शेतकरी गट ती थोडया प्रशिक्षणानंतर स्वतःच राबवू शकणार आहेत. सर्व व्यवस्थेचे संगणकीकरण शक्य असून शेतकरी गटाला internet किंवा mobile app वरतीसुद्धा त्याचा लाभ घेता येईल. यासाठी लागणारा data शेतका-यांनीच संघटितपणे गोळा करायचा असून त्यावर आधार तथा ईनाम रक्कम संगणकीय प्रणालीद्वारे ठरवली जाऊन शेतका-याच्या बैंक खात्यात परस्पर जमा होईल. कुणाकडे तक्रार करण्याचं, कुणाचे उपकार घेण्याचं, आंदोलन करण्याचं, त्यावरून राजकारण करण्याचं कारणच राहणार नाही. स्वतःच्या data ची नोंदणी करताना शेतकरी ती प्रमाणिकपणे करतील याची व्यवस्था या योजनेत अंगभूत आहे कारण त्यातील विशिष्ट गणिती तत्वाप्रमाणे प्रमाणिक नोंद करणा-यास सर्वाधिक लाभ मिळेल. या योजनेसाठी निधी शासनाने उपलब्ध करावयाचा असला तरी शासकीय यंत्रणांवर त्याच्या अंमलबजावणीचा ताण कमीतकमी असेल. कारण जवळ जवळ सर्व व्यवहार गणिती आणि संख्याशास्त्रीय तत्वांप्रमाणे संगणक आपोआप करेल. या योजनेमागाची तत्वे आणि थोडक्यात अंमलबजावणीचे स्वरुप खालीलप्रमाणे.

योजनेचे मूळ सूत्र असे की एखाद्या वर्षी शेतीच्या एका पट्ट्यामधील एका प्रकारच्या पिकाच्या सरासरी उत्पादनात तूट असल्यास त्या तुटीच्या प्रमाणात आधार रक्कमेची टक्केवारी ठरवली जाईल. प्रत्येक शेतक-याला त्याच्या स्वतःच्या उत्पादनाच्या तितके टक्के ही रक्कम दिली जाईल. त्यामुळे ज्या प्रांतात दुष्काळ, पिकाचे रोग, वन्य प्राण्यांकडून पिक खाल्ले जाणे इत्यादी कारणांमुळे नुकसान झाले असेल तिथे सरासरी नुकसानीच्या प्रमाणात आधार रक्कम मिळेल. पण ज्याने त्या संकटामधूनही अधिक चांगले उत्पादन घेतले असेल त्याला उत्पादकतेच्या प्रमाणात अधिक लाभ मिळेल. जिथे सरसरीमधे घट नाही तिथे काही देण्याची गरज राहणार नाही. म्हणजे कोणत्या भागात मदतीची गरज आहे आणि ती किती प्रमाणात आहे याचा निर्णय data प्रमाणे संगणकाकडून आपोआप घेतला जाईल. यावर राजकारण होऊ शकणार नाही.

  • योजना राबविणारी मुख्य यंत्रणा शेतक-यांचे गट ही असेल. एका भागात राहणा-या एक प्रकारच्या माती आणि पाऊसमानात शेती करणा-या आणि सारखे पीक घेणा-या शेतक-यांचा एक गट अशी गटाची व्याख्या असेल. गटाची बांधणी शेतक-यांनी स्वतःच्या पुढाकाराने करावयाची असून ती शेतीच्या हंगामाला सुरुवात होण्यापूर्वीच करावयाची आहे. साधारणतः सारखा धोका सारखी परिस्थिती असलेल्या शेतक-यानी एक गट करावयाचा आहे. गटात सामिल होणे पूर्णपणे ऐत्छिक राहील. या गटाची अत्यंत साध्या पद्धतीने ऑनलाइन नोंदणी होईल. त्यात प्रत्येकाचा सात बारा, घेत असलेले पीक, पिकाखालील क्षेत्र, बैंक खाते क्रमांक, आधार क्रमांक असा आवश्यक तेवढाच data असेल.
  • हंगामाच्या शेवटी प्रत्येक शेतकरी आपले एकूण उत्पादन नोंदवेल. त्यावर जवळील पाच शेतकरी ही नोंद बरोबर असल्याचे प्रमाणित करतील. ही स्वयंनोंदणी हा dataचा मुख्य source असेल. ही नोंदणी ऑनलाइन किंवा mobile app वरून सुद्धा करता येईल. आवश्यकता वाटल्यास गटातील फक्त २ ते ५ शेतक-यांच्या उत्पादनाचा पंचनामा शासकीय अधिकारी करू शकतील.
  • या नोंदणीप्रमाणे या भागातील सरासरी उत्पादनात तूट आहे का व आधार देण्याची आवश्यकता आहे का याचा निर्णय संगणकीय प्रकिया आपोआपच घेईल आणि जेथे आवश्यक तेथे प्रत्येक शेतका-यास देय रक्कम काढेल. याचे सोपे सूत्र असे.

Xavg = average expected yield or productivity standard determined a priori.

Yavg = average yield per unit area from all farmers of the group computed from the uploaded data.

Yi = ith farmer’s yield.

v = market value/standard rate of the produce.

याप्रमाणे योग्य रक्कम शेतक-याच्या बैंक खात्यात शासकीय निधीमधून आपोआपच जमा होईल. ही सर्व व्यवस्था संगणकीकृत आणि सम्पूर्ण स्वयंचलित असेल. त्यामुळे या निर्णयावर राजकारण होऊ शकणार नाही. सर्व नोंदणी, हिशेब व व्यवहार पारदर्शक असतील आणि सर्वांना सर्व माहिती ऑनलाइन उपलब्ध असेल.

शेतकरी आपल्या उत्पादनाची नोंदणी प्रमाणिकपणे करतील कशावरून? या प्रश्नाचे उत्तर सोपे आहे. आधार रक्कम स्वतःच्या उत्पादनाच्या टक्केवारीप्रमाणे मिळत असल्यामुळे उत्पादन कमी दाखविण्यात शेतक-याचा स्वतःचाच तोटा आहे. त्यामुळे खोटे नुकसान दाखवून अधिक शासकीय मदतीचा दावा करण्यावर आपोआपच आळा बसेल. स्वतःचे उत्पादन जास्ती दाखविण्याचा मोह शेतक-याला होऊ शकेल. पण उत्पादन जास्ती दाखवल्यावर सरासरीमधील तफावत कमी होउन प्रत्येकालाच कमी लाभ मिळेल. प्रत्येक शेतक-याची स्वयंनोंदणी इतर पाच शेतक-यांनी प्रमाणित करावयाची असल्यामुळे तेच याला आळा घालतील. तसे न केल्यास त्या गटाचा लाभ आपोआपच कमी होइल. म्हणून प्रामाणिक नोंदणी हाच या योजनेचा लाभ घेण्याचा सर्वोत्तम मार्ग आहे. प्रत्यक्षातल्या उत्पादनापेक्षा कमी उत्पादन दाखवणा-या किंवा जास्त दाखवणा-याचा आपोआपच तोटा होणार  आहे. त्यामुळे प्रमाणिकपणे स्वतःच्या उत्पादकतेची नोंदणी करणे हा एकमेव लाभाचा पर्याय शेतक-याला उपलब्ध असणार आहे. योजना प्रमाणिकपणे राबविली जाते आहे याची खात्री करण्यासाठी फारफार तर थोडया नमूना केसेसचे प्रत्यक्ष पंचनामे आधी न कळवता करता येतील. म्हणजे तसा अधिकार शासकीय यंत्रणांकडे राहील पण त्याचा उपयोग करण्याची गरज क्वचितच पडेल. एखाद्या गटाने अप्रामाणिकपणे वागून योजनेचा गैरफायदा घेण्याचा प्रयत्न केला तर त्याचे प्रतिबिंब विशिष्ट संख्याशास्त्रीय मानकांमधे पडतेच (The nature and parameters of statistical distributions will be different if people enter cooked up data) आणि संगणकाला ते ओळखता ही येते. त्यामुळे कुठे अप्रामाणिकपणा वाढू लागलाच तर संगणक आपणहोउनच धोक्याची घंटा वाजवेल. थोडक्यात अप्रामाणिकपणा आणि भ्रष्टाचार याला मुळातूनच वाव राहणार नाही आणि कुठे झालच तर ते ओळखणंही अवघड राहणार नाही. (पण कदाचित याच कारणासाठी राजकीय पक्ष आणि नोकरशाहीचा अशा योजनांना विरोध राहील. काळ्याचे पांढरे करण्यासाठी शेती उत्पन्न दाखवणा-यांनाही या योजनेतून काही फायदा नाही. त्यामुळे अशा घटकांचा या योजनेला विरोधच राहील. पण सामान्य लोकांच्या दबावामधूनच अशा योजना अमलात येऊ शकतील.)

सर्वात महत्वाचे म्हणजे आपल्या उत्पादकतेच्या प्रमाणात लाभ मिळत असल्यामुळे उत्पादकतावाढीला प्रत्यक्ष उत्तेजन मिळेल. आधीच्या दोन गावांमधील दोन वर्षांच्या चाचणीमध्ये उत्पादन वाढल्याचे दिसून आलेच आहे. पण त्याहून महत्वाचे म्हणजे आपण स्वतःच अभ्यास व मोजमापे करून काटेकोर नोंदणी ठेवण्यास शेतक-यांनी पुढाकार घेण्यास सुरुवात केल्याचे दिसून आले आहे. त्यासाठी शेतकरी समाजामधील तरुणांनी जीपीएस वापरणे आणि लैपटॉपवर data entry करायला शिकण्याची तयारीही दाखवली. हा मोठाच सकारात्मक बदल आहे. आमच्याकडून या योजनेचा बारकाईने विचार आणि अभ्यास करण्यात आला असून या योजनेचा गैरफायदा घेण्याचे कुठले मार्ग असू शकतात आणि ते प्रभावीपणे कसे बंद करता येतील यावरचा एक शोधनिबंध प्रसिद्ध झाला आहे.

या योजनेला दुसरा एक मोठा data चा स्रोत साथ देऊ शकतो तो म्हणजे सॅटॅलाइट कडून मिळणा-या जमिनीच्या प्रतिमा. सर्व प्रकारचे नुकसान यात कळत नाही पण महापूर अतिवृष्टी सारख्या संकटांचे स्पष्ट चित्र उमटते. ज्याच्यावर आपले काहीच नियंत्रण नसते अशा कारणांनी नुकसान झाले असेल तर वापरले जाणारे गणिती सूत्र थोडे वेगळे असेल. त्यात स्वतःच्या उत्पादनाच्या प्रमाणात ईनाम मिळणे असणार नाही. म्हणजे एकीकडे शेतक-यांनी गट करून स्वतः केलेल्या नोंदी आणि दूसरीकडे सॅटॅलाइट कडून मिळणारी माहिती याचे योग्य प्रकारे एकत्रीकरण करण्याचे गणित बांधले तर संगणकच कुठे, कुणाला किती मदत हवी ते ठरवू शकतो. ते सुद्धा शेतीतील शहाणपण, समजूत, कष्ट यांना झुकते माप देउन. पंचनामे आणि त्यावर राजकारण करण्याची गरज राहणारच नाही.

शेतक-याला किती पैसे मिळाले यापेक्षा कितीतरी अधिक महत्वाचा मानसिक घटक या योजनेत आहे. तक्रार अर्ज दाखल करून त्यावर कुणाचे तरी उपकार घेण्यामधे एक प्रकारची भिकेची भावना असते. या योजनेत अर्ज करायचा नाहीये. कष्ट करूनही दुर्दैव आड आलं तर त्या दुर्दैवाच्या प्रमाणात सारा देश आपण होउन शेतक-याला त्याच्या कष्टाचं हुकलेलं फळ देऊ करतो आहे असा त्याचा भावनिक अर्थ आहे. भीक आणि कष्टाचं फळ यातला फरक शेतक-याला फार चांगला समजतो. समाजानी, राज्यकर्त्यांनी शेतक-याला मदतीची भीक घालायची नाहीये, त्याच्या कष्टाच्या फलाचा भरोसा द्यायचाय, तो ही न मागता असा या योजनेचा अर्थ आहे.

योजनेच्या धोरणात्मक भागामध्ये वेगवेगळ्या क्षेत्रात कोणत्या पिकाला उत्तेजन द्यावे, पिकाचे उत्पादनउद्दिष्ट काय ठेवावे, पिकाचे अधारमूल्य ठरवावे की नाही अशा गोष्टींबद्दल धोरणात्मक निर्णय घेऊन, शेतक-याच्या व्यक्तीस्वातंत्र्याला धक्का न लावता राज्यातील शेतीला योग्य व भविष्यवेधी आकार देता येईल. योजनेला मूर्त स्वरुप देण्यासाठी अनेक बारकाव्यांचा विचार करून योग्य प्रकारची संगणकीय प्रणाली बनवून घेऊन त्याचे व्यवस्थापन करावे लागेल. एकदा व्यवस्थापकीय ढाचा काळजीपूर्वक तयार केला की त्यापुढचे व्यवस्थापन स्वयंचलित प्रणालींमुळे अगदी सोपे असेल. त्यासाठी कमीतकमी माणसे आणि कमीतकमी शासनयंत्रणा लागेल. एकीकडे अत्यंत सोप्या आणि प्रभावी पद्धतीने शेतीला संकटात विम्यापेक्षा प्रभावी आधार देणारी, दुसरीकडे उत्पादकतेला प्रोत्साहन देणारी आणि त्यावर शेतका-याला सक्षम, प्रमाणिक आणि संघटित राहण्यास उत्तेजन देणारी ही योजना भारतीय शेतीमधे आमूलाग्र बदल घडवून आणू शकेल.

Why the obesity epidemic?

There is no need to start with statistics showing obesity is spreading globally like wildfire. Everyone knows it for sure. What we have failed to understand is why this is happening only today. People have mainly blamed various components of food and various eating habits along with lack of exercise. The energy intake-expenditure based thinking appears to ignore that our body has many evolved mechanisms of food intake regulation. Why these mechanisms fail to work is the real question. Why our body and brain fails to tell us when to stop eating is what a hypothesis should address, not how much we ‘decide’ to eat at a conscious level. Some recent ( neurobiological work shows that the subconscious regulation mechanisms are stronger than the conscious factors such as your desire, taste, thinking, self-control and the like.

While theories proliferate, obesity proliferates at a higher rate. The reason why we have failed to understand obesity is that obesity researchers are cut off completely from behavioural ecology. Human biology viewed without behavioural evolution makes little sense. Only in the light of evolution, obesity will make sense.

It’s not that evolutionary thinking has not gone into the biology of obesity. The problem is that these biologists have never experienced themselves a life in wilderness and therefore fail to appreciate the conditions in which human (or mammalian in the broader sense) physiology evolved. A hypothesis called ‘thrifty gene’ originated in the 1960s which was a quasi-evolutionary hypothesis. ‘Quasi’ because it was based on arm chair evolution. Not on a thorough understanding of life in the wilderness. In the following decades many variations and versions of the thrift family of hypotheses followed but all of them suffered the same fate. Any thrift family hypothesis assumes that human ancestors underwent many cycles of food abundance and scarcity. Therefore we evolved for overeating in days of abundance and build fat which we burn during periods of food scarcity; something that sounds very logical on the face of it but does not stand a serious scrutiny and hard evidence. There are many problems with the concept of thrifty origins of human obesity. Some of the serious objections are that (i) human physiology does not match that of other species that clearly have evolved mechanisms to cope with feast and famine conditions. (ii) Human obesity is marked by impaired fat utilization mechanisms, not by faster fat building. This directly contradicts the expectation of feast and famine adaptation. (iii) Models of overeating during food abundance do not account for the short term cost of over-foraging and overeating, it also does not account for the thermodynamic efficiency of energy storage and reutilization, which is typically very low. When these factors are taken into account the thrift hypothesis and all its variations fail badly even in a mathematical model. If something works in a mathematical model, it may or may not be there in the real world, but if something doesn’t work in a mathematical model, you can be sure it does not work in reality. (iv) Last but not the least; no clear mechanism of thrift has emerged in spite of decades of search. There were many false alarms which did not sustain.

One who has lived in a wilderness environment and experienced the life of hunter-gatherers can have a much deeper vision. Feeding is necessarily related to foraging and foraging is prone to risks. So feeding is to be optimized against the risk of foraging. All mechanisms of human food intake regulation are optimized for an interaction between nutritional benefits and foraging risk.

(a)    There is an optimum energy intake. If there is already some stored energy, the optimum shifts to the left. (b) But if there is risk associated with foraging a trade-off between nutritional optimum and risk minimization exists. This optimum is always to the left of the physiological optimum. Greater the foraging risk (R1 to R3), more leftward shift of the optimum. Also with reserve food, the entire curve shifts to the left along with the optimum. So you eat less and as a result body weight remains stable. So in species that face large foraging risk, the physiological optimum is almost never reached. So food intake regulation mechanisms for the physiological optimum may not evolve at all. Only the risk related regulation works.

I will try to explain here with a little bit of technicality of the model, not mathematically but graphically. A detailed model is published here (. See this figure. There is an optimum food intake for the best physiological state as in the figure ‘a’.  If foraging associated risk wasn’t there any time in our ancestry, we would have evolved mechanisms to ensure the physiological optimum. But if foraging is associated with risk, we have to face a trade-off between what is physiologically good and what is ecologically safe. The new trade-off optimum always lies to the left of the physiological optimum (see B part of the figure). So species that face a foraging related risk should evolve mechanisms for achieving this trade off. Not only that, they might fail to evolve mechanisms to ensure the physiological optimum, since the foraging optimization mechanisms always works before the physiological optimization could work. Something that is never used, may not evolve or degenerate even if it was there earlier.

The interesting thing is that now we know molecular mechanisms by which this foraging optimum is achieved. Leptin is a protein secreted by the fat tissue of our body. More the fat, more is leptin secretion. Leptin gives a signal to suppress hunger. But the action of leptin is crucially dependent on another peptide produced in the brain called CART. CART is expressed in response to risk perception. Whether the risk is because of predator or because of extreme cold or heat doesn’t matter. All potential foraging risks trigger CART expression. And CART and leptin together suppress the hunger sensation. The story does not end there. CART also suppresses risk taking behaviour. CART expression is dependent on leptin levels, such that when leptin in the brain in low, CART expression is reduced. This ensures that when you don’t have stored fat, you are ready to take greater foraging risks. On the other hand when you have enough fat, you will overexpress CART so that you don’t go out for foraging and expose yourself to risk. This is a perfect mechanism to optimize foraging. We modelled the ecological optimum and it turns out that the steady state body weight will be proportional to the inverse square root of risk. We also modelled the leptin CART interaction and it turns out again that body weight will be a function of the inverse square root of risk. So by both proximate and ultimate modelling the result is the same. This is one of the rare examples in evolutionary modelling where the proximate and ultimate converges so nicely.

So we are getting fat not because of any particular food constituent or because we don’t burn enough fat, it is because we have detached feeding from foraging and from risk. Since we hardly face any risk including exposure to extreme heat or cold, our brain does not make sufficient CART so that our leptin levels are ineffective in telling us when to eat and when not. Further the model also explains why some have greater tendency to accumulate fat than others, why we have impaired fat burning and so on. I will not explain these details here. This model explains many known patterns in the obesity epidemic than any previous models have. What is the take home message? The key to control fat is not in what type of food you eat. It is there in your brain peptide levels that are regulated by your behavioural environment. Well, we are not going to go back to stone age life, are we? But we can still bring back the missing components of our hunter gatherer life. Sports activities do precisely the same. Any kind of sports mimics our hunter fighter ancestry. We hit, kick, aim, chase, attack, defend, team up… precisely the same acts. Studies on the brain physiology of sports are limited, but whatever we know indicates that these activities use the same neuroendocrine pathways and thereby are likely to normalize our brain chemistry back to our stone-age physiology. The pro-health effects of sports are not because they burn calories, they are because they bring back the missing behaviours. So engage in active sports and expose the body to the ambient heat and cold as much as it can tolerate. If this normalizes the evolved regulation pathways, you can certainly stop worrying about calories in and eat whatever you like, just listen to the body’s signals as to when and how much.

The innocent clinical diabetologist

I recently saw an interesting video somewhere on social media and shared it. Here is the link. See it to get amazed and amused. But beware. It’s not a comedy show. It has very deep real life relevance. It’s a demonstration of how you can make a cooked up theory explain everything! No counterargument stands.

What immediately came to my mind was that the state of the theory of type 2 diabetes is almost the same. I could imagine the cute little girl in the video to be an innocent clinical diabetologist (ICD) talking to an old tired and frustrated researcher (TiFR). The dialogue would go somewhat like this. (But see the video first in order to understand the dialogue.)

TiFR: And this is my lab

ICD: What do you do?

TiFR: I am a diabetes researcher. We address unanswered questions, we try to seek answers and ultimately help patients.

ICD: Unanswered questions? In diabetes? Like what? And what’s the use?

TiFR: For example, how can we prevent the diabetic complications.

ICD: Well we do that by reducing blood sugar. Simple enough!!

TiFR: But that doesn’t work, in clinical trials the result of meticulously regulated sugar is hardly better than the moderately regulated controls. Take the example of ADVANCE trial, in the control group, the rate of developing complications was 20%, in the treated it was 18.1 %, so only 1.9% difference made by the treatment?

ICD: Oh, you don’t know how to use statistics. It is 1.9% of 20 %. So it is about 10 % difference. And 10% lower rate in only 6 years so in the 60 years of lifespan there would be 100% difference.

TiFR: Oh I didn’t know you could calculate that way. But look at the bad effects of treatment. The treatment increased the chance of going in a hypoglycaemic shock by 170% by your calculation. See the UKPDS results.

ICD: You are completely dumb in statistics. Look at the actual frequencies. In the control group the chance is 0.7 %, and in insulin treated it is 1.8%. So it is only a 1.1% difference. 1.8 may be 270% of 0.7. But you don’t look at that. You look at only the absolute values.  

TiFR: This is strange. For the benefit of treatment you take relative difference, for its bad effects, you take absolute difference.

ICD: That’s how researchers should behave. Don’t use statistics indiscriminately. Use the right calculation at the right time. See how the UKPDS groups reports statistics differently to report different outcomes.

TiFR: Oh, so reducing sugar is the right treatment you mean.

ICD: It is obvious. Diabetes is defined by increased sugar, so when sugar is reduced back to normal, it is under control by definition. Why should other things matter?

TiFR: Then why is mortality in the meticulously sugar controlled group higher than the loosely controlled group? The ACCORD trial was stopped abruptly in three and half years because mortality in treated group increased alarmingly.

ICD: So what is a reliable trial? We believe in trials that were conducted over long time. They show 10-12 % benefit of treatment. Why should we believe in a trial that was aborted in a short time?

TiFR: But the 10-12 % difference could only be placebo. Just the feeling that I have my sugar levels normal can make some difference in health. Why can’t we have another placebo control in which patients are only told that their sugars are normal after treatment? Whatever they may actually be. If they also show 10-12% improvement, it could just be a placebo effect.  

ICD: No that will be unethical. Patients in clinical trials have the right to know.

TiFR: But if you don’t have this placebo, how would we know that the benefit observed is because of reduced sugar, not just a feel good effect?

ICD: May be very meticulous sugar control doesn’t make additional difference. But moderate sugar control would certainly be better than no treatment.

TiFR: But in any of these trials there is no control group with no treatment.

ICD: That’s because It would be unethical to leave a group without treatment.

TiFR: But when you don’t know whether the treatment works or not, how can you say not giving the treatment is not ethical?

ICD: But we know regulating sugar IS effective as a treatment.

 TiFR: Who told you that?

ICD: Our textbooks. We studied that 25 years ago. It’s old knowledge. Time tested !!

TiFR: So you haven’t updated your knowledge in 25 years.

ICD: How can you say that? Pharma companies keep on sending us latest literature. They hold meetings and conferences. So we are always up to date in our knowledge.

TiFR: Ok, so what is the latest view on why blood sugar goes up?

ICD: Well that hasn’t changed. It is insulin resistance and relative insulin deficiency. Obesity leads to insulin resistance. For some time insulin levels increase to compensate insulin resistance. But ultimately they fail and then blood sugar goes up.

TiFR: What is compensation you said?

ICD: The insulin producing beta cells make more insulin to compensate insulin resistance.

TiFR: Wonderful, but how do beta cells know that there is insulin resistance?

ICD: By glucose itself. When there is insulin resistance, glucose is not disposed rapidly. So glucose levels go up. And everybody knows that high glucose stimulates more insulin production. The excess insulin pushes back the glucose to normal so that you have a high-insulin-normal-glucose state prior to diabetes.

TiFR: Aha, I see. But after glucose is back to normal, why should insulin remain high?

ICD: Well, just like that. It might just linger on.

TiFR: But insulin has a short half-life, only 5-6 minutes.

ICD: Oh, all those details are not relevant. We know that there is a high-insulin-normal-sugar phase before diabetes sets in. When the beta cells get exhausted and are unable to produce compensatory insulin, sugar starts rising.

TiFR: Why should beta cells get exhausted?

ICD: because they have to keep on producing more insulin.

TiFR: But that’s not the case. In a high fasting-insulin condition, the number of beta cells increases. The rate of insulin production per cell doesn’t. They are not working more so why should they get exhausted?

ICD: See the cause is not important. Ultimately they make less insulin, that is for sure.

TiFR: Ok, going back to insulin resistance. How do you know that there is insulin resistance and how much?

ICD: When insulin is unable to control sugar, it is insulin resistance. We measure insulin resistance by the inability of insulin to regulate sugar.

TiFR: Amazing logic. Normal or higher amount of insulin fails to regulate glucose because of insulin resistance. And insulin resistance is measured as insulin’s failure to regulate glucose. Let me put the two statements together. It means that insulin is unable to regulate glucose because insulin is unable to regulate glucose. What an infallible logic!!

ICD: Yes. That is the strength of the theory. You will never be able to prove this theory wrong by any experiment. Whenever blood sugar is not controlled by insulin, it will be called insulin resistance. So there is no scope for any other cause for a change in sugar level. This theory just does not allow any other theory to stand. I wish all theories were like this. We won’t have to waste so much money on research then!!

TiFR: But people have done experiments. They knocked out insulin receptors on muscle cells and liver cells but in neither case fasting blood sugar was affected.

ICD: Simple my boy. It means that knocking out insulin receptor does not induce insulin resistance. Insulin may be still acting by some other means. We call it insulin resistance only when we observe insulin resistance.

TiFR: But experimentally increasing or decreasing steady state insulin also does not affect fasting glucose in experiments.

ICD: That is because some other compensation mechanism must be acting.

TiFR: Then why these compensation mechanisms fail in diabetes?

ICD: That is because the insulin resistance is stronger in diabetes than what you could induce experimentally.

TiFR: How do you know insulin resistance is stronger?

ICD: Because the effect is observed. So it must be strong enough to overcome any compensation mechanisms.

TiFR: Ok, but where does all of it begin?

ICD: In eating bad diet. Bad diet induced obesity that leads to insulin resistance.

TiFR: But what diet is a bad diet?

ICD: That depends upon which time you lived. Fat was bad for the past thirty years. For the next thirty years sugars will be bad.

TiFR: After that?

ICD: May be proteins, but can’t say now. You will have to wait till then. In any case avoid eating whatever is considered bad at that time.

TiFR: Ok. On a different line. Over the last decade, so many researchers are talking about the role of brain in regulating hunger, obesity, glucose regulation etc. So many experiments also show that.

ICD: We have a brain so it ought to have some role. But nothing useful comes out of that. The pharmacology of the brain is too tough. It is a nightmare to pursue drug discovery for a brain target. Liver, pancreas, stomach are easier targets. So we target all our treatments on these organs. Brain is useless.

TiFR: Yes, I can see that very clearly!!! Brain is useless!!!

TiFR: So let me have a quick recap. The insulin resistance theory of diabetes is perfect and can never be proved wrong. According to this theory, controlling sugar is the only treatment target and will remain so for ever. Whether it reduces complications and mortality rates or not is not relevant.

ICD: You got everything right.

TiFR: Thanks for explaining me everything.

ICD: you are welcome but you didn’t tell me what do you do exactly?

TiFR: Well, now I will answer more carefully. We do PhD, post doc, generate lots of data, do lots of analysis, publish lots of papers in high rank journals. That is all about research. I learnt something important today. One thing that we researchers should never do is to ask questions. That will spoil research. Thanks for enlightening me about the real world!!

Ethical deterioration enabled by procedural ethics

It is over 6 months that I quit the Institute and about 4 months that I returned the fellowships of both the National Academies that I was a fellow of, namely IASc and INSA. While INSA has formally accepted my resignation, IASc hasn’t replied as yet. I left mainstream science for ethical issues and therefore I have been postponing writing a blog about ethics in science organizations. Since I myself have gone through ethical conflicts, I shouldn’t have passed judgments myself, at least in the heat of the moment.

I am not a person who takes decisions at the spur of the moment to repent later. Still I wanted to give sufficient time for cooling down the heat, if any, in my mind. Now I want to pen down my experiences, observations, anecdotes and interpretations about ethical issues in institutionalized science, and I want to do this in an analytical and critical way, not for defending my own case, or accusing anyone.

When I decided to resign on ethical grounds someone asked me why I didn’t take these issues to any of the ethics committees within the institute. This made me wonder. Was it really possible? Are there any ethics committees with the mandate to cover issues like the ones I was struggling with?

Does science need an ethical foundation and do science organizations need procedures and committees to handle ethics issues?

Hardly anyone will say no. But how to ensure ethical practices in institutionalized science is the real question. All institutes today have their own ethics committees. There are separate committees for animal ethics, human ethics, plagiarism check, gender discrimination and so on. Does that ensure ethical practices in the institute? The answer is tough. There are pros and cons of the ethics committees. Let us assume that they all work with the most honest efforts to fulfil the mandate of the committee. No doubt there are some malpractices somewhere sometime, but I am going to ignore them. The committees do talk about ethical issues in the area of concern for which the committee is constituted. They often make suggestions, warn someone or occasionally recommend action against someone. I am assuming that all this is done fairly well.

Even when all committees function well, at least five different types of problems are still left. One is that all ethical issues are not really covered by these committees. There are many that do not come under the mandate of any of them. The second is that the committees typically make dichotomous judgments, because of which the multi-dimensional and graded concept of ethics is painted in black and white. Realities are not in black and white. The third is that there can be conflicts between the procedures and contexts. Ethical committees follow certain procedures and norms which are designed for certain types of work. A procedure that is logical in one context may completely defeat the purpose in another. The forth and the most important is that it gives a false sense of satisfaction to the institute authorities that we are following all the ethics procedures and therefore we are ethical. By formalizing institutional procedures for ethics everybody is relieved from seriously thinking about ethics. Ethics can be completely driven out from anybody’s conscience for ever. Ethics is now a procedural issue, no more a conscience issue. The last and not the least is whether having ethical clearance for publishable research is sufficient for a researcher. Today most journals need a declaration that your experimental design and procedures were examined and approved by an appropriate ethical committee. So you need to go through the procedures in order to get published. What about the other things that you do in a science institute but not publish in the form of research papers, do they need to be ethical as well?

I have worked on some of such committees. They work like and are also perceived like rituals. What they discuss are some subtle technical issues and there is hardly any serious “ethics” discussed here. But because a ritual is completed the burden of ethics is removed from one’s shoulders and one doesn’t have to worry about it anymore. The institutes can boast that they have so many ethical committees so they are certified ethical.

I will illustrate all these problems with examples for clarity. Many examples involve more than one of the five, so I need not give five different examples for the five problems. Also my examples come from what I have myself seen and observed. Since I know these cases thoroughly I will prefer to use them as examples. But I just want to use them as examples. This is not intended to accuse anyone personally because I sincerely do not have any complaint against anyone. I am an analyst and critic of the system of science organization and institutionalization. Since I am no more a part of the mainstream science organizations, I have nothing to gain or lose by talking about these cases. In fact this is the true reason why I wanted to quite all organizational entities. This gives me a third party stand now so that I can attempt a more impartial analysis. Whatever happened is history now so justifying my stands, or begging sympathy of anyone by pretending that I suffered injustice is all irrelevant now. Also I don’t intend to project anyone as “guilty”. Instead we all need to analyse and learn from such issues so that tomorrow’s institutions are better than today’s.   

The institute campus had many environmental issues. There was illegal and unnecessary cutting down of over 500 trees and the waste water was being released without treatment. The institute gardeners were made to use this stinking water for gardening. When I was the chairman of the landscape committee, I raised these issues along with a few others. But instead of addressing these issues I was removed from the committee by cooking up false charges against me. At this point I resigned from the institute. The waste treatment plant was made functional immediately after my resignation. I had myself started compensatory tree plantation and planted 1000 saplings while I was there, mainly native endangered species. Now they have planted many more on the same principles. So my resignation had a positive effect and I am happy to have served the institute. This is fine, no serious ethics issues. Academic section of the institute was not involved.

More serious ethical issues cropped up later. The director denied that there was any tree felling at all. By this time the sites of tree felling were cleared and there was no obvious evidence left on the ground. So I got high resolution satellite images to show how many trees were seen in those images earlier which were not there anymore. I mailed the image analysis report to the institute faculty from ecology and earth sciences departments asking them to critically examine my analysis, point out whether I was wrong anywhere in the analysis. There was no response from any of them and in a reply to a separate RTI request the institute continued to deny tree felling. This is the most serious issue for SCIENCE. It is not an administrative issue any more. This is an academic issue. Everyone will agree that ignoring or denying evidence is “bad science”. You may criticise the method of collecting evidence, or suggest alternative interpretations of it. This is how scientific arguments are made. But deliberately ignoring inconvenient evidence is certainly a bad practice in science. Directors of science institutes are scientists themselves and science starts with honest reporting of data. If the director himself propagates bad science by denying evidence, how can the institute claim to do research? How can it be an educational institute that has a mandate to raise scientists for the next generation. This is the real ethical issue, not a general ethics issue but specifically a “scientific ethics” issue. No doubt the director acted unethically. Whether other faculty that had actually witnessed the tree felling on campus but did not react to it, the ones to whom I mailed my image analysis report and who did not respond to it are ethical or not is an open question. I leave it to the readers’ judgment.

What we see in this example is that such ethical issues are not the mandate of any of the ethics committees. Since this is not related either to published research or to the teaching syllabus, this will not be considered as an issue in scientific ethics at all. We are nurtured to believe that only what is published as papers is research and what is asked in the examinations is science education. So this issue is neither a part of research, nor of teaching so nobody in a research and education institute carries any guilt of being unethical. Since no ethics committee has labelled it as unethical, it cannot be unethical!! Everyone is happy.

Here is another anecdote. A student of mine wanted to do some human behavioural experiment. We had a human ethics committee just established by then. So we put a proposal to the committee. The committee had members with prolonged experience in examining research in clinical medicine. Informed consent is a natural and mandatory part of such work. In this case we said that letting the subjects know the purpose of the test is bound to change their behavioural responses, so we cannot reveal the purpose before the test. We are ready to reveal it later. But the committee did not agree. They insisted that subjects need to be informed everything before participating in the study. This defeated the purpose of a behavioural experiment. We could not do the experiment ultimately. This illustrates how following the same norms and procedures in all contexts can undermine science. 

Another issue arose following my resignation. I was the principal investigator for certain on-going projects. The question was: after I left the institute, do the projects get transferred along with me to my new organization or they remain with the institute which appoints a new PI on the project? This is not a new question. So many researchers change the institute/university. The answer should be context dependent. One the one hand there are projects such as the Chandrayaan mission of ISRO. This is necessarily an institutional effort in which individual scientists and engineers may come and go. This is certainly institute centred. On the other hand there are projects whose central idea is conceived by individuals, they get funding for the concept and the institute only hosts the project. In such cases the project is the PIs intellectual property. if the PI left the institute, the institute may not even have anyone else capable of handling the concept efficiently. The decision whether the project grant is transferred with the PI or the institute finds another PI should be based on what will be better for the successful implementation of the project. Among the projects that I was handling, some were of type 1 and others were of type 2. So accordingly they could have appointed another PI for the type 1 components and transferred the grant for the type 2 projects. But when institutes follow rules, thinking is typically not required. Without any distinction between the two types of contexts they decided that the funding will remain with the institute and they would appoint another PI. Bureaucracy is satisfied when one person replaces another. Thinking, capabilities, background, personal research interests are irrelevant. There is a plagiarism issue here when the institute appoints another PI for a project that is 80% completed. But the existing institutional procedures for plagiarism check use a soft-ware to check whether your manuscript resembles any of the previously published papers. If the funding based on one’s concept is used by another person, the plagiarism check procedures do not cover this so it is not considered plagiarism. Procedures are always dumb and when it comes to following rules and procedures the most brilliant scientists become the dumbest brains. If science is to be done by following procedures it will invariably end up being dumb.

Whether I was right or wrong in these issues is not the question that I myself should judge. I am actually saying that the right-wrong dichotomy is wrong. Ethics is a complex concept and making black and white judgments degrades the entire concept. What matters more is transparency. One should make the entire real story transparent so that any interested person is free to access the reality and judge oneself. Ethics committees should make everything transparent and leave the decisions open whenever possible. Whenever there is real need to take dichotomous decision, they should not stop at the yes-no decision but make all facts and documents available to everyone.

The knee jerk reaction of administration to any new issue is to lay more procedures, write more rigid rules and constitute more committees. This makes life easy for the administrators. But for science institutions it is important to realize that rules and regulations are there to support science. Science is not there to follow administrative rules. Making context based decisions with complete transparency on the facts and reasons is a more difficult path to follow. Making and following rules is an easier path. But what will support better science should be more important than what is easy to follow.

What I write here is particularly important for the history of science. I may not be of any relevance in the history of science, but my stories are. They can be important resources to students of the history of science, philosophy of science, policy makers and implementers. Therefore I am making the entire set of documents related to my exit from mainstream science available on the links below. Follow the links to a compilation of all documents related to the issue. I don’t expect many people to be interested in the details, but a rare soul genuinely interested in the organization, structure and working of science institutions would certainly appreciate it as a small but important resource for the history of Science organizations in India.

Links to documents:

Resignation related

Returning INSA and IASc fellowships

Quitting MGB formally, (Informally I will keep on working for the project, since I know that no one else will be able to document and articulate the most important outcomes of the project)

The tree felling case

The gardeners’ case

Science as an emotional endeavour

The interaction between the Chairman of ISRO and the Prime Minister of India on losing contact with the lunar lander Vikram, is witnessed by the entire country. Social media did a very positive job this time. I am moved as much as every Indian. This 50 second clip demonstrates something very important. That science is a highly emotional endeavour. The perception that science and technology is a highly intellectual but emotionally ‘dry’ subject is not true. My own experience is also that of intimate attachment to two things in science. One is the attachment with your own concepts, your own thinking, the beauty of scientific logic, the beauty of its way of thinking, the beauty of the mathematics involved. The other is the attachment with co-workers, in my case mostly students at all levels.

The thought that there is beauty in science is not new. Paul Dirac said “I like to play about with equations, just looking for beautiful mathematical relations which may be don’t have any physical meaning at all. Sometimes they do.” So Dirac says beauty was his first obsession with equations. Their usefulness was secondary.

I had a rather uncommon, if not unique, experience of composing music and poetry along with doing science. I can assure you that the two are emotionally the same. I see poetry in scientific concepts and mathematics in poetry. But for some reason people perceive music and poetry as predominantly emotional endeavours and science as a dry intellectual one. Having engaged in both, I know this differentiation just does not exist. Both are equally emotional and equally analytical. A number of mental processes involved in both are quite the same. But we perceive them differently.

I think the perceived difference is mainly because of packaging. Music, poetry and other arts are packaged in an emotionally appealing cover. Science and technology is packaged differently and there is a reason to it.

Emotions play a lead role in the way we perceive new concepts, interpret surprising results, celebrate the so called “success” or get disappointed by the so called “failures”. The reason I put these words within quotes is that they are completely social constructs. There is no success or failure in the intellectual components of science. A so called “failed” experiment also provides new data and uncovers some principles, so it’s a gain for science in any way. Things take the form of success and failures when science becomes business. When it is not a business, science does not know of any failures. The predominant emotions associated with science are curiosity, excitement, passion, awe, attachment, appreciation of beauty, realization, satisfaction and joy. Disappointment or frustration has no place in science.

But this is not the way science institutions, publications and science funding works. In order to get your science funded, you need to pretend that you have been always successful in the past and in the proposed project you have high chances of “succeeding”, whatever it means. In most cases it means nothing. Funding attempts work on the same principles and mind sets as advertising and marketing. Because funding systems work on this unscientific principle, all scientists have to pretend that they are successful. The tragedy of a scientist’s emotional life begins here. Honesty is the foundation of science, but it is extremely difficult to be honest and still get your work funded. The way experiments are perceived, done and results obtained is not always very logical. Often you get something serendipitously. Sometimes you get some result so unexpectedly that you need to change your entire line of thinking. Most often researchers write it as if they always expected this result. Unless you pretend that you derived everything logically, your paper is most unlikely to get published. This hypocrisy is what makes a scientist’s emotional life miserable. Institutionalization, funding and publication are the three organizational elements of science which make the emotional life of a scientist pitiable. As a reaction to this we tend to disown our own emotions and pretend that we are logical intellectual machines. This further leads to more hypocrisy and more pretence in a positive feedback vicious cycle. But this is the reason why we keep on suppressing our emotions.

The reaction of the prime minister of India as well as the common man to the so called failure of Chandrayaan 2 is a glorious exception to all this. We did not end up in a blame game. We did not say “you” have failed. We all said we are with you in all successes and failures. I only hope that what the politicians and laymen of the country understood, is also understood by our agencies that host and fund other sectors of science. Defence and space science has always enjoyed this support. Other branches haven’t. If, in a country, the science funding agencies understand the importance of honesty in science pretty well, nobody can stop the progress of science there. Let the Modi-Sivan exceptional interaction become the rule and the country will progress like anything.