Thursday, June 12, 2008

Survey Of Indian Scientists

I came across a survey of Indian scientists last week (link through Nonoscience). Arunn at Nonoscience has a post detailing the survey done by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, Trinity College, Connecticut, USA in Cooperation with the Center for Inquiry India. A wide range of questions related to science and worldviews were asked. I won't go into all the survey questions as Arunn has already done that. I have a few observations to add. Looking at the scientists surveyed I found that only those working in universities and research institutes were polled. I would have liked scientists working in industry to have been included also. It is possible that scientists who join industry are temperamentally different from those who choose academia and it would have been useful to sample that potential range. Work experience, work culture, goals and priorities at industry R & D labs differ from academia and this might systematically influence the way some of the questions were answered. I also would have preferred the answers to be broken down by profession. In the survey, scientists of different professions are lumped into just one category, the "Indian scientist". This means that we don't get a feel for specialized opinions at all. Arunn mentions this problem in his post. For example 29% of those surveyed refused to work on human cloning, but how many of these are life scientists? The answer matters because while the opinions of an engineer towards cloning may be interesting it is the opinions and beliefs of life scientists toward this issue that will have consequences on the direction and growth of this field.

I write about evolution a lot in my blog so the question on belief in evolution caught my eye. The majority of Indian scientists believe that evolution is a fact, but a small number tend to think that humans may be an exception. The numbers in any case are refreshingly higher than in the U.S and Canada. But as is often the case with surveys, how the question is framed has a lot to do with the answers. For example I would have liked a followup question on whether you think evolution is guided by an intelligent agent or is a completely naturalistic process devoid of any intelligent guiding force. I suspect a significant number of Indian scientists would have split on this issue. The survey shows that a majority of Indian scientists believe in God, either a personal deity or a "higher power" and when questioned directly about God intervening in the evolutionary process, I feel the answer for many would be in the affirmative.

A couple of topics currently on the top of the list for policy makers, those of global warming and genetically modified crops were given a miss in the survey. Again these are the types of issues where surveying only academia and research institutions may bias the answers towards one position. Are geologists and engineers working in the petroleum industry more dismissive of evidence of human induced global warming than their university colleagues? How do life and environmental scientists and ecologists working in universities view the usefulness of GM crops compared to an industry researcher? These are topics of enormous relevance to the economic development of our country and it would have been nice to have a more detailed and wider range of views of people who will be recommending policy.


  1. Suvrat: The sample size (1100), as you mention, is small and could have included scientists also from non-academic places. It would be interesting to see if and how the views change on the questions asked.

    Many from the institutes represented have also not participated - as an example, from IITM the participated number is 51, while its faculty strength is more than 300. But participation is voluntary and cannot be coaxed by other means.

    But nevertheless, as they claim, this seems to be the first such survey done on maximum number of scientist.

    I expect in the future the survey to take care of some of the concerns.


  2. Arunn - thanks for those details. I think the survey was a decent first effort. I have felt for a long time that Indian scientists are by and large invisible to the public. I hope they make their opinions and views more widely available in the future.


  3. An interesting article. Yes, genetically modified foods ought to have been included in the survey. It's a controversial issue. It's controversy that I'd say is unwarranted and superficial. It's organizations such as the Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and not scientists that have made genetically modified foods controversial.

  4. Jimmy- you have an informative and interesting website. thanks.