Monday, March 5, 2012

The Lament Of An Indian Geologist

In Current Science K.S. Valdiya lets out an impassioned cry (open access) for recognition and a higher status for the field of geology in India:

The geologists, who toil hard for finding minerals for scientific research and industrial development,sources of water for multifarious needs, make sustained efforts to make India self-sufficient in energy and help select appropriate sites for dams, power plants, alignments of roads and tunnels, suggesting ways of overcoming problems of stability and natural hazards, go ‘unwept, un-honoured and unsung’. Even the mainstream scientists have poor opinion of geologists as scientists and geology as a science. In the matters related to the wellness of the earth, the use of its bounties and assets, and the preservation of its environmental health, their opinions are not sought and their voices not heard by the powerful science councils, commissions and academies, and by the powers-that-be. The domineering presence for decades of the sets of same persons with blinkers and biases in committees for awarding and rewarding individual endeavours is responsible for elbowing out or marginalization of those foot soldiers who work in the field for months on end – away from homes in harsh and often perilous terrains. Is it true that just because they have not spent or do not spend long hours in laboratories and tapped the internet data make them unworthy or recognition?

This is strong stuff and later he gives an example of myopia and a bureaucratic straitjacket which may have stifled many geological research programs:

The earthquake division (now placed under the MoES) de facto continues to be a subsidiary/subordinate unit of the India Meteorological Department. The head of the meteorologists has the say in the collection of seismic data. I strongly believe that it is time to establish and strengthen an independent National Institute of Seismology headed by an eminent and active earthquake specialist. Another national institute established ‘to undertake, aid, promote, guide, and coordinate research in the geology of the Himalayas’ and ‘to carry out research towards the development of new concepts and models, concerning earth structures and processes operating in the Himalayas’ (DST letter No. 2(2)8/-ST, dated 19 November 1985) has been functioning for the last five years under the strict control (chairmanship) of the Secretary to Government of India, at present a pre-eminent inorganic chemist specializing in leather technology; and the Director is a marine palaeontologist specializing in summer monsoon!

He gives more such examples of non-geological oversight on geological agencies and the misunderstandings "mainstream" scientists have about geology. The article then harshly criticizes "globalization" and the recent entry of multinational companies in oil and gas exploration and mining, accusing them of riding roughshod over environmental regulations, denying proper compensation and rehabilitation to displaced people and of unsustainable extraction of resources. All may be true, although the record of the government on these issues, especially the first two, is not that great either.

On the brighter side - and this is my opinion  -  multinational companies are bringing in benefits in the form of larger R & D programs and advanced technology.  Prof. Valdiya bemoans the loss of human capital. He writes that retired  government scientists are being hired by these firms for huge pay packets and they are taking with them government data that is denied to Indian academics and researchers. The lack of access to data is unfortunate, but not one restricted only to geological organizations. In India, it is the general problem of the fetish for secrecy that afflicts any government dealings with its citizens. To be fair though, there is not an organization in the world, government or otherwise, involved with oil and minerals that allows completely open access to its data.

Still, taking data when leaving for another job, if true will be an illegal act. More likely, what is being transferred is their experience. The other side of the coin is that ultimately these scientists are getting hired to work on Indian projects and the Indian energy sector will benefit from that. And it is not just retired geologists who are being attracted. I know several of my friends who have left  government companies in mid career to take up assignments with private energy companies. The reason given is money, plus better working conditions. I remember just after graduation a Ph.D friend returning from giving a job interview with ONGC, the government owned oil company. The interview board had been impressed but had remarked.."Aren't you graduates from Pune University too research oriented"?

The implication being that we consider candidates having a Ph.D a handicap!! That spoke volumes of the opportunities, or rather lack of, for research with a major energy company. No wonder many of my friends feel that their specialization has not been respected and utilized in government service and are jumping ship. Indian geologists in administrative positions are responsible for this and some introspection on incentives and opportunities is necessary to attract and keep better talent with the government.

But I am digressing from the main point of Prof. Valdiya's article and that is a plea to invite geologists to the high table of Indian science..... in positions that can influence policy.

I do agree with that.

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