Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Can Innovations Overcome the Enduring Science Drought in Kashmir? 

Sheikh Fayaz Ahmad

In his magnum opus -The Wealth of Nations (1776) - Adam Smith, the renowned Scottish economist and philosopher, beautifully outlined that many great inventions in and around Scotland factories were actually the inventions made by the common workmen. He observed that many significant improvements were made possible ‘by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines’. To put it differently, Adam Smith outrightly dismissed ‘universities’ as the source of inventions. Kashmir, a region paralyzed by incessant conflict and innumerous lethal episodes, needs an innovation push, along with several other things that must be undertaken to counter fragility. This push will not only help to overcome routine problems but also help to address the enduring science drought in the region.
Schumpeter, the much acclaimed economist of the 20th century, asserted in his famous book The Theory of the Economic Development that ‘economic development is driven by innovation through a dynamic process in which new technologies replace the old, a process he labeled as creative destruction. However, many including Schumpeter uphold the opinion that creating innovations is as easy as turning a tap on.  They believe and fervently argue that continuously financing basic science will lead to more innovations, and therefore more development.
However, if we were to revisit economic history, numerous examples can be noted where science draught and major societal problems have been momentously addressed by innovators who did not have an extensive association with fundamental science. Scientists and engineers, as observed in the economic history have not contributed meaningfully to solve several pressing concerns of the society. For example, during the industrial revolution, all major innovations which helped systematically revolutionize Europe in 16th and 17th century came from people who had very little knowledge of basic science. For instance, steam engine, owed almost nothing to the law of thermodynamics but law of thermodynamics in return owes almost everything to the steam engine. Likewise, the mechanization of textile industry is another fascinating case - practically all radical creative interventions came from common workmen and not from scientists. According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder’, all major breakthroughs of the 13th century to the development of modern computing methods narrate an underlying success story driven by the ‘rule of thumb, learning by apprenticeship, chance discoveries, trial and error, and tinkering’. Very few breakthroughs actually emerged from sustained funding of science.
Rightly thus, the linear model of science, as advocated by Francis Bacon in the 17th century, who urged England to unworryingly fund and make use of navigational science to catch pace with the Portuguese, turned into a failure. This was because advances in Portuguese navigation were not achieved by whopping scientific investments but by breakthroughs that directly stemmed from the experiences of sailors and fishermen.
Even recently, a study conducted by the OECD on sources of growth in OECD countries between 1971 and 1998, came up with some startling findings. The study concluded that all publicly funded research had no economic impact whatsoever. Similarly, the USA Bureau of Economic Analysis, in another separate study conducted in 2007, concluded that the returns from many forms of publicly financed research and development are nearly zero, and that many elements of university and government research have very low returns.
The case of public funded universities and engineering colleges in Kashmir is also worth consideration here. These institutions have not only failed in helping address the crises faced by communities but have also not progressed in their endeavor of developing new scientific knowledge. Since the inception of University of Kashmir in 1948 and NIT Srinagar in 1960, not a single breakthrough innovation has come from these ‘elite’ research institutions, despite devouring public money worth millions of dollars. Even their contribution towards advancement of basic science is doubtful. For instance, in the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF-2017) released by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development of India, the University of Kashmir holds the 73rd position, which is much below than many B- grade Indian universities. Making a place in the top 1,000 Times Higher Education World University Rankings is next to impossible for research institutes based in Kashmir. The reasons for their dismal performance are again very much debatable. Some find an easy explanation in the ongoing armed conflict and blame the persistent conflict for disrupted functioning and sub-standard performance of these universities. However, many of us would agree to the fact that many great universities around the world have emerged mostly in regions that have witnessed conflict.
Without going into this eternal debate further, I believe that public money should be constructively utilized to develop propositional forms of knowledge, which mostly lie outside the university boundaries. The knowledge that our ‘illiterate’ farmers, artisans and woodcutters possess deserves attention. Recklessly pumping millions of dollars into public universities for creating four-square lawns highlights a major challenge to the development of frugal forms of knowledge and must be urgently addressed. As convincingly reported by well-known economic historian Joel Mokyr in the Gifts of Athena, it was the common man’s propositional knowledge outside the walled universities which helped transform the evolution and development of economics in Europe. Kashmir certainly is no exception - the noteworthy innovations Kashmir has gifted to the world - seamless celestial globe, weaving bridges, kangri, and weaving techniques to name a few - owe very little to the knowledge produced in universities!

Author hails from Halmatpora Kupwara and can be reached at fayazjustinternational@gmail.com

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