BY SHUJA MALIK
That a significant number of highly-qualified professionals or those engaged in advanced and applied fields face a multitude of complicated problems, and mostly encounter dead ends, in Kashmir is a known fact. While there can be no disagreement on the responsibility of compatriots to talk about them and seek solutions, it is imperative to have these conversations in the right perspective. A recent write-up, A Trali @ Harvard, in this newspaper tried to highlight the predicament people involved in advanced scientific research face when trying to get a professional foothold in Kashmir. As a student of science, I find it necessary to talk about a topic or two that have been brought into the discussion. This seems necessary because misunderstandings or incorrect interpretations could prove discouraging to people passionate about science, especially those planning to pursue science as a career.
Research publications that have real impact in terms of discovery or invention or advancement on what is already known do not come every day, particularly when a researcher is still taking baby steps. The norm on this front is infinitesimally small successes after substantial human effort. It is a completely disproportionate relationship. Publications are one’s contribution to the present and the future, and, be they a critical advancement, a pioneering discovery, a technological innovation, a seminal contribution or even a pico-scale development, all need great human effort and personal sacrifices. In the early stages of a career in science, it is unrealistic to think in terms of publications in ‘dozens, and create a sense of easy and hassle-free attainments. Dejection at not being able to pursue a career where one would want to can be a serious dampener for one set on a career in science. Therefore, a balance has to be struck between highlighting a flawed system and the costs of heightened expectations, especially in educationally developing societies.
Awards and recognition follow greatness, not vice versa. Creating a work of art appeals to an artist, a musical note to a musician, and couplet to a poet – all driven by restlessness and an inner urge. Likewise, a scientist is passionate about understanding, finding out, improving and advancing. Choosing, enduring, persisting and resilience define and make individuals in all fields. In science, they determine one’s very existence and survival.
In modern times, with cut-throat competition in cutting-edge research, a scientist’s ability to pursue ideas at a centre of his or her choice and manage a sustainable research grant are in themselves an achievement. Numbers have great value in day-to-day life and, in scientific research and its evaluation they become all the more important. Scientific successes usually occur in small fractional increments, and the ability to succeed has not necessarily to be measured by the ability to be a Nobel laureate. Nobel or no Nobel, contributions always matter and are always counted.
Barbara McClintock, the 1983 Nobel laureate in medicine, received the award over three decades after her work in the field. It would be surprising if a budding geneticist, or even a high school student of science, would not familiar with her name, but perhaps not everyone would know about her award. Rosalind Franklin is almost always mentioned in the same breath as the famous DNA double helix duo of Watson and Crick in spite of not having won the Nobel like the other two. This is not to diminish the Nobel Prize but to emphasise that that is not the only bench mark of great work.
Scientists working primarily for recognition or seeking to be judged by their capacity to get recognized can create unhealthy trends. In the past few years, controversies around stem cell research have come to the fore and can easily be attributed to this quest for swift recognition. Alan Guth, a professor of physics at the MIT and one of the first proponents of the Inflationary Universe Theory, said in a recent interview to the New York Times that he didn’t expect confirmation of his ideas to come in his life time. His idea of cosmic inflation, proposed in 1979, had first confirmable proofs observed very recently, only a few months ago, by astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. This is an example of scientific contribution drawn from analysis and correct interpretation, and waiting for proof.
Such high points are akin to the embodiment of one’s own thought, one’s ability to create or one’s ability to rationalize. Like a pure musical note or an artist’s masterpiece, nothing can be more satisfying than seeing them ‘in the flesh’. Awards, in such circumstances, serve only as the icing on the cake.
Mr.Trali apparently has all the qualities of passion, hard work and resilience that have helped him learn, train and work at some of the most prestigious centres in the world, and these are a testament to his ability. Even if he had only half-a-dozen, and not dozens, of research papers, and no Potential Nobel Laureate billing from his peers, he would still be a role model. One can only hope that he gets back to doing what he is good at, soon.
Sadly, opportunities that hitherto used to be identified with the West or the East are now determined in terms like developed and developing countries. On these indices, Kashmir ranks at the bottom of the scale. India, which has administrative control over India, does not have a single university among the world’s top hundred. The state of advancement in Kashmir, therefore, is anybody’s guess. As long as there no drastic changes in priorities, and understanding, Mr. Trali and many like him who want to return will continue to suffer.
-the writer is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Medicine, University of Maryland