Thursday, August 04, 2005

Knowledge and utility

The following is a quote from Hanif Kureishi's article that appeared in today's Guardian to which I have linked to in my previous post as well.

    Wittgenstein compared ideas to tools that you can use for different ends. Some open the world up. The idea that you can do everything with one tool is ridiculous.
Everything cannot be packed and marketed -- approached and understood -- with an idea or a fixed circle of ideas. You'll have to use many kinds of tools for different purposes.

The above quote struck me especially because I was reading that article soon after reading this Telegraph editorial [link via India Uncut] about the newly constituted Knowledge Commission by the Government of India.

The Knowledge Commission is supposed to come up with 'bold proposals' that enable India to 'embark on a second wave of institution building'. While launching the commission, PM Manmohan Singh said:

    At the bottom of the `knowledge pyramid' the challenge is one of improving access to primary education. At the top of the `pyramid' there is a need to make our institutions of high education and research world class.
We do need new ideas and insights. I don't assert that this commission will be able to deliver but the goal is an important one and it's definitely worth a try.

The Telegraph's stand is very different and that treads a very predictable state-is-evil path.

    The last socialist bastion is a pathetic faith in the state. A bizarre manifestation of this faith is the formation, at the direct initiative of the prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, of something called the Knowledge Commission, which was launched on its aimless journey on Tuesday. Most of the members of the commission, despite its token bow to the left, are very eminent people. It is difficult to imagine them advocating the position that the pursuit of knowledge can be driven by the state. Knowledge has advanced not because of the state but despite its presence.
[Incidentally isn't there a tinge of fanaticism in suggesting that eminence you'll have only on the right?]

There are plenty of instances where knowledge is advanced because of direct state patronage. There are also instances where knowledge is advanced despite the presence of the state. In any case the commission is not a government body. It's a mechanism through which the state is trying to get new and implementable ideas and I think it's a welcome step in that regard.

The editorial makes another point against the commission:

    branches of knowledge considered useful and utilitarian by the state have priority. This is not the pursuit of knowledge, but of utility.
Mind you, half of the commission members are social scientists! I do want to make a comment in another direction: knowledge, all kinds of knowledge, is utilitarian. It's wrong to say that Mechanical engineering is utilitarian and English literature is not. Of course the utility could be in satisfying the curiosity of the intellect. Thus you can't really distinguish between the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of utility.
    The state should leave knowledge alone if it wants knowledge to flourish. Scholars in their own fields will set their own agenda. Knowledge is power, but it is also an enemy of state power,
continues the Telegraph. I totally agree with the last two sentences. But as long as the government of the day values academic freedom and the freedom to dissent, no problem arises. Most of us in Indian academics get state grants. But we do what we want to do. The grants are only helpful.

Genuine academics and thinkers will make use of the grants that they get whether it's from the state or from some other source. That doesn't/shouldn't restrict in anyway their right to criticise the state, or the relevant source, if necessary. Take just one Indian example -- Kalidasa. A poet of the highest order, his works also contain critiques of power. State patronage wasn't a hindrance at all.

On any day a government that thinks of a Knowledge Commission is far superior to a government that thinks only of its day-to-day existence. And state-is-evil is just one idea/tool and it may not give results whenever you apply it.

26 Comments:

At 11:27 AM, Blogger Veena said...

Beautifully put. State patronage of 'knowledge' is as good or as bad as corporate patronage of the same. Almost every academic institution in the US gets grants from the government(all engineers will remember the National Science Agency!) as well from corporations like Microsoft. As long as these patrons extend total freedom to the pursuit of information, I see no issues in either case. And as far as I know, the more controversial cases here usually deal with corporate patronage - we have heard of enough cases in the past few years of pharma companies funding research studies which give us (predictably) biased results. Does that mean we should discourage all corporate grants given out currently?!

 
At 12:58 PM, Blogger Sunil said...

Indeed.......infact, it is almost essential that the government puts in money into knowledge enhancement (research etc), but giving the recipient a great degree of autonomy (which should not be confused with lack of accountability). The concept is an excellent step in that direction...(what happens with it is a different story).

I'm a little annoyed with the Telegraph editorial though.....

 
At 1:48 PM, Blogger froginthewell said...

1. I agree that it is far from obvious that state patronage can only do bad to knowledge. But state patronage comes from taxes forcibly collected while corporate money comes from what the institution concerned made ( without force, ideally ).

2. About being utilitarian : what is under consideration is the benefit it can do to the society. Mechanical engineering creates jobs and can boost the economy, while the pursuit of english literature ( or a lot of pure science research - much of pure mathematics, string theory etc. ) that only satisfies the intellectual idle curiosity of a select set of people - should not be supported with money extorted from the masses.

Again, it seems to me that science-in-ancient-India was firmly based on this principle. True, astrology etc. may not have been actually beneficial but atleast they did what they thought was relevant. I doubt how many modern intellectuals really contemplate on the effect of their work on society - let us say, how does Poincare's conjecture matter?

3. That said, I agree that deciding whether something is ultimately beneficial to the society or not can be quite controversial. But there clearly are lot of subjects that can and should be weeded out.

 
At 4:47 PM, Blogger Iyer the Great said...

Nice post. I feel that this has great potential, if handled carefully.

 
At 10:07 PM, Blogger Go.Ganesh said...

I agree with Sunil on this issue

 
At 10:30 PM, Blogger Dilip D'Souza said...

Anand, it's good you question these things, not least the notion that eminence is only on the right!

Frog says: Mechanical engineering creates jobs and can boost the economy, while the pursuit of english literature ( or a lot of pure science research - much of pure mathematics, string theory etc. ) that only satisfies the intellectual idle curiosity of a select set of people - should not be supported with money extorted from the masses.

What a strange idea. Where does frog think so much of what's around us today -- let's take antibiotics, for one small example -- came from? From that "pure science research that only satisfies the intellectual idle curiosity of a select set of people." An institution, a state, that gives up on research and scorns intellectual curiosity is one that's heading for destruction.

 
At 10:46 PM, Blogger uma said...

Just some stray thoughts: the sheer power centred in the State makes it a necessary evil - but one that should either do good or be persuaded to do good.

Also - I don't even think of it as patronage of knowledge. It is a commitment owed by the State to its people. I think the Knowledge Commission is a good initiative.

And - sigh - I'd also like to see our primary education move towards being world class.

 
At 11:57 PM, Anonymous Anand said...

Veena -- To my mind you are absolutely right. The more controversial cases here usually deal with corporate patronage -- good that you typed this observation too.

Sunil -- Right. I think Telegraph just put this event too to the state-is-evil mould. The output I guess turned out to be a disaster.

Froginthewell -- You yourself agree that it's a fairly controversial topic. The title of my post itself must have been debated by many over the centuries. That pure sciences are utilitarian even in your sense of the word is kind of obvious. Dilip has the example of antibiotics. Most of the technological advances in the last century have its origin in Quantum Physics. A minimum understanding of History is as essential as knowing the basics of any other subject as I see it. If you agree with that then you'll have to agree with the immediate corollary that research at the frontiers of all these subjects are equally important. The very fact that the human mind thought more and more of a discipline, I think, justifies the pursuit of that discipline. In short I agree with the Telegraph in this particular point. According to me the Knowledge Commission's 'bold proposals' should not be restricted to technology and sciences. A word about 'idle curiosity': how can a curious mind be idle?

Thanks Rahul. "Handled carefully' perhaps is the key!

Ganesh, thanks.

An institution, a state, that gives up on research and scorns intellectual curiosity is one that's heading for destruction. Well said, Dilip.

Uma -- Yeah you are right, it's state's commitment. I hope the commission will look into aspects of primary education too. PM's inaugural address, it looks like, stressed this point. I think those like Ashok Ganguly (who's a member of the commission) have expertise in this sector.

 
At 5:43 AM, Blogger gawker said...

I was going to say something , but Dilip beat me to it. This is what I think happens in most American research universities : They perform research at an extremely grassroots level. Oftentimes, this research, which is often funded by the NSF and other government organizations, delves into what frog called "pure science research" without actually knowing if this research might have any practical implications. But, later, once a paper on that research is published, some corporation might step in, find this research to be of practical use and buy this idea to develop it further into something more utilitarian. But essentially, it all stands on the backbone of grassroots pure science.

 
At 7:04 AM, Blogger Abi said...

Thanks for this post, Anand. Here is a bunch of thoughts:

As Uma said, government's involvement in the knowledge business is here to stay ('necessary evil'). To dismiss government's role in research, as the Telegraph did, is not just ludicrous. I don't know if Sunil found this aspect annoying, but I certainly did.

Given the involvement of the 'necessary evil', it is nobody's case that the current situation is ideal or optimal. I guess
Knowledge Commission will address the issue of how to re-orient the role of our government (and perhaps that of other organs of our society, including the corporate sector). Let us hope KC members will do some sensible things.

The mix of pure and applied research can be endlessly debated. I am with Dilip on active promotion of basic research. To their credit, almost all our governments have been very supportive of basic research.

I do have a problem about the pattern of funding, though. The bulk of the research funding in science and technology is sucked up by the labs belonging to DRDO, ISRO, DAE and CSIR. From what I have read in the press, a similar thing happens in social sciences as well. The bottomline is that very little flows into the universities; I think this is really sad. Almost everyone agrees that our universities need rejuvenation, but our government doesn't seem to care!

In any event, funding of research is an inherently political process: there are many choices to be made along dimensions such as basic vs. applied, natural sciences vs social sciences, university vs. national labs, etc. At the micro level, too, it is the same: which sub-area of a given field gets funded? Even within that sub-area, which line of research gets funded?

In natural sciences, these questions do not appear to pose serious problems. However, in social sciences, they certainly do! I think the Telegraph is upset with this sort of meddling; perhaps they hate the ongoing detoxification drive!

Of course, its editors got it all mixed up with the very role of government in funding research!

 
At 7:18 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

Thanks Gawker. I'll be happy to hear your thoughts on the following statement too: 'In the US universities including the private ones most of the research activities are funded by state agencies. Thus the state plays the most key role in the advancement of knowledge.'

Many thanks Abi for taking the time and effort to ask such pertinent questions. What do you think? In the science disciplines, is it hard for those interested from our universities to get DST funding? If there aren't enough decent proposals then the problem lies with our human resources and not funding, right?

 
At 8:12 AM, Blogger Sunil said...

"'In the US universities including the private ones most of the research activities are funded by state agencies. Thus the state plays the most key role in the advancement of knowledge.'

I wanted to say a little bit about this.....atleast in the biomedical sciences, almost all the funding comes from the government/NIH, and their annual budget is billions of dollars. Most of the research is "basic science" that froginthewell talks about. This has lead to some of the biggest medical breakthroughs we know today, and a nobel prize or two every year, and improvements in modern medicine. All out of tax-payer money. If the government had only funded "useful" areas like mechanical or chemical engineering, we'd be in a very sorry state.

In an Indian context....I think the problem is indeed more a lack of good proposals (or a good selection mechanism), for getting DST funding. Or else, good proposals come from universities that do not support research in any way. This calls for a more serious question on how the university system can be overhauled dramatically (one of Abi's pet topics). But when you have more urgent reform needed in the primary schooling section, which itself is missing, I can't see any of this reform happening at the university level.

 
At 8:31 AM, Blogger gawker said...

"'In the US universities including the private ones most of the research activities are funded by state agencies. Thus the state plays the most key role in the advancement of knowledge.'

I agree with Sunil on this. I also know there are many research projects in American universities, supported by corporations, but these are most commonly "applied science" oriented, basically the corporation wants to see tangible results. After all, it is an investment for them. The problem is, as I know from experience, research frequently involves muddling through, making mistakes, correcting them and moving on, which is time consuming and corporations might not be too forgiving in this aspect. Whereas, government funded agencies, as long as you show them you are making progress, would continue to fund you because they look at it from a scientific perspective, not from an economic perspective.

 
At 9:19 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

Thanks a lot Sunil and Gawker. I was talking to a friend of mine a couple of hours ago on the same issue. He too told me exactly the same thing.

 
At 9:23 AM, Blogger froginthewell said...

Dilip et al, what I said was "a lot of pure science research" is useless - I have specific areas and problems in mind and not the whole of pure science to which we owe antibiotics, superconductivity etc. A lot of areas in pure science are indeed helpful and should be encouraged and funded. It is not to say that the rest of pure mathematics etc. should be banned - those researchers can and should fund themselves by teaching calculus to engineering students or devoting some time of their research to applied mathematics and doing consultancy work for companies etc.

Yes, we cannot incontrovertibly identify precisely those areas of utility but there are many areas which shouldn't be funded.

 
At 12:14 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

Yes, we cannot incontrovertibly identify precisely those areas of utility and therefore all areas should be funded. That's what I think. Plus 'utility' needs to be understood broadly.

 
At 3:21 AM, Blogger Abi said...

In the science disciplines, is it hard for those interested from our universities to get DST funding? If there aren't enough decent proposals then the problem lies with our human resources and not funding, right?

Well, Anand, I didn't pose these questions! The ones in my previous comment were meant to illustrate my point that politics is necessarily involved in decisions about what -- and how -- a society (government) chooses to spend its money and other resources on. These 'political' decisions come to the fore when, for example, DST chooses to fund several megacentres in nanotechnology, as opposed to funding, say, 50 condensed matter physicists individually. Interestingly, such decisions in the sciences do not generate controversy. In the humanities, on the other hand, such decisions lead to serious acrimony -- just look at what happened to ICHR during the NDA and UPA regimes!

The questions you posed are interesting, too. IMO, lack of good people in the universities to send fundable proposals is a myth; what is more probable is that our universities have not done a good job of nurturing this kind of talent. UGC is in the process of identifying good departments in universities that will be funded generously (by UGC standards); I am not sure if this will lead to significant changes in the way the universities function. However, I have to concede that something is better than nothing.

What I look forward to from the Knowledge Commission are recommendations for radical reforms in (a) the functioning of UGC (see Satya's blog Education in India which has lots of ideas), (b) funding, accreditation and regulation of our universities, and (c) reward structure for the individual teacher/researcher. I hope the KC will do some good.

 
At 10:15 AM, Blogger Aswin said...

A well known problem is that in the case of basic sciences(math,phy,chem,bio), a huge volume of research goes on in exclusive research institutes run by DAE. Promising undergrads often languish in pathetic enivirons..far from the cutting edge research which could give the all importatnt inspiration. MSc (integ) courses from IITs and B.Sc offerings at ISI(Bang), CMI are probably the best on offer for high school pass-outs. I know that many an eminent scientist has come out against this..but very little seems to have changed! Hope the Knowledge commission looks into this.

 
At 8:55 PM, Anonymous Anand said...

Thanks again Abi. Sure, you didn't pose that question. I just wanted to hear from you regarding those questions too.

I think you are right on both counts. Politics is necessarily involved in these decisions. Interestingly (& naturally?) this manifests more often in the social sciences.

Also what is more probable is that our universities have not done a good job of nurturing this kind of talent. I tend to agree with you. And as you said something is better than nothing.

Of course you have thought about these questions perhaps more than any other blogger that I know of. Hope to see more of your comments on these matters in the future too.

Ashwin -- Good point. At the same time I think the DAE institutes do run certain programmes in the interests of undergrads in the other institutions.

Btw, nice work going on in your blog. Especially liked your astrology post.

 
At 12:08 AM, Blogger Aswin said...

Thanks for those nice words abt my post on Astrology.
And DAE institutes do run such programmes and I am a beneficiary too! It is from that experience that I tell that it is a huge diff.
Ofcourse, coming from an IIT, I felt it to a lesser extent..but there were many who were thrilled to be beyond the reach of "important 5 mark questions, previous years solved papers" kinda stuff. They certainly don't deserve what they are being put thro.

 
At 12:17 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

Ashwin -- Of course I understand that difference.

The discussions that we have had here again tell us how difficult it is to improve the quality of the education sector in India. I find it even more difficult now to comprehend the Telegraph logic of "Leave knowledge alone". Smacks of a very elitist approach to say the least.

 
At 12:18 AM, Blogger Saheli said...

I don't know anything about the pattern of research funding in India, but I find this laughable at best:

Knowledge has advanced not because of the state but despite its presence.

Well, that depends entirely on the structure of the state! Do you think Newton's England was some heady haven of Libertarian Free for all? Do you think his Cambridge University sprung up as a free enterprise? It was largely built with "State" money---taxes most forcibly collected by the Aristocracy from the masses. Now I prefer a system where the masses get some say in the dispensation of their taxes, but that doesn't mean that said dispensation is necessarily bad.

As for the conflict between pure research and applied, goodness me. One need only quote Faraday, who, when showing of his new discovery of induction, was challenged by a cranky woman asking what it was useful for.

"Madam," he replied, "of what use is a new born child?"

And that, of course, is how most of the world's electricity is generated today.

Regarding English literature vs. Science---scientists need poems to inspire them, history to place context around their researching, and music to keep them going. J. Robert Oppenheimer selected Berkeley over other schools to settle down at, in great measure because of its fine collection of Medieval French Poetry manuscripts.

 
At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

Thanks Saheli. Well thought out comment. And nice examples.

 
At 9:58 AM, Blogger froginthewell said...

I don't see how Saheli's arguments in any way help contradict the statement she quoted from Telegraph ( that knowledge advanced despite the presence of the state ).

And it is plain ridiculous to argue that poems etc. are needed because scientists need poems to inspire them. To the extent to which I have seen mathematicians,malicious gossip-mongering interests and inspires them more than poetry :-)). Context-of-research is better known by the perusal of extant scientific literature than analysis from a historian's perspective. And I don't think history anymore contributes to understanding such things. Its scientific utility is dead. Anyway these days history has more to do with fighting over the past than learning from the past.

Sorry if I have been acerbic.

 
At 10:02 PM, Anonymous Anand said...

Froginthewell -- I think Saheli's examples -- Newton's England etc -- were meant to point to the enormous advancements in knowledge when it wasn't left alone. And it does contradict the implied meaning of the Telegraph statement.

Now if one takes the view that do not go by implications go only by the written words, then I think the Telegraph statement is neither provable nor falsifiable. Making such vague and sweeping statements in a serious context makes the Telgraph editorial even more laughable in that case!

Regarding History etc, you have a clear view, Saheli has a clear view too, and they don't match (& that's fine). I don't subscribe to the view that the scietific utility of history is dead.

Others in other contexts too are busy taking back their 'End of History' predictions or so I hear.

 
At 6:05 AM, Blogger froginthewell said...

I did agree even earlier that the Telegraph statement is far from obvious and hence needs more justification.

But the advancements in England do not contradict it since we don't have any obvious way of measuring how much development would have been there without the state influence.

As for history I am yet to come across any convincing argument/article citing its influence in placing in context any research - other than what we learn in school about the scientific method ( where I think the scientific utility of history stops ).

And what about a lot of other history - how does going into lengthy descriptions of caste system and oppression of women help, given the present value systems - of course, other than damaging many Indians' morale?

 

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