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One Nation, Under Geeks

Geek Nation cover

(Hodder & Stoughton)

Review: Geek Nation by Angela Saini. Hodder & Stoughton (3 Mar 2011).

Science writer Angela Saini describes the rise of science and engineering in India in her new book Geek Nation. But if you’re looking for a triumphant Indian victory march you may be disappointed. The book instead offers a sophisticated and nuanced analysis of the factors promoting and inhibiting India’s geeky culture, telling as much about India as the science and engineering the country produces.

Science and engineering have a privileged status in India, reaching back to the country’s founding in 1947. Then, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru — who Saini calls the country’s first geek — made science a top priority for the country’s development, even naming himself the president of India’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Saini weaves this history into a series of stories that describe her travels around India, with entertaining and descriptive details about the places she visits and the people she meets. The student who scored highest on India’s competitive engineering school entrance exams, for example, turns out to be a tall, skinny, painfully shy young man, who likes playing multi-player video games. An executive with Tata Consultancy, one of India’s giant IT services companies, has a voice that reminds Saini of Kermit the Frog. The heat, the wind, the aromas, and even Saini’s food cravings are recorded and presented.

Spoken Web and tuberculosis

In the book, Saini uses these stories to describe Indian science and engineering in the context of India’s urgent needs and larger culture. While the cliche she notes may tag India as a land of contrasts, Saini shows how these contrasts are more like two sides of the same coin (my cliche).

IBM in India, for example, has embarked on a project to develop the “spoken Web,” an initiative to enable voice commands for Web browsing, using mobile phones. In India, 300 million people do not have bank accounts, and most of these people are illiterate and without a recognized postal address.

For this mass of the population, getting on the Internet through a traditional ISP is out of the question. A voice-based Internet using ubiquitous mobile phones has a better chance of succeeding than the text-based Internet found elsewhere in the world.

Another example in the book is the Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) project, patterned after open source software projects like Linux or Mozilla. OSDD aims to share research results to help find treatments for tuberculosis, a particular scourge in India. Much of the drug manufacturers’ pipelines today have drug candidates for cardiovascular disorders and cancer — illnesses of concern to the West’s aging populations — rather than infectious diseases like TB, malaria, and dengue afflicting the developing world.

While OSDD’s immediate goal is TB treatments, it is equally interested in establishing a process that breaks Western practices of protecting research for future lucrative patents. OSDD, populated mainly by Indian researchers and technicians, seeks to take advantage of their vastly larger number of researchers to develop high-quality drugs at lower costs.

Driving GM out of India

Science and engineering do not have a blank check in India, however. Saini discusses factors holding back science in India, despite its exalted status when the country was founded. She tells, for example, how Monsanto’s attempts to introduce genetically modified cotton was first seen as an attempt to improve yields of farmers and help address shrinking rural populations. Instead GM cotton, and later GM eggplant, ignited harsh negative reactions, caused in part by the high prices charged by Monsanto.

But underlying the controversy were India’s anti-colonial traditions  that helped Indians view Monsanto’s products with suspicion. Compounding the issue, says Saini, was the Ghandian tradition of self-sufficiency, which helped stoke fears of unknown adverse consequences from GM crops. So far, notes Saini, seven Indian states growing 70 percent of India’s eggplant crop, have rejected Monsanto’s product.

In a particularly fascinating discussion, Saini describes how Indians reconcile science with their religious traditions, in contrast to the West where conflicts seem to be increasing. Hinduism, India’s main religion, makes relatively few demands on worshipers beyond simple prayer. This, says Saini, helps religious scholars fit ancient teachings with modern discoveries into the same cognitive framework.

And they fit so well that some Hindu religious scholars even claim modern scientific achievements — e.g. flying machines, space travel, and solar energy — as their own and cite references to these developments in their ancient texts. Likewise some scientists follow pseudosciences, such as astrology, somehow justifying advice from celestial signs in their private lives with the scientific method at work (a process probably no more unusual than a statistician anywhere buying a lottery ticket).

An American perspective

Saini, a British citizen born of Indian parents, focuses almost entirely on her experiences in India, but to an American reading Geek Nation, Saini seems to slide past important issues — one negative, one positive — that color the views of many Americans about India’s growing science and engineering capacity. She discusses early in the book how the Y2K concerns of computer system failures in the late 1990s opened up opportunities for outsourcing American information technology work to India. As a result, however, thousands of American IT jobs disappeared in the process, generating a bitter reaction from American engineers and programmers that lasted well past Y2K and continues to this day.

Related to and compounding the issue of outsourcing, are temporary work visas, known by their official designation: H-1B. These visas, created to bring in highly skilled labor for short-term assignments, have been capped at 65,000 per year, but have been abused by Indian companies — including Wipro, Tata, and Infosys — leading in some cases to criminal prosecutions and convictions.

The other issue coloring American perceptions of India involves Indian entrepreneurs. While outsourcing may destroy U.S. jobs, new businesses have traditionally been the first to hire, and Indian entrepreneurs in the U.S. have left their positive mark on the national economy. In fact, the first Indians many Americans meet are often found behind the counter at their neighborhood 7-11 store or Subway franchise.

Geek Nation does not ignore entrepreneurs. Saini tells about a small and successful company company in Bengaluru — the city formerly known as Bangalore — called TringMe, developing voice programming systems that build on IBM’s spoken Web initiative. But nearly all of the other people profiled in Geek Nation are with large companies, universities, institutes, or government agencies.

Like scientists in India, entrepreneurs hold a high status in the U.S. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation that encourages and studies entrepreneurship in the U.S. has noted that immigrants play an outsized role as entrepreneurs, with the proportion of immigrants as entrepreneurs growing from 13 percent in 1996 to nearly 30 percent in 2010. The proportion of Asian-American entrepreneurs (including Indian-Americans) likewise grew by half, from 4 to 6 percent, in that period.

More Indian/American interaction

The trends point to more interchanges between Indian and American geeks, not less. For Indian students, particularly those seeking advanced study in science and engineering, the U.S. is the place to get your degree.  In the 2000-2001 academic year, less than 55,000 students from India studied at U.S. institutions. By the 2009-2010 year, that number almost doubled to nearly 105,000.

In that 2009-10 academic year, India ranked second only to China as the country providing the largest number of students to American institutions. Nearly 7 in 10 (69%) of the 2009-10 students from India enrolled in engineering, physical sciences, life sciences, computer science, or mathematics. And nearly two-thirds (65%) of the students that year were graduate students.

Plus, the U.S. wants more entrepreneurs from overseas, including from India. A proposal in Congress seeks to make it easier for immigrants to the U.S. who want to start businesses here to get American citizenship. Under the proposed legislation — called the Startup Visa Act — a startup company founder or entrepreneur who receives a minimum equity investment of $250,000 could qualify for an “investor” visa. At least $100,000 would have to come from a sponsoring US investor, such as an angel investor or venture capital company. The new companies would be required to create at least five new jobs every two years.

This potential increase in contacts between Indians and Americans can benefit both India and the United States. The emergence of India as a scientific collaborator rather than a competitor may be the most desirable outcome for both countries.

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