India needs to lead in research – create new knowledge at scale by using a scientific process. In my recent book ‘Leading Science and Technology: India Next?’ I discuss India’s underdeveloped research ecosystem, how we lag severely behind the US and China and what we may do to invigorate it.
Many of my socially active friends ask me how this would help India solve its social problems. We need government action and startup initiatives to scale the known solutions – rather than trying to get to the moon or building super fancy humanoids!
I strongly differ. I believe that India needs science – science is a necessary condition – to solve its social problems. Science is not only about going to the moon or making talking robots. What is it then and how can it help solve our social problems.
The first step in solving a problem is to define the question. Science provides the method to do this -to translate real-world problems into questions that may be answered objectively. A scientific question depends on measurement and evidence in order to determine how good the solution is. This provides a mechanism to track the effectiveness of the solution, identify the gaps and work toward continuous improvement.
I take the example of Rani and Abhay Bang in my book. The real world question for them was how to reduce infant mortality rate (IMR) among semi-literate families in Ghatcharoli, a place with little access to hospitals or nursing homes. They translated it to a couple of scientific questions, ‘What causes a high rate of deaths among infants? Can healthcare provided at home by trained healthcare workers diminish IMR significantly?’. Their innovation included the processes, protocols and the medical toolkit that the healthcare workers would use. This was based on a deep understanding of the problem – the causes for young babies to die.
Rani and Abhay Bang converted Ghatcharoli into a scientific laboratory. They ran their experiments live, measured impact and improved their methods to perfect them. They took five long years to figure out if their methods really worked. Their solution lowered the mortality rate at various ages by 45-71%. It led to one of the most cited papers in Lancet, one of the world’s best-known journals in medicine. Their methods were recognized and implemented at scale by the Indian government. They were accepted by the World Health Organization and became a template for other developing countries.
This is one great example of how a scientific approach can help solve a social problem. Not only did it help address the problem in Ghatcharoli, but it also became a solution that others across the world could use.
So far, we have discussed how to frame questions and answer them based on evidence. Modern technology and cutting-edge scientific knowledge further help us device breakthrough solutions. They help us do things which weren’t possible earlier or make the existing methods more efficient. Consider the example of Ramesh Raskar, an MIT professor, who developed a solution to do cheap and scalable eye testing and prescribe the right glasses. It combines the technology of a camera-enabled mobile phone with the science of testing the eyes accurately. It yields a solution that can get eye testing to the poor at scale.
Consider another example of automatically testing spoken English of learners and a platform to practice and improve one’s skills based on feedback. It uses the latest in machine learning (now popularly known as Artificial Intelligence) technology and exploits the mobile phone platform. Furthermore, it uses the science of assessments and learning to ensure accurate assessment and effective learning pedagogy. Such a solution can benefit millions of learners, which is not possible solely through a manual process.
These examples show that we need to delve into the latest technology, scientific knowledge and create new solutions to solve our problems – we cannot continue to use the same rudimentary methods. At the same time, we need to save ourselves from using technology mindlessly. For instance, it would have been a catastrophe, if Rani and Abhay had decided to provide a tablet with preloaded videos of pregnancy and delivery precautions to every mother. They could have assumed that the problem is solved within 3 months after the tab distribution rather than spending five years on it. The media would have covered it on the first page! Similarly, giving everyone a laptop, putting kiosks in all villages or giving educational tabs to every kid, doesn’t solve any problem. People may stuff laptops in cupboards, play games on it, watch Bollywood movies and kids may never engage with educational content on tabs. (My friend, Kentaro Toyoma explains this in detail in his book, ‘Geek Heresy’).
Technology without science is of little use to solve our social problems.
We need science entrepreneurship. Our social entrepreneurs should believe in the power of science. They need to have people trained in creating solutions through the process of science and technology on their teams. They need to deeply understand their problems and use science and technology to propose effective solutions. Finally, they need to use scientific methods to validate the solution’s efficacy and continuously improve it. This is the only way we can solve our social problems at scale.
Solution evaluation using RCTs (Randomized Control Trials) has been popular for some time now. The problem here is that these methods are for mature solutions and not intrinsically part of the solution building process. This neither enough nor ideal. Scientific evaluation process needs to enter the very process of building the solution – continuous evaluation, finding causes of ineffectiveness and innovative fixes. Also, there is a misallocation of resources between using science and technology to build innovative solutions and those spent on expensive evaluation.
Last, we need vigorous collaboration between people who create new knowledge and those who are devoted to solving social problems. Our research institutions need to engage with real problems on the ground rather than building a derivative research program based on the problems proposed by our Western friends. One of my friends, Lavanya at UIUC, uses the latest scientific methods to see how to provide emergency services in India given its poor infrastructure and jammed roads. It is one example – but we need many more. And we need to save ourselves from just clever hacks (and jugaad), which may serve us in the short term, but not in the long run.
Today, science and entrepreneurship exist in silos. One MIT professor remarked to me, people close to the problem and those close to building the solutions are distant from each other in India. Just imagine, what we could achieve by connecting them. This connection is what I call as science entrepreneurship.