Sunday, November 17, 2013

Science and Sport: The Twin ‘Ratnas’ of Bharat

There tend to be only a few moments in a nation’s life when the entire population seems to root for one person. That level of admiration, adulation and followership from millions in India and abroad, reserved only for legends, has been showered on Sachin Tendulkar, India’s cricketing maestro. Sachin, who played his last test, his 200th at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium with a graceful 74 runs during the last week, had scored an aggregate of 50,192 runs in all formats in a ceaseless 24 year cricketing career that spanned 200 tests and 463 one-day’s. He stood out amongst other national and international cricketing stalwarts and won plaudits for his technique, grace, sportsmanship, diligence and commitment. He was also unique for an unblemished cricketing lifestyle that brought dignity to the national game. In a well timed move, the Government of India conferred India’s highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna on Sachin, within hours of his retirement test, making the living legend the first sportsperson to receive the nation’s highest civilian honour.  As the Government release said, Tendulkar’s achievements in cricket were unparalleled, the records set by him were unmatched, and the spirit of sportsmanship displayed by him was extraordinary.

Science, unlike sports, happens in closed laboratories and gets applauded in peer-evaluated scientific journals, conferences and congresses. Scientists tend to be individualistic and less than unanimous in recognizing the scientific achievements of others. That a rare level of scientific recognition came to ProfessorChintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao (CNR Rao) who is an international authority in solid state and materials chemistry proves his standing in the scientific community. He is particularly known for his research contributions in the fields of hybrid and nano-materials that promise to revolutionalise several fields, ranging from healthcare to defence. He has been prolific in scientific writing in a career of 50 years, publishing over 1,400 papers in top scientific journals and writing or editing close to 50 books. He is considered to be a great builder of institutions with a knack for spotting and developing talent. In a parallel move, the Government of India bestowed the highest civilian honour, Bharat Ratna on CNR Rao, making him the third eminent scientist after Sir CV Raman and Dr Abdul Kalam to receive this highest civilian honour.  The Government citation refers to the several memberships and fellowships conferred on CNR by major scientific academies of the world as an international recognition of his science.
The purpose of this blog post is not to detail the sportsmanship of Sachin or erudition of CNR as an enormous body of information is available in public domain (strangely but not unnaturally, more being available and written on Sachin than on CNR). The purpose of this post is to hypothesize that science and sports, unrelated as they may seem, are an essential combination for remaking of India as a superpower. In this post, sports include all kinds of sports and athletics while science includes all sciences, technology and engineering.
Science and Sport
In honouring Sachin and CNR simultaneously with the highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna, the Government of India, either by deliberate thought or a serendipitous coincidence demonstrated that top-class sportsmanship that enthralls the people and world-class scientific accomplishment that secures the future are both deserving of the best recognition possible. As a matter of fact, science and sports ought to be the two incomparable ‘ratnas’ or diamonds of Bharat, that is India. Although science and sports look like distantly separated fields they have several factors in common. First and foremost, both are driven by five factors: knowledge, practice, commitment, diligence and above all, a healthy aspiration. Second, often less realized, both require a supportive ecosystem. Those who have listened to or read Sachin’s farewell speech would have realized that a virtuous ecosystem of family, friends, coaches, mentors, critics, managers, doctors, and physiotherapists, to name a few, have been instrumental  in making Sachin the ‘master blaster’ that he has been. Similarly, CNR’s association with some of the best teaching and research institutions and scientific commissions, and hundreds of illustrious students and research fellows brought out the best in him.
Equally important in these kinds of extraordinary achievements in sports and science is the existence of a larger purpose. It could be national fervor, institution building, ambassadorship, inspirational leadership or a combination of all of these. There are a few contrasts, with some convergence, as well. Sports require an athletic body and an agile mind. In some sports, the former is more important than the latter (for example, cricket and hockey) and in some others the latter more necessary than the former (for example, chess and billiards). Science requires a healthy body and a creative mind. There have been instances of brilliant science from individuals who were handicapped or furloughed by disabilities or poor health (for example, Einstein, Bell and Ramanujam).  The convergence in the contrasts is the passion and dedication, shared by both sportspersons and scientists, to make a mark. By recognizing and honouring outstanding sportsmanship and scientific accomplishment, the Government is honouring the sublime characteristics for which the legendary recipients are known for. However, the responsibilities of the Government and such worthy persons cannot, and should not, end there; rather they should mark a new beginning for institutionalizing their exemplary characteristics and capabilities.
Recognitions as enablers
Sachin has reached his peak recognition at the age of 40 years. CNR has received his peak recognition at the age of 80 years.  Though there is some irony in this, there is some inevitability too. Sports intrinsically needs shorter time to blossom and peak and has broad age and performance limits beyond which ability and performance plateau, with a new generation taking over (even in mind games as Carlsen versus Anand World Chess Championship match indicates). Sports accomplishments which are almost always demonstrated in open public contests attract universal attention and recognition. Science characteristically requires longer time to incubate and experiment and has, unlike sports, offers flexibility and expandability on both age and performance, with new generations supporting the mellowed scientists (even on sunrise discoveries such as God Particle). The challenge and opportunity, therefore, for the Government and the achievers are both ways.  Young achievers like Sachin must be utilized for several years and decades more to serve the cause of their domains. Great scientists like CNR must be recognized years and decades earlier so that they have a reasonably long time at hand to continue their science individually and institutionally.
Sports and science share a unique characteristic, in contrast with business. Entrepreneurs, businessmen and industrialists need to build institutions of growth and profit to gain recognition. Sportspersons and scientists can build institutions on the foundations of their individual accomplishments. The need to recognize sports and science at a relatively young age is therefore obvious. The recognitions, often, have a cascading effect. Apart from motivating the recipients they inspire others to follow their paths. The question to ponder is whether India has the right kind and sweep of recognition system that can make the vast educated numbers in India a really world-class talent pool. Doubtless, we have Arjuna awards for sportspersons and Bhatnagar awards for scientists but they come nowhere near the higher echelon civilian awards such as Padma Vibhushan and Bharat Ratna in terms of inspiring the larger population. There is a strong case for expanding the scope and number of these two highest awards to cover more domains and more accomplishments, and to be bestowed at younger age levels; probably one each for every domain be it arts, media, education, science, technology, sports, public service and governance, should be in good order. Additionally, national recognitions need not follow international awards; rather, we should be recognizing and honouring our world-class talent on our own home turf first.
The competitive capabilities of individuals in a nation become national comparative advantage when accomplished individuals are inspired, encouraged and facilitated to build entities and enterprises that institutionalize and disseminate their capabilities. A Sachin’s Academy of Cricketing Excellence or a CNR’s Institute of Nanotechnology would be a great way to institutionalize their unique capabilities. There have been a couple of such inspired efforts in the past as purely private initiatives, for example by the famous tennis player, Ramesh Krishnan in terms of his tennis training academy. There is a need to provide greater financial and leadership strength in public-private partnership to enterprise building initiatives from such sports and science stalwarts, not necessarily only the civilian award winners. Another important initiative would be to utilize such stalwarts to establish specialized institutions. If nanotechnology is a national technology mission, there is every justification to establish Indian Institutes of Nanotechnology.  From a different perspective, sports institutions may go beyond training in the sports to develop a holistic paradigm of sporting technique, human endurance, sports medicine, environmental contribution, brand ambassadorship and so on.
Institutionalization has another component as well. Recognition need not necessarily be only though public adulation or civilian recognition. India must have institutions of such world-class caliber that serving in such institutions should be considered an honour and recognition. Clearly, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) have led such a revolution in the 1960s and 1970s in India. There is a need to reinforce the IITs and IIMs for global academic and research excellence further, and also facilitate establishment of specialized schools and chairs supported by the governments and businesses in such institutes. The greater the spread of such institutions, schools and chairs, the greater would be the wave of recognition and encouragement in India’s talent pool. Institutionalization should help commercialization, and vice versa. Creation of commercial channels for scientific intellectual property and rewarding sportsperson’s brand ambassadorship through equity support for institution building could provide long term sustainability to sports and science accomplishments.
Sports and science convergence
Several aspects that are common between science and sports have been covered in the earlier sections of this blog post. The aspects of interrelationship and interdependence are even deeper than that. But for the strides in television and transmission technologies, digital imaging and computer technologies, sports events would not have been universally projected, analyzed and popularized as in contemporary times. Without medical science understanding and developing aspects of endurance training, sports injuries, body reconstruction and human resilience better, sportspersons would not have been able to test the limits of performance. Sports can learn a few aspects from science too. Sportspersons feel supported and vindicated more by popular acclaim than by peer and coach review. Sportspersons, like scientists, should be willing and keen to welcome and accept stringent peer evaluation to improve themselves and their techniques. In fact, this has been one of the factors that made Sachin Tendulkar the cricketing great. He had, in his brother, Ajit a constant constructive critic and in his coach, Achrekar an unrelenting technique developer; and, importantly Sachin had the yearning and openness to debate and accept such inputs.
Science also has a few important things to emulate from sports. The first is to recognize the importance of speed. To keep the governments, businesses and investors engaged, science must come up with scientific accomplishments speedily and decisively. For this, just as cricketers adapted their technique and approach to suit one day internationals from five day test matches, scientists must also explore appropriate research and development platforms. Secondly, scientists need to move away from the reclusive laboratory approach and seek to connect with other functions and the general public more frequently and more empathetically. Thirdly, scientists should consider scientific development as a true sport where the winners and losers (read, successes and failures) are considered equally important and both successes and failures are received with sportsmanship and togetherness. Fourthly, every scientist should recognize that the creative mind is his or her greatest, and potentially ageless, asset, and like Professor CNR Rao continue scientific quest and institution building relentlessly. For India to glitter like a superpower in the comity of nations, Bharat should treat both science and sports as the twin ‘ratnas’ of futuristic development.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on November 17, 2013                          

1 comment:

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