I found an interesting pair of stories about science and knowledge development in India this week. One argues for a greater focus by Indian scientists on the needs of the rural population; the other argues for greater participation in Indian research by the global Indian diaspora. These are by no means contradictory concepts, but they make for a striking comparison.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed the Indian Science Congress last week, and called upon local scientists to put a greater focus on issues relevant to the needs of the nation's primarily rural population. The concerns raised combine traditional development goals with leapfrog techniques:
"The Western world has not invested enough in research on water, biomass, solar and other relevant sources of energy because they are not under the kind of pressure we face," he said.
"Solar energy and biomass are areas where Indian scientists must be at the forefront of research and development." [...]
He said that in addition to doing research on water and energy, Indian scientists are needed to increase agricultural productivity and developing technologies for rural businesses that are efficient but do not eliminate jobs. [...]
Stressing the need for balanced social and economic progress, [economist Amartya] Sen warned that India's vision of its future "cannot be one that is half California and half sub-Saharan Africa".
Singh and Sen contrast this desired approach with the growing tendency for researchers to work on products and services valued by Western markets. Their call isn't for scientific nationalism, precisely -- there's no reason why the solutions developed by Indian scientists couldn't be used in other parts of the developing world -- but for a kind of scientific localism, a greater interaction between the researchers and the societies in which they live.
A few days later, Prime Minister Singh announced the development of a Diaspora Knowledge Network to connect overseas citizens with the growing knowledge economy of India. This network has more of a professional role than a scientific one, but the underlying principle -- of applying knowledge generation and knowledge-based skills to Indian needs -- remains the same. (In this case, of course, the Indian citizens are asked specifically not to focus on the concerns of the societies in which they live, but on their societies of origin.)
The idea of Diaspora Knowledge Networks isn't new. The United Nations has had a program for several years now supporting the initiation of DKNs across the developing world.
The ambition of this project is to build an infrastructure that can be used by members of scientific and technical diaspora for transforming the information that is available to them in their countries of adoption into useful knowledge for the development of their countries of origin. Placing the emphasis on transforming information into useful knowledge for collective action recognises the need to computer support the cognitive and social processes underlying this transformation.
Both scientific localism and the diaspora knowledge network reflect India's recognition that science and knowledge are key to economic and social development. The big question will be whether the people asked to participate in these efforts will see a greater value in national development than in personal economic gain. It's a question of globalization -- not just of the economy, but of identity.