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International Desk

Langer, Lerch Foster Closer Ties with Indian Scientists

Ranjit Nair, President of the Centre for the Philosophy and Foundations of Science in New Delhi, introducing James Langer as the Jagadis Chandra Bose Lecturer for 2000.
Ranjit Nair, President of the Centre for the Philosophy and Foundations of Science in New Delhi, introducing James Langer as the Jagadis Chandra Bose Lecturer for 2000.

Last October, then-APS President James Langer (University of California, Santa Barbara), and APS Director of International Affairs Irving Lerch visited institutes and university physics departments in three major Indian cities: Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Bangalore and New Delhi.

In the aftermath of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in May 1998, there was concern that the punitive impediments enacted by the Congress to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons might undermine long-time scientific collaboration to the detriment of the US and both India and Pakistan. Through the medium of a visit that would be informal, collegial and unofficial, and by participating in private discussions and scientific exchanges, it was hoped that Langer and Lerch could help to assure the Indian physics community that it remains a valued partner in the international enterprise.

Of pressing concern to the Indian scientific community is electronic access to journals, particularly the lack of on-line access. While the most important universities and institutions have such access, most lack broad-band Internet connections. India has no national network, and hence major institutions must maintain their own ground stations or land lines. Lerch and Langer stressed that before the APS can discuss possible effective solutions to the problem, the Indian Physics Association (IPA) and other education and research institutes must catalog their needs and capabilities. Lerch believes that the remedial distribution of CD-ROMs will probably be the best alternative in the short run, pending the advent of a wide-band national network in India.

Another issue is the net flow of students and technically trained people from India to the US. "The Indians recognize the importance of this, even though to some extent they are in competition with us," says Lerch, pointing to the fact that the US brings in critical talent which India badly needs at a time when it is trying to build an independent technology base in cities like Bangalore. "Yet they're reluctant to impede these exchanges because they feel the mobility of scientific talent is more important than their immediate needs."

Langer and Lerch were drawn in to casual discussions on issues of safeguards and arms control during their visit to the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS). The Institute Director, Roddam Narasimha, and a number of senior faculty have been engaged in such discussions with the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the US National Academy of Sciences and there was considerable interest expressed about the attitudes within the US physics community concerning India and Pakistan's entrance into the nuclear club. To date, the Indian physics community has not developed an independent reservoir of nuclear policy expertise capable of affecting government decisions, further hampered by the fact that most Indian physicists are government employees who find it difficult to oppose or even question government policy in this area. "Scientists are essentially wards of the state, as they are in socialist countries," says Lerch, who views this as a major problem.

Both Lerch and Langer believe that they were successful in the central purpose of their mission: to invigorate contacts and explore issues of mutual concern between the two scientific communities. In fact, the APS intends to explore further joint APS/IPA activities, such as junior and senior scientist short-term exchanges, and possibly workshops or similar scientific forums. And the APS plans to continue to work with selected contacts within the Indian physics community to develop and pursue grass-roots discussions on a variety of issues such as obstacles to scholarly exchange and the impact of the technology embargo on Indian-US scientific collaboration.

Langer, who visited India several years ago, confessed to being somewhat distressed at "the sense that some things are getting worse" in the region, most notably air pollution, overpopulation and transportation. However, he was heartened to find that the level of scientific research remains world-class in several institutions, particularly in the area of condensed matter physics, and concluded that "collegial scientific interaction" between the two countries "is as important today as it has ever been."