THE NO NOBEL SYNDROME
(1998 December 16)
The scientists of the country are attending the annual sessions of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, this week, at the University of Sri Jayawardhanapura. More than hundred research papers will be read in various fields, the guest speakers will deliver their lectures, the Presidential addresses in each section will be listened to by the scientists from other sections as well, few popular lectures will be attended by the general public and at the end of the week, the scientists will be looking forward to the next annual sessions.
Are the western scientists in Sri Lanka, satisfied with the state of science in the country? I am not a great admirer of the western standards. The western science is dominated by the western white males. It is they who set the standards for the rest, including the white females in the western world, to follow. The western scientists whether they are from Sri Lanka or Zimbabwe have to learn to think as the western white males do. Most of the scientists in Sri Lanka look towards the west in every aspect of their subjects and they would go to the extent of claiming that the standards in the scientific education in the country are high, meaning, of course, that we have been very good imitators of the west.
Very often science teachers in our universities speak with pride of their students who do well in their postgraduate and post doctoral work in the western universities. They also sometimes talk of the performance of our students at the graduate record examination, which students who want to enter the American universities for their graduate studies have to sit. However the question is what happens to all these students who have done so well?
Occasionally we hear of a scientist who has come on holiday from a university or research institute in the west talking to us how close he (very often he, and virtually no she) is to the Nobel prize. Every year we wait in anticipation for the Swedish Academy to announce his name in the Nobel list. After few years we learn that the person had only being close to a Nobel prize winner and he had only used some kind of 'logic' that runs as, if A is close to B, and B is close to C, then A is close to C.
It is a fact that none of our scientists working here or abroad has not only won a Nobel prize but has not been elected to the Royal Society of London. We do not have Sri Lankans who are Fellows of the Royal Society. No Sri Lankan can use the letters FRS after his or her name. After nearly hundred years of teaching western science we are no where close to the centre, intellectually and creatively, though we may be there physically. I am not trying to say that we should be guided by the western standards, but those who are proud of their Ph. D.s, M.R.C.P.s, F.R.C.S.s, M.I.C.E.s, F.I.E.E.s etc., have to be concerned with the FRS s and the Nobel prizes as well.
The so-called intellectuals in what is known as the third world live as prisoners in a cultural world dominated by the westerners. They dominate the rest through knowledge. The knowledge is created by them and our research is very often confined to some application of their general theories. It appears that, in general, people who are brought up in South Asian cultures are not good at creating general theories in western science.
Even in the case of diplomacy and management the rules are set by them. If somebody from the non-western world wants to succeed then he or she has to be guided by the rules. The system is such that there is room for the occasional protest, but that again has to be staged in a format laid down by them.
Sometimes we find our fellow country men/women being appointed to top positions in the international bodies. While admitting that those people are undoubtedly gifted, I must say that, in general, it is not only their talents, which have earned them these positions. Very often we find our parliamentarians going for various conferences, having being elected as chairpersons, claiming that they have brought honour to the country. But the chairs, to these worthies are elected, are nothing but musical chairs set out by the westerners to please, in rotation, their 'subjects' from the non- western world.
The westerners have studied the mentality of the intellectuals (I include the bureaucrats also in this category) in this part of the world. After all it is they who trained these people and they know the values that were imparted to the intellectuals in the non- western world, through the education. As long as the world is run according to the way they want, the westerners are prepared to give some managerial posts to those who come from the non western world. In fact they know that it pays off well as (i) it acts as a good safety valve and (ii) the bureaucrats from one country in the so-called third world can be used in a different country or sometimes in the same country, to implement western "solutions", giving the impression that the "solutions" are worked out by the 'third world' itself. .
In Literature things are not very different. First it was the era of the Latin Americans, and then the Africans. Now all of a sudden the westerners have discovered that there are really fantastic writers in Asia. Those who have studied this phenomenon know that it is only a fantasy, but the rest believe that these writers are really fantastic. The writers would naturally want to see their books read and to achieve that end the books have to be sold. Who is in control of the world book market? Certainly not the M.D. Gunasena and Company or the Lake Hose Publishers.
It is not that the book has become a commodity product and that the prices and the sales of books are determined according to some objective economic laws the western economists have formulated. These laws themselves only mislead us creating the impression that there are some value free objective economic laws governing world trade including the book market. The books are valued by the western culture, and the western booksellers will make sure that the books written according to their 'standards' would get good reviews, good publicity, and finally the prizes. It is not only the profit motive that governs world trade. The individual company may be after profit, but on the whole the west is more interested in their cultural hegemony. The western economists will make sure that the cultural hegemony does not become a factor in their economic theories. Their theories, which are created relative to the western culture, have to hide the importance of cultural hegemony in world trade. It is not only the political economy that one has to study but the cultural economy as well.
Nobel prize for literature is not something that cannot be won by a Sri Lankan. Even within the 'objective' world of the mainstream western intellectuals there is some kind of relativism in the field of literature. Thus a Sri Lankan writer with some talent even today can win a Nobel prize, provided the work satisfies certain criteria determined by the western culture. The western world, not satisfied with awarding an occasional Nobel prize to a novelist from the non-western world, in the last few years have been busy creating other prizes in literature mainly for those African and Asian writers who would satisfy the western cultural criteria. These criteria would include criticism of the traditional societies in Africa and Asia from a western point of view.
In the field of social sciences and humanities, including history and philosophy the relativism is lesser than in the case of literature and hence the game is little tougher. I have sometimes come across statements to the effect that Peradeniya university has produced scholars of international repute in fields such as sociology and history but not in economics. Surely it cannot be due to some extra brilliance of the sociologists and the historians vis-à-vis the economists. Sri Lankan sociologists have won prizes and recognition while the economists have had to satisfy themselves with fellowships and conferences due to some other reason. Before we proceed further it has to be emphasised that international repute means a reputation in the west. The west is the world as far as recognition is concerned, but we do not seem to be conscious even of that fact.
When it comes to economics, creation of general theories is what is mostly required for recognition, where as in sociology, and more so in history, it is usually phenomena particular to a country or a region that are analysed in the background of the general theories created in the west. A historian is entrusted with the task of writing the history of Sri Lanka from the perspective of the general European history, according to which the establishment of nation states is a recent phenomenon. A sociologist 'analyses' the resurgence of nationalism in Sri Lanka from a so-called western secular point of view, which in essence is the European Christian point of view. The sociologist and the historian would be naturally recognised in the west, whereas an economist who studies the external trade patterns in Sri Lanka will not gain the same recognition even though he himself uses some economic theory created in the west. The economist does not achieve significance simply because his work is not that significant for the westerner. The intellectuals achieve significance in the eyes of the westerners, in general, only if their work is significant from the cultural and economic point of view the western world.
In the so-called hard sciences the situation is grimmer. Our scientists will not gain recognition by analysing the chemical constituents of the 'kuppemaniya' plant, using the methods and theories developed in the west, however much it is important to the west from western medicinal point of view. To the westerners kuppemaniya does not have the same social significance as the 'keppa mania' associated with the homeland concept. The chemists will have to be satisfied with a workshop in a five star hotel.
In general, prizes are awarded to non- westerners in any field from cinema to chemistry, not only on the merit of the work itself. Various other factors such as cultural and political, are taken in to consideration when awards are made. We should not pretend that these other factors are not in operation when announcements are made. Even among the westerners the Nobel prize or any other prize winner is not selected entirely on merit.
Even if the west wants to award a Nobel prize for physics to a Sri Lankan, or to elect a Sri Lankan Mathematician as a fellow of the Royal Society of London, they cannot do so, as not much creative work in these fields are done in general theory (or in high powered experiments) , by the Sri Lankans. The same is applicable in the other fields as well. Also, the work done in the hard sciences, by the Sri Lankans, in general, is not of cultural and political significance to the westerners, say, as in the case of sociology, history, literature, cinema, human rights, diplomacy etc., and as such very little importance is attached to the 'hard scientist' in general. The Sri Lankans in the fields of hard science, I am afraid will have to be satisfied with the scholarships and fellowships awarded to them.