Science on a shoestring budget

In his latest book, ethologist and evolutionary ecologist Raghavendra Gadagkar, speaks about the importance of low-cost research and the need for academia and Indian society to recognise and attach social prestige to it.

In an email interview, Raghavendra Gadagkar talks about the possibilities of low-cost research. Photo from Raghavendra Gadagkar.
In an email interview, Raghavendra Gadagkar talks about the possibilities of low-cost research. Photo from Raghavendra Gadagkar.

Ethologist and evolutionary ecologist, Raghavendra Gadagkar has been researching animal behavior for the last 25 years using simple, inexpensive, and exquisitely thought-out experiments. In his latest book, Experiments in Animal Behavior: Cutting-edge Research at Trifling Cost, which is freely downloadable, Gadagkar points out that scientists need not jump on to the bandwagon of ‘fashionable’ and mostly expensive research to address important scientific questions. Academia and Indian society must recognise and attach more social prestige to low-cost research.

With descriptions of studies on common local organisms such as bees, ants, paper wasps, fish, frogs, and street dogs, the book fearlessly tackles the three most common misconceptions about the practice of science.

One, that if any research is not immediately applicable to a problem, it is not worth pursuing. As Gadagkar puts it, the “usefulness of useless research” is unpredictable. A real-life example of this situation lies in the development of the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines; if the idea of using mRNAs as vaccines had been dismissed as useless since it was ‘too farfetched’, some of the first vaccines against Covid-19 wouldn’t have been rolled out by the end of 2020.

Two, that science must be relegated to academia alone. Science should not be practiced only through technical wizardry in an ivory tower; it must become a more democratic and widespread practice in society. Although citizen science projects are gaining popularity in India with initiatives like MigrantWatch and SeasonWatch, we are still a long way from practicing scientific thinking on a day-to-day basis.

And finally, three, that a good scientist is someone who gets large grants and works on a highly technical aspect of an ‘applied’ scientific field; this ideal of a good scientist is flawed. After 25 years of working on animal behavior, ecology, and evolution—all of which are notoriously poorly funded—Gadagkar has a very fine grasp of how to generate good, even exceptional science using inexpensive materials and cleverly designed experiments.

In an email interview, Raghavendra Gadagkar talks about the possibilities of low-cost research. Photo from Raghavendra Gadagkar.

In the last chapter of his book, Gadagkar states, “I am amazed that when I espouse low-cost research, some people raise objections. The most common concern I hear is that such arguments in favour of low-cost research will reduce funding for science; politicians and funders will use the same arguments to cut back on funding….. I am not arguing for less money but more efficient use of funds so that more people can do cutting-edge research for the same total amount of money.”

According to the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor, India’s public expenditure on R&D has been stagnant at 0.6–0.7% of its GDP for the last 20 years; this is low compared to other nations such as the USA (2.8%), China (2.1%), Korea (4.2%), and Israel (4.3%). In the Union Budget 2021, the funding allocated to the Ministry of Science and Technology has seen only a modest increase of 20% as a result of the ongoing pandemic. Given these conditions, Gadagkar’s argument for according social and academic prestige to encourage low-cost research is compelling.

Gadagkar has published over 350 articles in scientific journals and authored two other books apart from his latest. He was awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in the biological sciences in 1993. He is currently an Honorary Professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, and a non-resident permanent Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg (Institute for Advanced Study) at Berlin.

In this e-mail interview with Mongabay-India, Gadagkar answers some questions about what motivated him to write Experiments in Animal Behavior: Cutting-edge Research at Trifling Cost and some of the subjects that he addresses in it.

What motivated you to write this book and make it freely available?

I am tired of hearing people say we cannot do cutting-edge research because we do not have money, laboratories, facilities, infrastructure, literature, fancy instruments—the list of excuses is endless. And they are all lame excuses. I wanted to call their bluff. And I did not want people to be able to say that I don’t have money to buy my book!

In his latest book, Gadagkar points out that scientists need not jump on to the bandwagon of ‘fashionable’ and mostly expensive research to address important scientific questions. Photo of book cover.

One of the recurring themes in the book is how the importance of low-cost research is constantly downplayed. A lot of the ‘success’ in science is attributed to the ability of a scientist to obtain large grants to fund his/her research. How can this trend be reversed?

We accord great prestige to high-cost research. And this is the way a few haves wield power over the have-nots. This state of affairs is neither inevitable nor accidental. We deliberately and actively do so. We encourage and value those who can get big grants. Indeed, we evaluate scientists by how big their grants are. Not surprisingly, those who are being evaluated flaunt their big grants. We need to reverse this pernicious trend and accord social prestige to low-cost research and take away excessive prestige from high-cost research. The high cost of research should be seen as a liability, as Achille’s heel of expensive research.

At the beginning of your book, you mention the “importance of being irreverent and asking questions”. Could you elaborate on this, specifically for the Indian research scenario, especially with reference to how students pick research questions for projects/PhDs?

The Indian society, being notoriously hierarchical and patriarchal, is tailor-made for fostering obedient shishyas (pupil) obeying their gurus (teacher) blindly. So, the onus is on the teachers to demand irreverence on the part of their students, encourage and train their students to question their teachers, and be skeptical of everything they are told or read. Truth in science is based on logic, not on authority. Anyone can call into question any scientific knowledge at any time. Indeed, it is our duty to constantly challenge established facts so that only the really robust facts may remain.

Currently, the fields of organismal biology and natural history are considered ‘boring’ and ‘unfashionable’ as opposed to molecular biology by most school and undergraduate students. Why do you think this has happened? Can this view be changed, and if so, how?

I would blame the organismal biologists. The practitioners of every discipline are entitled to sell the virtues of their disciplines and capture the imagination of young minds. If molecular biologists can entice students in spite of the handicap of needing big money and expensive equipment to practice their brand of science, and we ecologists cannot sell the thrill of making a discovery by taking a walk in the garden, only we are to blame. As long as we find a scapegoat to blame for our predicament, nothing will change. We must learn to communicate the joy of making discoveries in natural history, ecology and evolution.

A large nest of the Indian paper wasp Ropalidia marginata. The wasps are marked using paint of different colours for individual identification. Photo by Souvik Mandal.

Currently, neither school texts, nor undergraduate courses in India even touch upon ethology as a subject, much less as an experimental system. When and how do you think this subject can be introduced to students?

Children begin to observe and make sense of nature around them from the day they are born. So, it is never too early to start teaching natural history, animal behaviour and ecology. Not only should the study of nature be introduced from Class I, nay, from LKG, but I would say it should be included in Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, or whatever parents use today to bring up pre-school children. It would be a mistake to wait for the relevant authorities to re-write school curricula. Ethology is best taught informally and practiced as a hobby.

Simple field experiments, while they help understand the male frog call to attract females, they also pay the price of attracting predatory bats. Photo by Ryan Taylor.

Throughout the book, you emphasise the importance of making scientific study a more democratic and inclusive undertaking. How can this be encouraged in India? 

It is such a shame that we have created a division of labour between knowledge producers and knowledge consumers. Each one of us can, and should, do both. And part of the reason for this is that we package science as a sophisticated, expensive activity that only a few highly-trained specialists can practice. The biggest gain from promoting and according prestige to low-cost research is that we can make science inclusive and democratic. And this, in turn, can be the harbinger of most other reforms that we wish to see in science.

In all your years as a scientist, do you have any one experiment that you (or your students) carried out, that stands out in your mind as being special? If so, why? 

I like to think that we have carried out many experiments that are very special! It is hard to single one out. But if pressed, I would name the experiment that Anindita Bhadra conducted to prove that the wasps in the colony of the primitively eusocial wasp Ropalidia marginata ‘know’ who their next queen would be. There are many reasons why this experiment is special. The result itself is rather spectacular because we claim to know what the wasps know. Remarkably, the wasps know their next queen even though we ourselves have tried hard and failed to predict the identity of the queen’s successor. The design of the experiment is very clever, if I may say so—we first make one wasp believe that she is the next queen (by keeping her away from the real successor) and then make her realise that she is not (by bringing her face to face with the real successor). Sherlock Holmes anticipated the actions of his opponents by putting himself in their shoes and imagining what they might do. We put ourselves in the shoes of the wasps and anticipated what they might do if the wasps knew the identity of the successor—and that’s precisely what they did. We were thrilled to publish a paper with the title “We Know that the Wasps Know”. I describe this experiment in some detail in the eighth chapter of the book.

This interview was originally published in Mongabay.

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