Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Research Proposal for Fulbright Fellowship

As a biology student, I have been taught that scientific method is the most reliable process for understanding the natural world. As an environmentalist, I have learned that science is by no means a value-neutral activity. When science is defined simply as “observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena,” (1) it is clear these activities have likely taken place in a wide variety of cultures throughout human history. What remains less clear are the ways and extent to which culture shapes our evolving conceptions of science. If science is to be relied upon as a tool for achieving environmental sustainability, it is imperative that we explore the tension between science as a source of knowledge versus science as a social construct deeply situated within a particular culture.

As someone trained in a particular scientific tradition, I can learn much about the nature of science by viewing it through another lens. Through a combination of independent research and personal interactions which take me outside of my cultural context, I hope to explore the science-culture symbiosis and discern its implications for addressing modern environmental crises. This examination will better prepare me for my future as an educator, scientist, and activist, and the knowledge gained will become increasingly important as human societies are forced to renegotiate their relationship with the biosphere.

India is an ideal setting for this inquiry because of its non-Western influences and its escalating importance in global markets and international scientific communities. While little non-Indian scholarship exists on the history of science and technology in India as compared with other parts of Asia, the Indian subcontinent has a long-standing tradition of scientific/technological development and cultural exchange. Science developed in India prior to significant contact with the West, and India made significant contributions to the early development of Western sciences. India is also home to diverse philosophical traditions, including long-standing Hindu and Buddhist traditions, as well as one of the most sizeable Muslim populations in the world. With its blending of diverse philosophical customs and significant integration of Western epistemology, India offers unique opportunities to explore the tension between modernization and Westernization in a scientific context and to approach the question of how science is influenced by cultural contexts.

The initial stages of my study, which are already underway, involve cultivating a deeper historical understanding of how, and why, science developed in India. An exploration of science history offers important insights into how people’s conceptions of science have changed over time. I want to comprehend how indigenous scientific traditions have compared with Western notions of science and whether contemporary scientists view science as a “universalizing force.” More specifically, I want to understand these individuals’ awareness of science history and philosophy in their respective contexts, their interactions with international scientific communities, and their perspectives on the roles of science and technology in achieving environmental sustainability. I intend to gain these insights through independent research, but also more directly through observation and interviews with science practitioners, as well as science educators and students.

An increased understanding of Indian history, culture, and popular conceptions of science should provide powerful insights into how bio-ethical concerns are both defined and negotiated within India’s societal discourse. While there are numerous contemporary bio-ethical case studies which merit investigation, I have chosen Indian responses to environmental concerns as my primary focus. This approach builds upon my previous research and organizing experiences while offering new insights on the pursuit of environmental sustainability. While India has demonstrated some mid-range successes in this pursuit, (2) it will continue to face many challenges along the way. These challenges include balancing environmental concerns with development needs, as well as overcoming the environmental and social consequences of rapid population growth and industrialization. Through observation and interviews with participants in Indian environmental advocacy organizations, I will gain broader perspectives on the roles science and technology play in both ameliorating and exacerbating environmental crises. In particular I am interested in Indian approaches to defining sustainability and efforts to develop indicators of sustainability at the local, regional, and national levels. In the United States and elsewhere, quantitative indicators are increasingly being relied upon to help guide individuals and policy-makers in assessing the efficacy of their decisions. These indicators incorporate social as well as environmental measurements and therefore serve as an important nexus between science and values.

I have already identified and corresponded with several potential research partners in India. Taken together, these contacts would provide me with access to a wide range of Indian society and hence a significant spectrum of opinion with regard to issues of science, technology, and sustainability. I would like to affiliate with the Centre for Studies in Science Policy (CSSP) at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The CSSP is a premier Indian research center which focuses on many issues germane to my interests. Its faculty members specialize in important areas such as development and globalization, science and the environment, and international scientific communities. The CSSP is also well-situated within a university that has a strong emphasis on the physical sciences, and within New Delhi, the home of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA). INSA provides scientific advice to Indian governments and serves as a national and international scientific forum. The Academy also strives to “maintain liaison between science and humanities” and publishes the Indian Journal of History of Science. I would also like to examine the work of the Indian Space Research Organization’s Science Education Program, which aims to “educate young people around the proliferation of science and importance of scientific method.” Additionally, I have corresponded with a potential NGO partner—the Barefoot College network. The Barefoot College utilizes over twenty informal campuses throughout the country to address pressing local development needs such as clean water, energy, and women’s rights, and employs the concept of appropriate technology (3) in its sustainable development efforts.

It is vital that we examine the question of science’s universality in light of international dialogue concerning development and sustainability. Can we presume that all nations approach science and sustainability with the same assumptions and insights? Although the U.S. prides itself on being at the forefront of scientific innovation, we have much to gain from a citizenry which employs a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan understanding of how science operates. As citizens in a global society with finite resources, we have much to lose by failing to secure environmental sustainability. Through an exploration of science which connects these concerns, I believe I can yield valuable research outcomes in the nine month period (August-April) offered by the Fulbright’s India program. These outcomes will better prepare me for a life of public service and better prepare our nation for the uncertain future ahead.

(1) The American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd edition.
(2) Yale University’s most recent Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) ranks India 101 out of the 146 nations examined, and gives India an ESI score of 45.2 compared with its “peer group” ESI score of 46.7. The ESI is one of several attempts to formulate quantitative indicators that assess nations’ efforts at achieving environmental sustainability.
(3) Appropriate technology utilizes ecological as well as social criteria to design technological solutions fitting the context in which they are utilized.

1 comment:

John said...


I am interested in the Fulbright scholarship and read your proposal. I was wondering - did you receive the scholarship? If you'd be willing to tell me about your experience, please contact me at my email (