I’ve been called a girl geek

Angela Saini is an award-winning independent journalist based in London. Before going freelance, she worked as a reporter for the BBC, but her very first journalism job was with The Hindu’s Frontline magazine in New Delhi. Later, in 2009, she took a trip to Mumbai to write a story about lie detectors and was amazed by the breadth of government science initiatives and the sudden burst of R&D centres all over the country. A book idea was born. For Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking over the World, she journeyed through India to find out whether the nation is all set to become the world’s next scientific superpower. Excerpts from an interview:

How do you define the word geek?

When I was a kid, calling someone a geek was a bit of an insult. But of course, that was before the Internet revolution. Today we treat people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg as cultural icons. The definition of the term “geek” has shifted from something a little negative — the kind of kid who has his or her head stuck in a book — to something positive. It’s a combination of intelligence and passion. I have been called a girl geek and that makes me so proud.

And is “Indian Science Taking over the World”?

The subtitle of my book is, I think, meant to be a cheeky play on the phrase, “The geek shall inherit the earth”. Of course, on its record of scientific publications and patents, India is no scientific superpower. But it has the ingredients of one in the making. There are hundreds of thousands of science and engineering graduates every year, a huge influx of foreign R&D investment, government commitment to new science and public support for big projects like the space programme. So the subtitle is less a statement of fact than a statement of ambition.

What was your impression of the Indian Institutes of Technology? Do these engineering colleges fit the description of geek paradise?

Visiting IIT Delhi disappointed me at first. On the surface at least, the campus seems dirty, old-fashioned and with a lack of creative students. I call them “drones”. But dig beneath the surface and the picture is very different: there are incredible shoots of innovation all over the place. Kids are building model robots, learning programming in their spare time and trying to step outside the box of rote-learning and exam-cramming. It’s tough because the workload is so high, but the will is there.

Where is all the innovation happening, then, if not at these prestigious research institutes?

There are shoots of Indian innovation all over the country. One example in my book is that of Open Source Drug Discovery, a revolutionary project to collect research into tuberculosis from small-scale researchers across India, pool it on an open-access website and use this to come up with a possible cure. Another is the Spoken Web — a technology being developed by a team of Indian researchers working for IBM in New Delhi — which is a way of building audio information networks that can be accessed through simple mobile phones and landlines.

Does India have lessons for the world in practical science and technology?

Absolutely! India has already shown a skill in doing things more cheaply and with fewer resources, and there are already signs (for example in the OSDD project) of it developing models for scientific research that are completely antithetical to existing ones. Pharmaceutical research is traditionally closed and expensive, yet here are hundreds of scientists willing to dilute their credit and give away their work for free, for a common cause. That’s inspirational. Interestingly, we sold the Chinese translation rights to Geek Nation even before it was launched, which suggests to me that India’s neighbour is also keeping a close eye on where the country is headed.

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