R. A. Mashelkar of India's National Chemical Laboratory has a provocative opinion piece in Science on the research culture of his country. And it brings up a point that I don't think anyone could deny: that the attitudes of a society can affect (for better or worse) its ability to participate in scientific research:
Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman believed that creative pursuit in science requires irreverence. Sadly, this spirit is missing from Indian science today. As other nations pursue more innovative approaches to solving problems, India must free itself from a traditional attitude that condemns irreverence, so that it too can address local and global challenges and nurture future leaders in science. But how can the spirit of adventurism come to Indian science?
The situation has deep roots in Indian culture and tradition. The ancient Sanskrit saying "baba vakyam pramanam" means "the words of the elders are the ultimate truth," thus condemning the type of irreverence inspired by the persistent questioning that is necessary for science. The Indian educational system, which is textbook-centered rather than student-centered, discourages inquisitive attitudes at an early age. Rigid unimaginative curricula and examinations based on single correct answers further cement intolerance for creativity. And the bureaucracy inherited from the time of British rule over-rides meritocracy.
He points out that India's greatest scientific names (and there are some heavy hitters) got there in spite of such pressures, not because of them. It's not like this issue hasn't been aired out in India before; I've had Indian colleagues say much the same things to me. And these attitudes can be found in many countries, of course - you can find them here in the US. Mediocre researchers the world over keep their heads down, avoid projects that make their bosses (or themselves) nervous, and keep within the bounds of the literature.
The key, though, is to make sure that people who want to try risky ideas are able to do it. If they're inhibited by pressure from their bosses or their peers, the productivity of a whole country's science can suffer. Not everyone is capable (or willing) to go out on the edge, but it's crucial that the people who can and will are able to do so. That's where we've excelled in the US, where we have an entire infrastructure (the venture capital system) for funding things that are probably not going to work. It's not like we're perfect at this process, but we're better than many others.
But India appears to be moving in the right direction - Mashelkar goes into some details on the way that scientific education is changing. The next step will be to give risk-tolerant investors ways to back the good ideas that emerge. That's a tough one, and a lot of countries have been unable to quite get there. Sometimes the needed investors aren't there, or aren't quite well-capitalized (or willing) enough, or there aren't enough good ideas floating around, or there are no good ways to get the ideas and the money together. Personally, I think India's going to get there, and that it'll be a good thing for the country, and for the rest of the world.