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DRDO Scientists as Heterogeneous Engineers: A Response to Vipin Narang

Yogesh Joshi is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • October 03, 2011

    The idea that politics and science can be neatly separated and the latter can be objectively used in the service of politics is nothing more than an outdated cheque. Yet, in international relations, especially in strategic studies, this subservience of technology to politics is accepted axiomatically. The recent article by Dr. Vipin Narang in which he has criticised the DRDO’s meddling in defining operational goals for missiles is a quintessential example of this flawed yet highly accepted perspective. In his article, Dr. Narang has found the DRDO’s practice of ascribing roles extraneous to the official mandate of the missiles such as Shourya and Prahaar as inherently destabilising because of the confusing signals which such role ascription conveys to the adversary. He writes, “In particular, DRDO, in the case of both the Prahaar and Shourya tests, assigns the yet-to-be-operationalized capabilities both potentially nuclear and conventional roles. Is this how the NCA and SFC view these capabilities? From where does DRDO derive the authority to assign operational roles to the capabilities it develops?” In his view, the DRDO’s mandate is to only develop technological systems (read missile platforms) which can provide India a reliable weapon delivery system rather than to comment on the doctrinal aspects of India’s nuclear deterrent. Technology and technologists in this sense are instruments in the service of politics; they have no locus standi otherwise. To prevent the DRDO from creating unnecessary complexities in nuclear signalling, he advises Indian decision makers to discipline their out-of-control scientists.

    One has no disagreement with Dr. Narang’s overall analysis. Confusing operational roles might certainly lead to a breakdown in the nuclear deterrent equation since deterrence in some sense depends upon mutual expectations. These expectations are built upon formal or informal rules of engagement and, therefore, we have nuclear doctrines and clear operational definitions for weapon systems.

    Implicit, however, are a number of undeclared assumptions in Dr. Narang’s approach. There appears to be a clear demarcation between politics and science. Not only does such an assumption value politics above science, but it also considers politics to be more rationally capable. This after all is just a normative choice and one can hardly argue that this is the only correct perspective. At least the men of science would not accept this logic. Also, following upon the first assumption, a construction of scientists and technologists as detached individuals in pursuance of the objective truth is quite evident. An ideal-type scientist in this narrative is the one who understands clearly the boundaries between science and politics and is careful enough not to violate it. As all ideal-types, this image of the scientist is a chimera. Men of science and technology, however, are heterogeneous engineers1 : they are scientists, technologists, sociologists and politicians at the same time. Further, it is not their technological abilities alone which make them able engineers but their abilities to pursue politics – to ascribe meanings, both social and political, to technological artefacts they develop – which are of crucial importance for the success and failure of a technological system.

    For example, the rivalry between Homi Bhabha and Meghnad Saha is well known to students of India’s nuclear history.2 Saha was an eminent scientist and with all regards to Bhabha a much more respected figure not only in India but also abroad. However, Saha’s vision for the development of nuclear science in India was quite different from what Homi Bhabha had in mind. Hardly anyone would doubt that India’s nuclear history would have been quite different if Saha had been at the forefront of atomic development instead of Bhabha. That Bhabha triumphed over Saha was not a function of Bhabha being a better nuclear scientist or his reading of nuclear physics being better than Saha and therefore his method of development of atomic science was superior (at least the science of nuclear physics was the same for both). Rather, it was the ability of Bhabha to be a more versatile heterogeneous engineer and to be a better politician and sociologist at the same time which allowed him to triumph over Saha. To consider scientists as heterogeneous engineers is to understand the fact that science is not an objective method of seeking truth but that it involves, like all human processes, a construction of what is considered as the truth. This process of seeking or establishing scientific facts involves contestations, negotiations and compromises rather than the simplified notion that abstract theory leads to experimentation and in turn to final (in)validity of a scientific idea. Science in its essence involves politics and, therefore, though comments by scientists which carry political (strategic) significance might be problematic, they definitely are not at all puzzling.

    A more pertinent question, which Dr. Narang himself raised but never answered, is that from where does DRDO scientists derive the power to ascribe strategically significant meanings to the missile systems they develop? In general, from where do scientists derive their power to give social and political meanings to technological artefacts? The answer lies in what Gabrielle Hecht calls technopolitics – the strategic practice of designing or using technology to constitute, embody and enact political goals.3 The authority of technopolitics rests on technical expertise and its material embodiment lies in technological artefacts and practices. The very fact that scientists at DRDO embedded enough ambiguities in the design of these missiles in order to carry both nuclear and conventional warheads provides them the strategic space to define operational roles for these missiles. However, this redefining of operational roles is not only a function of the bureaucratic interests of an organisation but also the political and social values which scientific institutions like the DRDO associate with themselves. Perhaps, for DRDO scientists deterrence works better with multiple ambiguous platforms for delivery of nuclear weapons rather than missiles with fixed operational definitions. To say that they have no right to think or pass judgements over strategic doctrines may be correct in terms of policy requirements but is certainly not rich academically. It does not reveal to us why scientists involve themselves in policy decisions and what informs their understanding of politics. The subject of political and social culture in scientific institutions appears to be an extremely pertinent field of research for international relations and Dr. Narang’s article further emphasizes upon this need.

    • 1. John Law (1987), ‘Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering: the Case of the Portuguese Expansion’, in Wiebe Bijker, Thomas Hughes and Trevor Pinch (eds.), The Social Construction of Technological Systems, Cambridge, Mass., M.I.T. Press: pp 111-13
    • 2. Robert S. Anderson (2010), Nucleus and the Nation: Scientists, International Networks and Power in India, Chicago: University of Chicago press.
    • 3. Gabrielle Hecht (1998), The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II, MIT Press.