We do not have credible ways to deal with our scientific organisations, at the administrative level and in terms of public opinion.
The only time they are in the news is when scientists claim to have made a breakthrough, and the government and the public accept it because they are not in a position to make a critical judgment of the scientists’ achievement. The other time the scientists are in the news is when there is a tussle for power among them and in their organisations, or when there is a scandal.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been in the news most of time for the right reasons — launching of communication satellites, which are the real source of the country’s telecommunication and information revolution. The indigenisation of technology of the launch vehicles — the GSLVs and PSLVs — which facilitate the slotting of the satellites in orbit has been flaunted as the big thing. Apart from the fact that the Indian space scientists, like their nuclear science counterparts, had to work against the odds because of technology apartheid practised by Western countries and make a success of it, we have no way of knowing the actual breakthroughs achieved in this adverse era which came to an end with the India-US civil nuclear deal of 2005. Neither Isro nor the Atomic Energy Research Commission (AERC) have benefited from peer review which is also in the public domain.
The space and nuclear scientists, like our cricketers, have become part of our national pride.
For a country that is discovering its self-respect through its rising economic clout, national pride is sacrosanct. There is a vibrant, heated, misinformed debate about our cricketers, but none about our scientists. When the anti-bomb and anti-nuclear power lobbies make their ritualistic noises and Luddite attacks, the scientists emerge unscathed. There is no scope for critical evaluation of the scientific work done in the space and nuclear spheres because of the technical complexity of the subject.
The only time the scientific organisations and scientists are vulnerable to attack is on the issue of corruption or sedition. Isro faced a spy scandal in the mid-1990s, when many of its senior scientists were on the rack for allegedly leaking so-called secrets to foreigners. At the end of it came nothing. The investigation agencies could not prove the charges. But some of Isro’s scientists paid a heavy price through the mental and physical trauma they were put through.
The Antrix-Devas deal is not about corruption alone. The loss due to the favouritism shown to Devas, a company floated by a former Isro scientist to use the S-band spectrum and the commitment by Isro to build two satellites for dedicated use by Devas, is estimated at Rs2 lakh crore, higher than the estimated Rs1.76 lakh crore in the 2G spectrum allocation. It is quite likely that public debate and media focus will be on this Rs2 lakh figure and the corruption aspect.
There are, however, deeper issues at stake. The findings of the Pratyush Sinha committee reveal that Isro is operating a closed system, where a few top scientists are calling all the shots. Former Isro chief UR Rao has argued in the wake of the Sinha committee’s recommendations that this will affect decision making as well as the morale of space scientists. He has gone on to say that India has fallen behind China in space science and the furore over the Devas deal will widen the gap further. This line of argument reveals anger more than reason. What Rao and others of his eminence need to ask is whether Isro has been functioning well enough in terms of research and operational success, and what is to be done to improve it. This would need a more measured response than what he has given.
Rao has also hinted at politics without specifying its nature. G Madhavan Nair, who is at the centre of the controversy, has accused K Radhakrishnan, Isro’s current chairman, of recommending a ban on his future employment and that of others involved in the deal. The politics is among the scientists, and it is a well-known fact that senior scientists lobby hard and sometimes stoop to get top slots in the science organisations in the country. The real rot is within the scientific establishment. It has been festering for too long. It has not drawn public attention because like any other country, people and politicians are in awe of scientists and this gives scientists room to play their own games.
There is a crying need for an open debate as well as peer review of the state of Indian science. And the people who are most likely to resist this will be the scientists themselves.