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Why is scientific research never an election issue?

Sunday, 27 April 2014 - 2:00am IST | Agency: DNA

These are election times, and regardless of political inclinations, one gets caught up in the excitement. As a scientist, an issue I look for everywhere is the manner in which our politicians and people perceive science and scientific research in India, and where it figures in our national perspective and priorities. I am always disappointed. 

Somehow, even though we want our children to mostly be doctors and engineers, we rarely look at scientific research as a career or as an important part of the Indian educational landscape. The debate about Indian science and its relevance remains confined to academics. 

I suspect a part of the reason is the perception that all major breakthroughs in science and technology happen in the West, and are then worked on in Japan, Korea and China and converted to useful technology, to be finally used by us. Somehow, the idea that Indian scientists also make exciting contributions and need proper state support is not within the limited Indian perception. 

The facts, of course, say otherwise. There is a long list of path-breaking, thought provoking work done by Indian scientists and engineers. Yet, the quiet manners of our scientists and the media’s desire to receive readymade news rather than work on highlighting the achievements of Indian science has meant that most of our outstanding work in science and engineering is celebrated only within the specialised community.

The lack of good quality public science lecturers has also not helped. National organisations such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and others are erratic in helping build awareness of Indian science and technology, and there is no concerted effort to help the nation understand and enjoy the subtleties of Indian and world science. 

Even science writers in India, who want to write about world science, rarely find scientists within the country to help them. Most get discouraged and eventually find something else to report on.

Yet, right from Independence, India has strived to regain its position as a preeminent nation of science that it once was, not too far back in the past. 

So, the public perception of Indian science is one of quite if bemused fascination. They treat it as something we all know is important and probably crucial, but too complicated to be bothered about. Hence, there is no public pressure to increase funding for science in India. Prominent scientists like Dr R Chidambaram, Dr K Kasturirangan, Dr RA Mashelkar, Professor CNR Rao and others have been working hard to increase the funding of Indian science with only limited success. 

So, against this background, it is worth looking at how science funding in India has fared. Most scientists would agree that the funding has been just enough to keep up present projects, but there is little of it to think big, think afresh and take risks. 

Jawaharlal Nehru was particularly emphatic that science and technology are the way forward for India, and should be rightfully credited with several initiatives to get the country to accept modern science and technology as a way to progress. However, since then, the efforts of the Indian government have been to maintain the status quo. Though we have a Ministry for Science and Technology that has been headed by senior politicians, they have not been effective in changing the mindset of the government and bureaucracy in its approach to science and technology.

India will benefit significantly if the funding for science and technology is increased and properly directed. There are several small, medium and large ideas that need to be tested in laboratories in the country so that they can be tuned to Indian needs and used by us. We are not going to get these things readymade from abroad. 

It is not that India lacks talent. Apart from the success of Indian trained scientists in foreign countries, Indian scientists working in India also have an impressive record of developing required technologies at a relatively short notice when challenged to do so. 

In this connection, two authors, Mathai Joseph, a computer scientist and independent consultant, who was senior research scientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, India, and professor at the University of Warwick, UK and Andrew Robinson, the author of India: A Short History and Genius: A Very Short Introduction, have written an article in the British science journal Nature (April 3, 2014 issue) discussing Indian science and what holds it back. Their article is revealing in many ways and I am summarising it below.

They point out that the expenditure on research and development in India remains at about 0.9% of GDP — compared with 1.12% in Russia, 1.25% in Brazil and 1.84% in China. They point out that the “basic problem is that Indian science has for too long been hamstrung by a bureaucratic mentality that values administrative power over scientific achievement. And, to preserve local control, research is still done mostly by small teams working in isolation rather than through collaboration — a key generator of impact”. 

This is particularly true of the university environment. Since education is a state subject, most universities are headed by political appointees and bullied by employee unions who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and a lethargic environment. Academics, especially in the universities, receive little funding, and lesser still freedom in terms of decisions on how to use their limited funding, and few incentives to excel. 

The University Grants Commission (UGC) has been fighting hard to remove these hurdles but the political class, which is often parochial, looks upon universities as places for patronage where people with insufficient qualifications but excellent political connections find favour over better candidates. The university academics have little political clout and are unable to mount a meaningful pressure on the governments to increase funding for research and give them freedom to decide on how they use their funds – subject to peer review and not bureaucratic control. The result of this stranglehold is that most of the research in India is either done in specialised research institutions with limited reach and impact. Even here, many of the research institutions are headed by administrators rather than scientists. Most universities have been reduced to producing workforce with moderate skills. 

As the Nature article notes, even in the research institutions “... independence was ground down and its scientists and technologists slotted into administrative grades in which they could progress no faster than their non-scientific peers”. 

In most institutions funding is also driven by evaluation procedure that prefers imitative research which either marginally enhances the work done elsewhere or simply replicates it in India. Boldness and imagination are not the hallmarks of bureaucracy. Status quo and high inertia is their strong point. Under these constraints, it is not surprising that Indian science has survived rather than flourished and that too under individuals who have fought hard to swim against this tide that encourages mediocrity and incremental work. 

Mathai Joseph and Andrew Robinson make the following recommendations:

– Create an empowered funding agency, staffed by working scientists, some of whom could be non-resident Indians.

– Institutions should limit the tenure of the heads of scientific institutions and groups to, say, five years, after which they would be expected to return to active research.

– Third, the form of trans-institutional groups that can undertake coordinated work in a few well-chosen areas should be encouraged at the funding stage.

– Increase the funding to 2% of GDP and apart from continuing funding for the research institutions, new research money should be spent on regenerating the scores of poorly provided university laboratories that lack the funds to procure and maintain modern scientific equipment. 

To this I would add three more. I think we need to form a collegium in line with what is done in selecting judges. Such a collegium, consisting of academics who serve on this body for no more than five years should have a major say in appointment of vice chancellors and other academics. While UGC is supposed to help promote excellence, their limited powers over education which is a state subject, does not allow it to fulfil its responsibilities.  

The other wish list is to provide funds for blue sky research with unclear end result. Many of these will fail or will in the end result in incremental improvement. But a few that will succeed will be worth all the other expenditure. After all, as William McDonough has pointed out, the Stone Age did not come to an end when they ran out of stones. It came to an end when someone invented the bow and arrow. Most other researchers of the period were only making only marginally better axes! There are equivalent results throughout history.

One more form of support is needed in terms of providing funds, preferably through joint funding with private sector to convert our patents into products. Currently there is a disconnect between research in science institutions and the industry, partly due to the conservative nature of the scientists and the desire of the fundraisers to take risk. The result is that we import most of the technology and instruments we need rather than give our researchers to develop technology more appropriate to our needs. We have to encourage our scientists to become entrepreneurs. 

As Homi Bhabha pointed out: “Indigenous science and technology plays the part of an engine in aircraft while foreign collaboration can play the part of a booster. A booster… can give a plane an assisted take off, but (the aircraft) is incapable of independent flight unless it is powered by its own engines”.

If, therefore, the governments let scientists handle their own challenges and thirst for knowledge with strong internal accountability, reduced fossilisation of senior positions appointed on the basis of merit, and freedom to pursue their research with vigour, there is no reason why India’s future cannot be bright.

 

Dr Mayank Vahia is a scientist working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research since 1979. His main fields of interest are high-energy astrophysics, mainly Cosmic Rays, X-rays and Gamma Rays. He is currently looking at the area of archeo-astronomy and learning about the way our ancestors saw the stars, and thereby developed intellectually. He has, in particular, been working on the Indus Valley Civilisation and taking a deeper look at their script.


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