[NEW DELHI] Senior scientists in India have expressed concern over what they see as a 'downgrading' of the country's science ministry under the new government, headed by prime minister Manmohan Singh.
Singh — who was reappointed as prime minister on 22 May following the success of his Congress party in a general election — announced individual ministry portfolios yesterday (28 May), appointing Prithviraj Chavan as a junior minister with responsibility for the ministry of science and technology and the ministry of earth sciences.
But Chavan, who has a background in engineering, will also be responsible for a collection of other departments unrelated to science. He will look after personnel, public grievances, pensions and parliamentary affairs — as well being located in the prime minister's office (PMO), rather than in a separate ministry.
"It is too much on [Chavan's] platter," says Ashok Parthasarathy, former science advisor to the Indian government. "Science and technology is a large area, along with the new ministry of earth sciences. How he will distribute his energies between various scientific departments, and between different other departments, is to be seen."
Ministries in India are usually two-tiered, with both a senior minister and junior 'minister of state'. However there is an intermediate category: a minister of state with independent charge, who does not have an overseeing senior minister — as is the case with Chavan.
Traditionally, Indian prime ministers have been nominal heads of the science ministry, with a minister of state looking after day-to-day business. The key departments of space and atomic energy are always under the PMO.
The trend changed in 1999, when the right-of-centre National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition government divested the prime minister of science ministry responsibilities.
Under the new government, the science ministry will have neither the prime minister as a nominal head, nor a senior minister, in addition to being just one of the portfolios of Chavan.
A former official of India's Department of Science and Technology points out that the dilution of the role of a science minister will adversely impact science policymaking and funding: "Indian science … needs a strong leader who can argue for more funds," he says.
Parthasarathy says that irrespective of the rank of the science minister, some of India's core issues in science agencies — such as an integrated science and technology policy — have remained unaddressed. The dilution of a minister's focus on science is unlikely to change the situation, he adds.
Singh stated soon after his reappointment that five specific sectors – the economy, infrastructure, rural development, health, and human resource development — would receive particular attention. He has not stated any particular plans for science.