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T. Jayaraman says India's scientific community should play a more active role in contributing to and assessing science policy in the country.

The first half of 2005 saw a flurry of announcements and proposals about basic scientific research emerging from the government of India and its scientific advisory committees.

They began with the finance minister's budget statement announcing a special grant of one billion rupees (US$22.9 million) to the Indian Institute of Science to develop it into a world-class institution, and the creation of a special fund of nearly US$50 million for the development of nanotechnology.

In addition, the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Prime Minister (SAC-PM) and the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SAC-C) made a number of proposals.

Following these, the Task Force on Basic Scientific Research appointed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development suggested even more ambitious measures. Accepting the task force recommendations, the ministry announced its transformation into an empowered committee to oversee their implementation.

Some of these proposals are simply recycled versions of those made by the previous government.

Earlier, five national institutes of science were proposed on the model of the Indian Institutes of Technology. This number has now been reduced by the SAC-PM to two (to be located at Kolkata and Pune) but the task force now appears to seek an additional ten national 'centres' located in the universities.

These changing numbers are especially baffling, considering the high degree of continuity in terms of the scientists involved in science policymaking level under both the previous government and the current one. The former administration's proposal certainly did not meet any significant public criticism from the scientific community, making it hard to conclude that these numbers changed as the result of some critical review.

A laudable goal

The basis for some of the other proposals is equally unclear. Increasing the number of new PhDs five-fold over ten years, as recommended by the task force, is a laudable goal. But will there be enough qualified students available to enter PhD programmes without a significant investment to upgrade undergraduate and postgraduate science education — investment that is not very evident at the moment?

More importantly, will opportunities for high-quality research increase and will there be a corresponding development of research infrastructure to productively absorb this massive increase in numbers? These are questions that do not seem to have answers at the moment.

The same criticism applies to the task force proposal to induct 1,000 extra research scientists in universities over the next five years. This number would appear to be not unreasonable for a nation as large as India. But adding even a few good quality scientists, who might be expected to be reasonably productive over the years, usually takes a number of years.

Given this, it is not at all clear that a sudden increase in the number of research scientists can be achieved without compromising on quality.

Similarly, the SAC-PM's proposed annual budget of US$230 million for funding basic science through a proposed science foundation sets a general figure without any concrete indication as to the scientific focus of a major part of this expenditure.

A deeper malaise

It seems that these proposals and announcements have a substantially ad hoc character, leading one to doubt whether they indeed amount to serious attempts to revitalise research in the basic sciences.

But the manner in which these initiatives are fashioned and announced points to a deeper malaise in the formulation of science policy in India.

In contrast to the situation in many industrialised nations, the policymaking process in Indian science rests on a small and narrow base that has very little input from the vast majority of working scientists. Policymaking in India is the exclusive province of a few eminent scientists, the secretaries of major scientific departments, the directors of some big scientific institutions and a few other members of the scientific bureaucracy.

There is no systematic and continuing oversight by the scientific community of policymaking in India, and no articulation of an independent vision of science building in the country. Proposals such as those of the two SACs or the Ministry of Human Resource Development's task force are not the result of any detailed and critical review by the scientific community, which would at least have given them the status of desirable long-term goals.

This unfortunate state of affairs, where national science policy is decided largely over the heads of the scientific community, is exacerbated by the absence of any fresh efforts by younger scientists to assert themselves and fashion an independent role in the formulation of science policy.

A striking illustration of this is provided by the task force which notes, completely unselfconsciously, that in preparing its report it had direct discussions with only one eminent scientist and only one ministry official. Input from the rest of the scientific community was received in writing or taken from ministry reports. There were no official discussions, let alone debates, with a cross-section of the scientific community on the issues before the task force.

One of the consequences of this top-heavy mode of formulating policy is that there is no systematic accounting of the successes or failures and the strengths and weaknesses of previous efforts to build basic science. Given the problems afflicting basic scientific research in India today, one would think that some kind of critical enquiry regarding the past trajectory of the scientific growth is called for. Unfortunately, there is no sign that leaders of the scientific community recognise any such need.

Little representative character

Another consequence is that the nature of new initiatives in basic science is dependent entirely on the influence that a few eminent scientists and administrators carry with the political leadership, and the manner in which they choose to exercise it.

The negotiations that this small group, together with some scientific departments and government ministries, conducts with the financial and administrative arm of the government is the key factor in determining the short-term health of science in this country. Unsurprisingly, a few leading institutions, that are well represented in such committees, are always assured that they benefit from these transactions.

In general, the policy advice the scientific leadership offers to the government has little representative character and is not given on behalf of the entire scientific community and based on appropriate short, medium and long-term goals formulated collectively.

In this mode of planning the future of basic science — driven by government committees — there is not even an appropriate forum for the formulation and sustained advocacy of any long-term goals. Integrating long-term goals with short-term initiatives seems to occur only at the level of specific departments such as atomic energy or space, where a major part of the vision was fashioned in more enlightened times.

Unfortunately this leaves out a significant part of the spectrum of what constitutes basic scientific research, leaving the fate of many disciplines and sub-disciplines, as well as the general strengthening of basic research, at the mercy of the government and bureaucracy of the day.

The third consequence of this narrow base is that policymaking appears to be based more on the impressionistic views of a few administrators and senior scientists rather than being sustained by actual research on the status of science and scientists. Thus the various proposals for boosting scientific manpower or enhancing science funding are not backed by any concrete projections in the growth of scientific activity.

Today, despite the creditable performance of individual sectors and institutions, there are serious problems that afflict basic scientific research in India. Overall, the picture of basic science in India is one of declining productivity.

It is acknowledged that a career in science holds less and less attraction for the younger generation. As noted by prime minister Manmohan Singh himself, scientific institutions are significantly bureaucratised.

However, judging by their performance so far, one of the key stakeholders in Indian science — the Indian scientific community — appears to have little to offer by way of a coherent strategy to face up to these issues.

T. Jayaraman is a theoretical physicist with the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

This article originally appeared in The Hindu newspaper and has been reproduced with permission.

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