Science ministers must take their job seriously
Crucial development opportunities may be lost without committed science ministers.
India's new science minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, made himself busy in the week after his appointment — by getting elected to Mumbai's cricket association. But even for a cricket-mad nation such as India, the delay in starting his job smacked of indifference that does not augur well for the country's science.
Science and technology have become increasingly important for developing countries as engines of economic growth and social development. Science has also become a currency for international diplomacy, and bilateral science agreements are increasingly overtaking cultural exchange programmes for strengthening political and economic ties between countries.
So science ministers have a crucial role to play at both national and international levels. At home they should promote the case for science funding and new policy initiatives in cabinet meetings. In parliament, they should defend and explain government policies on science. And they ought to consider the public perception of issues such as genetically modified crops.
At international level, a country's image is better served if a science minister is actively involved in bilateral exchanges, rather than treating his or her attendance as a mere formality.
Overall, a science minister's job is a challenging one in the modern world, requiring both vision and commitment.
Making an impact
Some science ministers have made an impact in developing countries by displaying such attributes. One is the new executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), Romain Murenzi, who served as Rwanda's science minister from 2001 to 2009, and played a key role in enabling his war-torn country to emerge over the last decade as potentially one of Africa's scientific leaders.
South Africa's science minister, Naledi Pandor, is another example. She has staunchly backed her country's forays into international astronomy projects, arguing that they can help train the next generation of scientists and engineers in her country.
Then there is Pakistan's former science minister, Atta-ur-Rahman, who persuaded his government to boost the science and technology budget by 60-fold between 2001 and 2003, using much of the funds to support the growth of research institutes and woo expatriate scientists back home. His reforms led to a 10-fold increase in journal citations over six years.
And while Indian funding for science has remained steady over much of the past decade, without any dramatic highs or lows, science ministers such as Kapil Sibal and M. G. K. Menon have provided strong policy support.
Ministerial musical chairs
So there is all the more reason to be nervous about Deshmukh's apparent lack of enthusiasm in taking up his post, particularly at a time when strong signals are emerging that India needs to pull its socks up both scientifically and technologically.
The country has slipped in innovation rankings for a second year in a row, and fared badly in a recent technology index, along with several changes of science minister and declining political importance of the portfolio.
When India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, appointed Sibal as science minister in 2004, he sought to revitalise the country's ailing university research and strengthen university-industry links over his five year tenure.
But science priorities have gone downhill since the start of Singh's 'second innings' from 2009. It started with the appointment of a 'five-in-one' junior minister for science, Prithviraj Chavan, who was also in charge of public grievances, parliamentary affairs, pensions and personnel.
Then in 2010, Singh appointed a senior minister, Pawan Kumar Bansal, and a junior minister Ashwani Kumar, both of whom turned in a lacklustre performance. Deshmukh is the third appointment in as many years, and many fear that he may follow the path of his recent predecessors.
Next door, Pakistan is faring no better. After a civilian government took over in 2008, the science minister's post remained vacant for a year, until Azam Swati was appointed in January 2009.
But last year Swati was sacked after a public spat with another minister. There have since been two successors. Such frequent changes hardly advance the cause of Pakistan science, which is facing a severe financial crunch.
Commitment is essential
Any developing country that is serious about science needs a minister who is prepared to take on the task for a decent term and to display a proper interest in his or her responsibilities.
As Ian Taylor, a former British science minister from 1994–97, wrote in a blog for the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (CaSE), he was frustrated that "colleagues have chosen too often to avoid speaking up on science subjects as if they form part of a walled garden to which they do not have the key".
Furthermore, although not necessarily having a science background, ministers must at least be able to understand the language in which scientists speak about their work. Taylor noted that improving the scientific literacy of our politicians and ministers – a process that does not take place overnight – would help them learn "both the importance of science and engineering to their role and how better to evaluate scientific evidence".
Developing countries are increasingly struggling with issues that cut across disciplines, from agriculture to medicine to environment, each with a strong scientific component, and coordination in political decision-making is becoming crucial. A science minister serious about his or her job is essential — putting cricket first is not a good way to open the batting.
T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net