Debating India

SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

To rebuild infrastructure

R. RAMACHANDRAN

Friday 18 June 2004, by RAMACHANDRAN*Rajesh

Though the Common Minimum Programme of the new government does not give much importance to science and technology, a lot needs to be done in this sector. Implementing the Science and Technology Policy of 2003 would be a good first step.

BEYOND the rhetoric, science and technology (S&T) are not areas that political parties are genuinely concerned about usually. But, since they do vaguely perceive its importance, party manifestos make pro forma statements with regard to the sector. The Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, for instance, contains some general all-inclusive statement about S&T. Considering that the draft CMP, authored by the Congress, included the same paragraph, it is obvious that the parties in the coalition are not overly bothered about the sector one way or the other. More interesting is the fact that while the 1999 election manifesto of the Congress had a substantial paragraph on S&T, that of 2004 had nothing to say on the subject. The 2004 manifesto of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), on the other hand, had put out an eight-point agenda for S&T but its performance in this field in the past six years leaves much to be desired. The change of regime at the Centre cannot, therefore, be expected to greatly alter the current S&T scenario in the country, which is fairly dismal.

For instance, will the new Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister, Arjun Singh, and the new S&T Minister Kapil Sibal initiate steps to undo the patently irrational and retrograde move by the University Grants Commission (UGC), recently endorsed by the Supreme Court, to introduce Vedic Astrology (Jyotir Vigyan) in university curricula? Interestingly, the BJP manifesto included creating a scientific temperament in society and raising popular awareness about science. Obviously, the party did not view introduction of courses in astrology as running counter to this. In fact, creating a scientific temper in society is one of directive principles of the Constitution. It also forms one of the key objectives of the new Science and Technology Policy (STP-2003) unveiled in January 2003.

Though the NDA manifesto promised to "vigorously implement the Science and Technology Policy", the insincerity of such proclamations is apparent from the fact that hardly any steps towards its implementation were evident. The new government can seize the opportunity and begin implementing the policy in earnest. "The issues to be addressed by the new government are those that have been spelt out in the policy document," pointed out M. S. Valiathan, President of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), which was involved in its framing. Echoing the same view, Shobo Bhattacharya, director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), said: "The policy document is a good one. Beginning to implement it will be a good step."

From the perspective of STP-2003, what should be the top-most priority for the new government to implement? "The government should worry about higher education," says P. Balaram, a biologist at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, and the editor of Current Science, a premier scientific journal of the Indian Academy of Sciences (IASc). "It has to think about what to do for the sciences in universities, how new faculty can be inducted. There is a real dearth of quality people in the universities. While the reasons in State universities are financial or freezing of new appointments or reservation policies, in Central universities it is the lack of infrastructure and the appropriate research environment. The average age of faculty in the universities is increasing, and bright young people are not going to the universities. This is beginning to tell upon all other institutions and scientific departments, including space, atomic energy and defence. In China, for example, there are positive programmes being initiated every now and then. We do not seem to be doing anything about it and nobody seems to be bothered in the government."

"There is an urgency to rebuild S&T infrastructure and rejuvenate the environment in the university sector," says Goverdhan Mehta, Director of IISc and former president of INSA. "In the past decade or more, there has been a marked thinning of S&T activity as our vast university system languished and remained utterly neglected," he adds.

"The universally time-tested social vehicles of economic and intellectual growth, namely universities, need to be purposefully, strongly and selectively supported," says T.V. Ramakrishnan, Professor Emeritus at Benares Hindu University and president of the IASc.

The university system is also getting undermined in yet another manner. In the past few years, with privatisation of higher education, there is a proliferation of and granting of "deemed university" status rather indiscriminately, without any evaluation. The hype over and the lopsided priorities of the government to information technology and now biotechnology (the so-called vocational courses) have greatly contributed to this trend. Besides, a whole lot of foreign institutions have begun to grant degrees remotely or lure students to poor institutions overseas. As a result, the quality of students coming out of our higher science education system, already affected by a steep drop in enrolment, has declined perceptibly over the years. The impact of this is already being felt in the country’s top research institutions.

EVEN though we had the Minister for S&T and HRD rolled into one in Murli Manohar Joshi, this burning issue of building a human resource base in the sciences through the universities never seemed a priority to him. The communication gap between the two Ministries has only continued to grow. For example, schemes like the enhancement of student scholarships administered by the Ministry of Science and Technology were being held up by the bureaucracy of the HRD Ministry. In a move that defied logic, in January 2002, Joshi (apparently for the sake of one top scientocrat) also extended the retirement age to 64 years for "eminent scientists of international stature... if such extension is in the public interest." With no ground rules for determining eminence or public interest, scientocrats have been taking undue advantage of this.

As Balaram pointed out in a perceptive editorial in Current Science (April 10, 2002): "If science in India is struggling, it is not for lack of administrators; rather we need to maintain and enhance the pool of productive scientists by vigorously promoting recruitment and by introducing new, innovative schemes to tap the potential of retiring scientists... Unfortunately... in the true traditions of bureaucracy, even science administrators have learnt to feather their own nests... Apres mois deluge (after me, the flood) is surely a sentiment to which most of our science administrators subscribe."

If not annul the notification, the present government would do well to exercise utmost discretion in granting extensions and the conditions of eminence and public interest be strictly applied through international peer review. Interestingly, de-bureaucratisation in S&T institutions was one of the objectives of the NDA manifesto. The former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had given the mandate to R. Chidambaram, the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA), to effect this process, but it has not had the desired impact yet. "This needs to be given top priority and the process needs to be kept up," says R. A. Mashelkar, Director-General of CSIR.

While, on the one hand, the former Minister readily granted extensions to some scientocrats, institutions like the Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) and the Technology Development Board (TDB), which have been able to establish new paradigms of technology development and management in the country, have been allowed to remain without executive heads for about two years. As a result, inefficiency has slowly crept into these organisations and their capability to leverage technology development is also bound to decline. The new Minister should, on a priority basis, finalise these appointments.

An important indicator that TDB’s technology development has provided is that while the overall industry investment in research and development (R&D) may be low, industry in-house R&D units rank the highest among technology providers. On the other hand, technology provided by national laboratories is well short of desired levels. In this light, the various generously funded programmes launched by the former Minister in the CSIR and other national laboratories, such as the Millennium Missions, the New Millennium India Technology Leadership Initiatives (NMITLI) and the National Genomics Initiative need to be strictly monitored on their progress and claims.

A rather peculiar thing about S&T administration in the country is the differential between the so-called strategic sectors of atomic energy and space and the rest of the scientific establishment - the former being traditionally vested with the Prime Minister. This has led to distortions in policy makers’ perceptions on what constitutes essential S&T for the country. This became particularly pronounced with the nuclear tests of May 11, 1998, which was followed by differential pay packages for the scientists of the strategic Trimurti of atomic energy, space and defence. Exploding a bomb or launching a missile is valued so highly that May 11 is now being celebrated as Technology Day, when there is no technological achievement at all in exploding a nuclear weapon.

Contrast this with National Science Day, celebrated on February 28. It was the day C.V. Raman discovered the Nobel Prize-winning Raman Effect. Whatever the previous government did or did not do, it certainly contributed to the skewed priorities of national security and the so-called strategic technologies in the national S&T system. Indeed, this finds a separate mention in STP-2003 as well. But, with these strategic sectors too facing the problem of lack of quality human resource, it is time that this differential in the S&T system was done away with.

Through STP-2003, a policy decision on the continued existence of an apex S&T advisory body has been made. But the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SACC), with the PSA to the government at its helm, has hardly been an effective body. According to some members of SACC, the body hardly functions. Moreover, it lacks any executive authority and its recommendations are only on paper with implementation being left to various Ministries or State governments. Apparently, even though secretaries of scientific departments are ex-officio members of SACC, they perceive external advice from a body like SACC as an infringement. So, if the need for an advisory body is indeed felt, the task before the new government is to revamp and make it an effective body by giving it executive powers.

The target for R&D investment set by STP-2003 by the end of the Tenth Plan, which will largely be administered by the new government, is 2 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). After peaking at 0.91 per cent in 1987-88, there was a steady decline up to 1995-96 to 0.71 per cent. According to available data, it slowly picked up in 1998-99 to 0.81 per cent, increased to 0.87 per cent in 1999-2000 and to 0.94 per cent in 2000-01, the highest so far. Though the last two figures are provisional estimates, it is clear that there has been an increase in R&D expenditure as a function of GDP during the NDA regime. But it has not been due to any significant increase in industry spending on R&D, which remains still less than 25 per cent of the total investment. The STP-2003 points out that this will come about only if there is a steep increase in industry’s R&D expenditure.

Clearly, the task before the new government to meet the target is to initiate policy measures that will shore up industry investment. The usual policy of fiscal incentives, like tax holidays and weighted tax exemptions, do not seem to work in the Indian context. After the Information Technology downturn, the sunshine area of biotech industry has not shown the promised growth. And lack of availability of quality personnel to serve in the industrial R&D set-ups is an important contributing factor to the stunted growth. "I know of drug and pharma leaders who want to employ hundreds of Ph.Ds now. But they are facing extreme shortage of quality and special skills," says Mashelkar.

Besides the problem of lack of skilled people in the biotechnology and biomedical R&D, there are problems with the regulatory structures that have been put in place. Indeed, one of the first remarks that Sibal made after assuming office as the new Minister for S&T was that he would like to change the regulatory structure in biotechnology. One is the long-standing issue of animal testing for biomedical research where the premise for the regulatory framework has been dictated by the hidden "anti-vivisectionist" agenda of the former animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi. The Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA) was set up by Maneka Gandhi when she was the Union Minister for Environment and Forests (MoEF). The functioning of the committee has been completely usurped by its animal rights activist members, and it is not run along professional lines.

As a result, basic research is suffering and the industry is being forced to go abroad to have products tested, at high cost. Even import of animals with laboratory-bred strains is being controlled by the CPCSEA. This is an issue for Sibal to tackle on a priority basis.

The other regulatory framework pertains to the testing and release of genetically modified (GM) organisms, an important and sensitive issue. The apex regulatory body is the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), under the MoEF. With genetic engineering becoming a highly specialised activity, it requires a professional set-up that will take a balanced view based on science and is not carried away by the extreme positions of either the industry or the anti-GM activist groups. Such a body should ideally be under the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) with representatives from the MoEF.

Similarly, genetically engineered drugs is a growing industry and, with the year 2005 soon upon us, we might face a situation of multinationals bringing in recombinant drugs. In fact, companies like Shantha Biotech have suffered because of the archaic regulatory framework. A professional body is needed to evaluate and regulate their introduction into the market. A 12-member committee under Mashelkar has been set up to recommend a proper structure and the report will be out anytime now.

Funding has not been a major issue in the Indian context. Budgetary support has been fairly adequate. What is lacking are good ideas and worthwhile projects resulting in marketable technologies. So, in some sense, the target of 2 per cent of GDP may even be unrealistic. As STP-2003 has stated, what is of utmost importance today is effective, expeditious, transparent and science-based monitoring and reviewing. "We need to recognise and acknowledge, boldly and honestly, that our S&T performance has remained stagnant, if not gone down, for over a decade, while countries like China and Brazil among others have shown clear upward movement," points out Mehta. "We need a major rethink and policy-level intervention," he adds.

STP-2003 has called for a new funding mechanism for research. According to Mehta, our science support system and funding mechanisms are not adequate to meet the challenges of internationally competitive research. "Science support and promotional systems must be autonomous and outside the government departments," says Mehta. Both Mehta and Ramakrishnan recommend the creation of a large comprehensive National Science Foundation to promote greater public-private partnership. Such a body will be useful in planning for the future, particularly in frontier technologies. "Our investments in emerging technologies are sub-critical," points out Mashelkar "For instance, in nano-technology, our investment is $2 million as compared to $40 million in Singapore, $110 million in Taiwan and $200 million in China."

The moot point is that the spending is commensurate with the skill and specialisation base that the country has. That is what is sub-critical. "We need to foster high quality research in our S&T system and attract the brightest of youngsters to careers in S&T," says K. Kasturirangan, former Indian Space Research Organisation Chairman. Unfortunately, it is easier said than done. Even world-class projects like the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) have failed to attract bright youngsters. Big projects like the proposed moon mission or the astronomical satellite or the neutrino observatory will certainly kindle interest in young minds. But is that sufficient to lure them into our S&T system? Are policy instruments in place to leverage employment opportunities in basic sciences, especially in the universities? The answer is no. The biggest challenge for the government and the scientific community is to change this situation.

P.S.

Pic 1: GAUTAM SINGH/AP ; Children look at surgical instruments modelled on jaws of various animals at the "Vigyan Rail", a science exhibition on wheels by the Department of Science and Technology, in Bangalore, on May 11. Creating a scientific temperament in society is one of the key objectives of the new science and technology policy unveiled in 2003.

Pic 2: Kapil Sibal, Union Minister of State for Science and Technology.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 12, Jun. 05 - 18, 2004.

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