Sessions of the Indian Science Congress have provided forums for the nation's executive to announce new policy initiatives in science and technology. The recently concluded 98th session at the SRM University in Chennai, with its focal theme of ‘Quality Education and Excellence in Scientific Research in Indian Universities,' was no exception. When it comes to a skilled workforce India, as Minister for S&T Kapil Sibal noted in his keynote address, faces a huge supply-demand gap. A major reason is young people moving away from science at the tertiary level. The mushrooming of private and foreign players in an unregulated environment to impart education, much of it of poor quality, puts pressure on the government to step in and provide quality higher S&T education that is affordable. This calls for measures to widen the human resource base and increase the average proficiency levels at the universities. While it is nobody's case that we do not need more universities, the chief thrust should be towards strengthening the existing ones, both Central and State, in terms of infrastructure, finance, and autonomy so that the research and teaching environment gets invigorated to produce quality output. Modest external support for research in universities has already shown positive results: in the last three years, while India's research publications have grown annually at 12 per cent, university output has grown at 30 per cent. Unfortunately, the policy pronouncements of the Prime Minister as well as the S&T Minister seemed to miss the point by addressing the peaks in scientific research rather than improving the average.
Innovation is the new buzzword among Indian policymakers and scientocrats. Innovation cannot be bought or implanted. It will happen on its own once you have provided the right environment for research and education in institutions of higher learning. Name-plating organisations cannot produce innovation. Mr. Sibal announced that the government was working on the concept of creating ‘Navratna' universities along the lines of Ivy League institutions. He also spoke of plans to set up 14 ‘Innovation' universities that would “set benchmarks in academics and … compete with the best in the world in the context of problems of hunger, water, poverty, and diseases through cutting-edge science and technology.” Rising India can certainly ivy-coat university buildings but that will not guarantee academic excellence and creativity. The Navratna public sector enterprises won that label in consequence of their hard work, solid achievement, and sustained growth; they were not labelled beforehand. Another dubious official project is the Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research to be established in association with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. This is basically conceived as a shortcut to produce hundreds of PhDs and post-doctoral fellows to meet the CSIR's needs. The real challenge is to initiate measures that will produce science and technology excellence in the university system. Diverting the CSIR from its mission of technology development into human resource development is likely to be to the detriment of universities.