For a renaissance in Indian S&T

The apathy of successive Central governments towards science and technology continues in numerous ways. The premier national scientific agencies have been made to languish, and no effort has been made either to formulate a national S&T policy

March 28, 2015 02:05 am | Updated 02:05 am IST

No one would doubt that science and technology (S&T) are an intrinsic part of the socio-politico-economic fabric of our society, yet the cold fact is that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government has paid scant attention to science in particular, which has been the basis of all technologies that have transformed lives through history. This is not to say that the United Progressive Alliance government did better. Let me look at the new government’s apathy towards S&T, exemplified in these ways:

No direction Three of the leading scientific agencies in the country have been without a head for various periods. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has been without a regular director-general since January 2014; he/she would also hold the position of Secretary, Department of Scientific & Industrial Research. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has been without a director-general since March 1, 2015; he/she would also be the Secretary, Department of Health Research. And, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been without a director-general — he/she would also be the scientific adviser to the Defence Minister — since January 14, 2015, when the >person-in-charge was removed . Between them, these organisations oversee 120 out of some 280 national S&T institutions. Till recently, another leading scientific agency, the Department of Science and Technology (DST), was also without a head for quite some time. The post of Secretary, DST, was filled only recently.

In addition, several premier research and development (R&D) laboratories function without a regular director, examples being the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi.

There is more. The last >Union Budget speech had virtually no reference to science. Personally, I am aware of the erosion of excellence built painstakingly over the years in laboratories such as the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad. Its library can no longer subscribe to even Current Contents leave alone other scientific journals as there is no money. I know that the ICMR cannot even pay appropriate travel allowance to those attending its meetings. I have not seen such situations arise in my scientific career spanning over six decades. The resource crunch that S&T labs face today is something unknown and is painful.

For a viable policy No effort has been made to formulate a national S&T policy, especially when the country needs a framework and a statement on such a policy. It also needs a document that would clearly and unambiguously state a workable way to implement this policy.

Once this is done, one must then identify our unqualified successes in the fields of science and technology since Independence and give their reasons so that one knows what one has to build upon, and also identify our failures and their reasons. We can then know what needs to be taken care of in future.

At this point, I would like to give the example of Israel and highlight the quality and worldwide impact of basic scientific research done there. As an independent nation, Israel has existed for about the same period as India has. Unlike India, it has had to start from scratch. It did not inherit natural resources like India did. There is just one reservoir of fresh water, the Sea of Galilee. Its entire population is much smaller than the population of even the smallest of our four largest metropolitan cities. Yet, its output of all basic research outpaces that done in most of our 280 national research institutions. One only needs to analyse the citations of the scientific work done in the two countries and follow the worldwide technological impact of Israel’s work to understand what I am trying to highlight.

There must be a recognition of the differences between science and technology. For this, one can refer to Science and Technology Policy in the 1980s and Beyond , 1984.

The use of validated, indigenous, traditional knowledge hardly needs emphasis. For example, traditional knowledge in the area of water conservation has been well documented by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in Delhi. Where used, as in Rajasthan, the excellent results are there for all to see. Yet, in contrast, is the way in which our numerous, tribal, plant-based, traditional medical formulations, for which substantial social validation exists, have not even been documented. An example of social validation in this area is the regulation of conception in the Nicobar Islands.

New links The documents must also recognise and identify new linkages that science has come to establish with areas such as economics, sociology, politics and law; deal with the new ethical questions that have arisen as a consequence of advances in science and technology, and work out strategies which ensure that they are dealt with appropriately in the Indian context.

We must also ensure that the cultivation of a scientific temper does not exist merely on paper but finds life and expression in practice. All actions that the government takes or supported by the people must be in line with scientific temper.

We must take a stand on those clauses of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) which have a scientific component and which are not in India’s interests. This would involve utilising existing provisions in these agreements to our advantage and passing appropriate pieces of national legislation and seeking changes to specific provisions at the international level. This was dealt with in an article in this daily (February 20, 2002) titled “ >Patenting India’s interests ”.

There must be a definitive but liberal policy on providing venture capital for start-ups in new areas of technology. This must be through government-funded agencies such as the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India and the Industrial Development Bank of India.

The mechanism governing the release of genetically engineered organisms is unsatisfactory and ineffective. Similarly, infertility clinics have mushroomed in the last decade and may be responsible for an infructuous expenditure of several thousand crores of rupees every year, besides creating ethical problems. I advocate appropriate and workable regulatory mechanisms in these two areas.

There must be an emphasis on national security which would include sustainable development and a factoring in of interests in conservation, food, ecology, social security (including health), and defence.

A forecasting system which would enable one to project socio-economic-political scenarios against the background of developments in science and technology on a continuing basis is a must.

Basic research Working out a policy for basic research where all worthwhile ideas that would allow India to become a leader in basic research should be pursued with vigour. Second or third-rate research that is repetitive or a trivial follow-up of leads provided elsewhere in the world must be discouraged. This will ensure that the quality-to-quantity ratio in the country in respect of basic research goes up by at least two-orders of magnitude in the next two decades.

Areas that relate to technology where the country would lay special emphasis in the next two decades must be identified. These could be in space technology, energy (especially renewable sources of energy, and increasing efficiency in the use and conservation of energy), new materials, biotechnology (including marine biotechnology), information technology, microelectronics, computers, nanotechnologies, artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, meteorology, and disaster prevention and management.

An incident in the past comes to mind. In 1982, the first robot in the country was produced by a private science society, the Hyderabad Science Society, which was founded in 1948; it received rave reviews and was met with applause when first demonstrated to the public. However, the society, which has an excellent record of public service, has faced problems, some of which affect its survival. Such a situation would never have been allowed to happen or even arisen in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, leave alone Japan, the United Kingdom or the United States.

Finally, our national science academies must be made socially accountable. I hope all these points will help usher in ‘Achche Din’ for Indian science and technology and make eminent sense to our political masters.

(Pushpa M. Bhargava is former Vice-Chairman, National Knowledge Commission and Chairman, Council for Social Development, southern regional centre.)

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