The problem with India’s science management

As India remoulds its science establishment, the utility of scientists being given administrative tasks needs to be questioned

Updated - January 20, 2024 01:15 am IST

Published - January 20, 2024 12:16 am IST

‘The defining feature of India’s science administration is the centrality of its senior scientists’

‘The defining feature of India’s science administration is the centrality of its senior scientists’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sustained economic progress which can satisfy national ambition is invariably fuelled by scientific advances translated into deployable technologies. This has been the inevitable global experience since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Alive to this reality, the government is overhauling India’s science establishment, which includes setting up the new National Research Foundation (NRF) and restructuring the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). In this scenario, a frank assessment of the current administrative ability to simultaneously optimise Indian science’s efficiency and resilience is necessary.

India’s low overall expenditure on research and development (around 0.7% of GDP, compared to 3.5% for the United States and 2.4% for China) is but one aspect constraining its scientific outcomes. Considering such low expenditure, it is pivotal to allocate money wisely and focus on high-impact projects.

Unfortunately, the scientific administration has failed to do justice to the task at hand. Even the vaunted space programme is witnessing narrowing leads. In 2022, the Indian Space Research Organisation stood a distant eighth on launch numbers, with foreign startups racing ahead on key technologies such as reusable rockets. Likewise, the lead in nuclear energy has been frittered away, being latecomers to small modular reactors; thorium ambitions remain unrealised. On critical science and technology themes such as genomics, robotics, and artificial intelligence, the situation is even more alarming. The direction and organisation of science is inconsistent, even unfit, for the vital role which science must play going ahead.

India’s science is dominated by the public sector. Generic irritants associated with governmental bureaucracy, such as tardiness in approving crucial time-dependent funding, or equitable decision making across different funding levels, are known problems. Added to this, what is absent is the inability to commit to long-term steady funding of critical projects when faced with the inevitable occasional failures. This latter aspect is essential in any robust science management system.

An outsized role by scientists

The defining feature of India’s science administration is the centrality of its senior scientists. Their activities are bewildering in range. Some pretend to be top international level academics. Others delight in micromanaging their institutions’ accounts, while still others circumambulate courts to battle frivolous charges from disgruntled colleagues. Several flit around the country to sit in a variety of institutional committees (Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, Defence Research and Development Organisation, Universities), which would fare better without external members. Many try to become directors, vice-chancellors and secretaries to the Government of India. The list goes on. These top scientists, and not government bureaucrats, are at the helm of India’s science administration. Therefore, they must be held accountable for its failings.

The basic assumption behind the outsized role played by scientists in Indian science administration is that a good scientist will also be a good science administrator. The argument goes that only scientists can appropriately run scientific institutions, considering the importance and technical rigours of the science that is supposed to go on in these places. The actual performance of these institutions is proof enough that this paradigm is faulty.

First, administering an organisation as complex as a national lab or a university cannot be relegated to becoming a side-project of a ‘working’ scientist doubling up as a director or vice-chancellor. Administration requires a particular skill set, most importantly, the allocation of money, resources and time. Indeed, attributes associated with good scientists, such as individuality, constructive ego, and erudition, have little congruence with the demands of administration — tact, realism, flexibility and firmness. The fundamental role of an administrator is to prioritise one undertaking over another in line with policy and to ensure that resources assigned to one project do not starve others. How then can a good scientist, who is generally driven by individual attribution, be a good administrator, who must be organisationally driven?

Second, the lack of comprehensive training in selecting which particular metrics are appropriate under what circumstances leads to absurdities such as an entire project getting derailed due to a single invoice or acquisition. Who is accountable for all the lost time, shelved projects, and wasted money? Scientists, by their very training, are not geared to juggle between several approximate solutions to human and financial problems. Administration is the art of translating policy into outcomes — scientists are simply not trained to prioritise between time, cost, or precision, and certainly not in what proportions.

Third, the scope for conflicts of interest in the present dispensation is huge. Being an academic within the same institution in which one wields administrative control is a sure recipe for disaster. Unsavoury examples abound of science administrators engaging in red tapism to mire rivals in unnecessary strictures. Likewise, the culture of Indian science has descended into a quagmire of quid pro quos and shoddy quality control. Thus, scandals such as high plagiarism rates, paid publications in disreputable journals, and under-the-table dealings to garner government funding have become normalised.

More maliciously, careers and projects of scientific and strategic importance have been devastated due to reasons that range from competition to egotism. The fact that there is no system of all-India transfers of both scientists and science administrators only magnifies institutional capture and factionalism. There are obvious downsides in allowing system insiders to be chimeric regulators of the same said system.

The seeds of this rot were planted soon after Independence. Poverty forced the country to concentrate high-end equipment in a handful of institutions, primarily the Indian Institutes of Technology in the 1960s. Since only these institutions had exclusive access to certain equipment, a system of gatekeepers emerged. These gatekeepers slowly began to capture positions, government patronage and institutional power on the back of their monopoly over critical equipment. Thus, all young scientists had to pay their nazranas at the durbars, in other words, their tributes in the royal courts, to these gatekeepers, making them indebted forever to these bestowers of favours. This system has replicated itself over time to such a degree that appointments, awards, foreign accolades and support from the system overall, depended on continuing to aggrandise the inheritors of these gatekeepers. Many bright scientists’ careers and lives have been destroyed due to their conflicts with this oppressive network of gatekeepers. Genuine scientific outcomes became the obvious collateral casualties.

The system in the U.S.

The separation of administrators and scientists is something which most robust science establishments generally embrace. Even the U.S., with labs being embedded in the university ecosystem and run by scientists, selects scientists for an administrative role quite early on in their careers. Such selected science administrators, by and large, only carry out administrative tasks thereon, and are groomed for the task, with very few of them ever going back to active science.

Such a separation has obvious benefits for all stakeholders, except of course the entrenched gatekeepers. As India remoulds its science establishment, one must really question the utility of scientists being given administrative tasks, whether as additional assignments or as full-time vice-chancellors or directors. Perhaps an American middle-way arrangement, where scientists are selected and trained in an all-India pool of a science administration central service, is the answer. In such a dispensation, university vice-chancellors would have greater bargaining power vis-à-vis the bureaucracy within the university as well as that of the ministries if they belong to an all-India service having received the appropriate training.

At some point, India has to come to the same conclusion that the world of business did in 1908 when the Master of Business Administration (MBA) course was established at Harvard. Administration is something which has to be taught and practised separately from the subject matter being administered. The administrative setup of any complex is its central nervous system, and the same is true for science establishments. Without addressing these core concerns, India’s science establishment will continue to do injustice to its economic and strategic aspirations.

Gautam R. Desiraju is in the Indian Institute of Science; Deekhit Bhattacharya is an Associate with Luthra & Luthra Law Offices, India. The views expressed are personal

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