Compromising scientific curiosity for marketability

An emphasis on immediate applicability and commercial potential shouldn’t be allowed to steal the space of science

January 30, 2020 12:05 am | Updated 08:15 am IST

At the recently concluded 107th Science Congress in Bengaluru, the customary inaugural address by the Prime Minister reflected the government’s take on how science should be conducted in India. This was conveyed when he said young researchers should “innovate, patent, produce, prosper”.

The present government has been directing laboratories and other research centres to earn their own revenue from external sources by marketing their expertise and investing the surplus to develop technologies for national missions. This policy position can be traced to the ‘Dehradun declaration’ prepared by the directors of the CSIR labs in 2015, where it was decided to market patents as a means to self-finance research. This market-driven revenue model is expected to encourage the research centres, including the universities, to reorient themselves to conduct what is marketable.

This trend towards commercialisation of science started much earlier. In the 1990s, CSIR director general R.A. Mashelkar mandated labs to generate intellectual property and file patents. Consequently, there has been a steady decline in government expenditure in higher education and research, reflecting this changed stand on making the government labs financially autonomous and leaving their fortunes to be determined by the market forces. There is a genuine concern among the researchers and academics that this transformation will have serious repercussions for India’s competence in research.

History of the debate

The modern debate about basic versus applied sciences was started in the early 1940s by British physicist John D. Bernal who proposed that science should serve the nation and the material needs of its citizens. A main tenet of this argument was that scientists should first pass the test of whether their chosen research topics would be beneficial from the perspective of societal needs. But Bernal’s ideas were promptly opposed by a group of researchers, led by the zoologist John R. Baker by forming the Society for Freedom in Science. In an article published in the journal Nature in 1944, the Society emphasised that scientific life should be autonomous and workers should be given enough freedom to choose their own problems.

Meanwhile, in 1945, Vannevar Bush, Director, Office of Research and Development, published his vision of research freedom in a publication titled “Science, the Endless Frontier”. This was submitted to the then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, ultimately leading to the establishment of the National Science Foundation. Under the chapter ‘Freedom of inquiry must be preserved’, he wrote that, “Scientific progress... results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown”. He continued: “The publicly and privately supported colleges, universities, and research institutes are the centers of basic research... As long as they are vigorous and healthy and their scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems in Government, in industry, or elsewhere”.

This vision was the guiding principle of science governance in the U.S. and Europe, in general during the last century. But cut to the “Horizon 2020” the European Union framework programme for conducting science. Taking a cue from Bernal’s vision, the scientific research as presented in this document could be viewed as a political and economic instrument.

Thus, it appears that scientific research world over is under the threat of increasing commercialisation, primarily spearheaded and fast-forwarded by the new age politicians. The implicit assumption is that the research institutes and universities in course of time will transform into something like service centres that will be more equipped to address the economic growth and social needs. By encouraging intellectual property and by creating spin-off companies, many centres of learning are busy attempting to recast their images to meet such demands.

Dismal R&D spending

Science is essentially an end-product of human curiosity and a desire to understand the world. Thus, an increasing emphasis on immediate applicability of science should not be allowed to steal the space of curiosity-driven basic science which can be sustained only by direct government funding.

Further, the question is whether a blind and hasty copying of this Bernalian model of science will be beneficial for scientific growth in India. We must first assess the objective conditions of higher education and research institutions. Where do we stand in research and development (R&D) in comparison to other countries?

Besides the 40 CSIR laboratories and a few premier research institutions like the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institutes of Technology, there are over 600 universities, meeting the educational requirements of about 29 million students. But hardly any international-level research is done in the universities. Our impact on global science continues to be minimal, except for a few isolated bright spots.

Government spending in R&D has continued to remain static for about a decade, at a paltry 0.9% of the GDP, as compared to China, whose spending during the 2000-2017 period grew at an average of 17%, its growth being more than that of the U.S. The situation is so dire in India that even the country’s premier technology colleges, the Indian Institutes of Technology, are reaching out to their alumni for funds. As for developing self-financing models for government labs, the government should tread its path slowly and selectively looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each of the institutes. It will be counterproductive to implement a one-size-fits-all solution in a hasty manner. The immediate priority in this regard should be to increase the government funding in higher education and R&D. The forthcoming Union Budget will provide an excellent opportunity to make this long-standing demand a reality.

C.P. Rajendran is a Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research. Views are personal

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