Science education in English is exclusionary: PSA K. Vijay Raghavan

At a time of outlandish claims of Mahabharata-era Internet and more, a new tech-savvy Principal Scientific Adviser boldly takes office. What lies ahead for him?

Updated - April 21, 2018 08:27 pm IST

Published - April 21, 2018 06:25 pm IST

 Man of action: K. VijayRaghavan.

Man of action: K. VijayRaghavan.

K. Vijay Raghavan is as unusual a bureaucrat as they come. For one, the 64-year-old developmental biologist who was recently appointed Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) does not shy away from social media discussions on science policy. It’s because of this unusual accessibility that researchers are looking forward to his upcoming tenure. But his accessibility and democratic working style are accompanied by a track record of getting things done. He is credited with having built National Centre for Biological Sciences, one of India’s top research institutions today, along with co-founders Obaid Siddiqui and Gaiti Hasan. During his five-year term as Secretary, Department of Biotechnology (DBT), he introduced the department’s first open-access policy. Excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about your early journey into science?

My father was in the Air Force, and my mother was a school teacher. Studying in Delhi, I interacted with classmates who were interested not just in science, but also literature and everything else. We used to cycle to Old Delhi, buy all sorts of chemicals, which would be completely illegal today, and set up labs at home — a stupid and dangerous thing to do. But we were playing around, without any clear desire to pursue science.

After school, I went to IIT-Kanpur (IIT-K). At that time, Kanpur was a fantastic place for basic science and engineering research. It was an inappropriate place, one might argue, for such scientific excellence. Inappropriate, because if you want to build an institute of higher learning, you would build it in a cosmopolitan city, with more resources, industry and infrastructure. Indeed, IIT-Bombay, IIT-Madras and IIT-Delhi were built that way. But it shows how such excellence can be built in difficult contexts.

The other IITs came up around the same time, but Kanpur had a more intellectually stimulating atmosphere. It started around 1960, but by 1965, it was an awesome place. By 1970, it was terrific. How do you do that? You do that by having a director (Purushottam Kashinath Kelkar) who did not hesitate to hire people far better than he was. You do that by focusing on excellence, and partnering nationally and internationally. IIT-K came up under the same government, the same bureaucracy, as others, but others dealt with it at a slower pace. Kelkar did it quickly.

Have scientific advisory bodies been downgraded? The current government did not reconstitute two bodies, namely the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) to the PM and the SAC to the Cabinet.

There is no downgrade. The PSA has been appointed by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, and is at a very high level. In the coming month, a nimble and dynamic team will also be constituted to support the PSA’s office. I therefore see the roles and responsibilities of the PSA as only increasing substantially, as are the expectations from within the government at the highest level.

There is a concern among researchers that science is not driving government policy today. Does this worry you?

There are multiple components needed for science to drive policy. For every component, the critical aspect is engagement. If scientists want anything to happen, they should engage. We cannot just state the problem, and say the government should do this and that. That is a luxury only journalists have.

India’s science academies need to ramp up, like the world’s best academies, in giving feedback to the government. We need to reach out to our municipal, state and central elected representatives to tell them what is happening, so they can be our agents in using science to solve our problems. While Indian science academies have brought out some documents over the years, these have been generic. We don’t have deep-dive documents on energy, health, nutrition, education, and so on, which do more than state the generic problem.

If you go to the U.S.’s National Academy of Sciences website, or The Royal Society’s website, they have these extraordinarily well-done documents. Sometimes, their government asks for advice and sometimes it doesn’t, but the academies give advice.

What are the areas where science academies ought to be advising the government today?

If you ask Indian academies today what their view on climate change is, the document they need to write shouldn’t just be about global warming. The U.S. academies have done a terrific job of that. Indian academies can add value if they analyse it in our context. What does climate change mean for Assam, for Lakshadweep, for Rajasthan? That kind of analysis is waiting to be done. The government has its mechanisms for analysing this internally, but where is the advice from outside? I think we have systems to give this advice, but the advice isn’t coming.

‘There are boot-strappings we must embark on, instead of saying ‘give me money and I will do something’.’

PSA is an advisory role without much executive power. Are there examples of advisory bodies bringing about clear policy changes?

Science advisory mechanisms to the Prime Minister go way back in time. There is much to learn from them. Our entire computer science and electronics effort, for example, came from top-down stimulation through advisory mechanisms. The electronics mission was a consequence of formal advice to the Prime Ministers. For instance, Ashok Parthasarathi was science adviser to Indira Gandhi and his push led to the Computer Maintenance Corporation being set up. But these kinds of situations are few. Similarly, semi-conductor manufacturing, which didn’t take off, was again a top-down effort.

What will you do differently?

I don’t think I can answer off the cuff. What the country needs to do is being charted out. But very briefly, at the foundational level, we need to spread the footprint of scientific excellence, so that it doesn’t feed back into excellent institutions alone becoming better and better. The footprint must expand. How one does that is a challenge.

We have sites of huge investments in science: Bengaluru, Hyderabad, the Mumbai-Pune stretch, the Ahmedabad-Vadodara stretch. They need to work together a lot more.

From the perspective of a student entering an institute in one of these places, all institutes should be one. For instance, a student joining the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi as an immunologist should be able to go to the neighbouring plant genome centre, and say, “I am very excited by plants. Can I switch from being an immunologist to being a plant biologist?” Today, this requires one to jump through several hoops.

These are ambitious goals. How do you accomplish them?

First of all, as a foundation, we need to make science accessible to citizens in the language they are comfortable with. Right now, science education requires being taught in English. It is exclusionary.

Making science accessible will need investments in quality people who can write and translate texts in multiple languages. Training teachers on scale is a very important goal. This will involve working not just with the science ministry, but also the human resource ministry and State governments. If each State government takes ownership of this project, it can be done. Otherwise, it becomes a centralised project.

The second challenge is: how does one get elite and high investment institutions to work together? Let’s take for example, Hyderabad — you have University of Hyderabad and next to it, on a couple hundred acres, you have the new TIFR Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences campus, which barely communicates with them. There are at least 30 other Central labs in Hyderabad, such as the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics. To make them work together requires Memorandums of Understanding and other structures.

Recently, eight institutes in Marseille, France, have come together to create a programme in computational approaches to handling scientific data. They will have a common graduate programme. The French have also merged several universities in Paris into one, administratively. If the French, who compete with us in being the most bureaucratic country in the world, can manage something like this, there is no reason we can’t.

Bringing science to regional language speakers is a worthy goal. But most elite Indian institutions have students from all parts of the country, and their only common language is English. How will they communicate?

The point is not that English will not be the language of science. This is not about knowing English. It is about what language people think in. If all your abstraction is forced in a language alien to you — and English is alien to all but a small fraction of Indians — you are denying access to science to many. If you are a child born in Dantewada, and you want to do String Theory, is that a crime? Today, we have said, “No. Sorry. You cannot have that ambition.”

India spends less than 0.8% of its GDP on science. Is this enough?

Let me invert that question. If you were to magically increase GDP spending on science, what would you do with the money? There are boot-strappings we must embark on, instead of saying ‘give me money and I will do something’. When our space programme started, it didn’t have a clear budget. If the pioneers of India’s space programme had said, ‘Unless you tell me what budget I get, I can’t start’, where would we be? Instead, they made do with what they had, and because of their initial successes, the budget kept increasing.

As scientists, it is perfectly fine for us to say that we need money. But other sectors — like health, agriculture and defence — are also saying this. The finance ministry has a tough job deciding what to do, for a complex set of reasons. If scientists don’t bootstrap and simply say that irrespective of what you give us, we will keep articulating our needs in greater detail, we will be making demands for something before we get started on it.

Keep in mind that until a few years back, mid-term each year, there used to be a 30% cut in the science budget. The Planning Commission would say ₹200 has been allotted. Then, the Budget would say: you are getting only ₹100. So, we planned for ₹100, and then, mid-term, the government would say you are getting only ₹70. This happened year after year. Some of us pushed back really hard on that. We stopped these mid-term cuts, and started seeing steady increases in the science budget. But that increase is not enough, because costs and salaries have risen.

One eminently feasible option for us is to get the cash-rich industry to invest in science in a big way. That means people who finish their Ph.Ds and their Master’s have jobs that affect the economy. That is something the PSA’s office needs to coordinate.

Another component, where money can come in readily, is philanthropy. For example, the regional-language project will benefit hugely with philanthropic investment in managing the programme.

With these components, we are going to see a dramatic increase in moneys in science. My worry is: when this increase happens, are we prepared for it? We have gotten so used to bemoaning the difficult times. When the good times come again, there will be a phase lag. We should be optimistic, and prepare programmes, whether in health, nutrition or marine biology. Ask for resources, but make do with what we have. So that when resources do come, we are prepared.

‘Journalists should be able to present scientific complexities in a manner that doesn’t only grab headlines. They cannot cherry-pick data’

If the industry hasn’t invested in science so far, it may be because they do not see returns from it. How can the PSA change this?

It’s more complex than that. Even if there are returns on R&D, they are long-term returns. Industry investments happen due to combination of market forces and culture. If you look at Google or Amazon, their investment in R&D is twice the budget of the U.S. National Science Foundation. They are looking at long-term returns. In data-driven sectors like IT, Indian companies are moving in that direction. But they are not doing so significantly.

It is delusional to think this is a problem the PSA can solve. But it will also be negligent to think that the PSA should do nothing. The PSA has the capacity to aggregate minds, and stimulate State governments and Central governments to drive policy changes in the knowledge economy. Policy change makes it exciting to invest in R&D in the long term.

You talk of driving excellence in science. Yet, the government’s investment in Ayurvedic medicine hasn’t happened scientifically. Drugs like BGR-34, developed by the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, have been launched based on data in predatory journals. The government is talking about validating products like ‘gomutra’ (cow urine), but this may also happen unscientifically. Doesn’t this clash with the idea of scientific excellence?

I won’t get into the specifics of what different ministries are doing. You should address questions to them. Traditional health systems follow different legal rules because of their intrinsic value and societal acceptance. Modern drugs follow different rules. They are as different as apples and oranges. But in no case should we have anything but evidence influencing decision making. That process needs to be followed.

I have full faith that our funding bodies like the Department of Science & Technology (DST) will follow a rigorous process before approving projects (like ‘gomutra’ validation).

Indian science agencies have sometimes had a transparency problem. Raw data on the rotavirus vaccine, for example, was never shared despite demands. The GM mustard bio-safety dossier took a long time being published. Such opacity makes people suspicious of the scientific enterprise. How will you change this?

I completely agree that communication is absolutely necessary. But it should be combined with a level of trust which allows people to make genuine errors and correct them. Journalists should be able to present scientific complexities in a manner that doesn’t only grab headlines. They cannot cherry-pick data which serves one or the other of a range of moot points. Communication requires one side to convey the message, and the other to receive it fairly and correctly.

When any of these components performs sub-optimally, it stimulates the other to perform even more sub-optimally. If I am withholding data, journalists speculate more. On the other hand, if you speculate despite my giving the data, then I start giving you selective data. This is a problem with science ministries, and it is not a problem that will go away. It constantly needs to be corrected. It can be corrected only by enhancing the culture of interaction and openness; by choosing specific examples and fixing them.

I would say communication is a very important component, which the DST is already working in a big way to ramp up. It’s their baby. They are helping all science departments and ministries to have a communication portal, and create television, radio and internet TV programmes. We should wait to hear from them. The PSA’s office can be a lightning rod for communicating what’s happening in our environment to the government, and vice versa. This will be a tough but very enjoyable task.

The quantum of science funding is one issue, but the efficiency with which funding is distributed is another. Indian academics have repeatedly complained about government agencies’ grant review processes being perfunctory, and of grant money being delayed. Is this something you want to fix?

The grant and award reviewing system of DBT and DST has us (scientists) as members. When scientists submit a grant, they complain the reviewers don’t respond in time. But when they are asked to be reviewers, they don’t respond in time.

There are structural changes which government agencies have brought about to make the process efficient, like the open access policy. But individual institutions must decide to adopt these formally, and no government agency can push them. Nothing can stop institutions from doing so, and yet, our best institutions haven’t done this enough. Whose fault is that?

This expectation that on the one hand, an institute should be autonomous, while on the other, anything of importance must be dictated from the top, puzzles me. The government has a policy of open access. Why can’t every institution be exemplary in adopting it and making sure their committees use it?

What about delays in the releasing of funds?

I would say this is a serious matter. The entire system, starting with the release of funds, has multiple steps. The government has computerised systems so that you know if the funds are being released on time. But that process has resulted in hiccups, which are being sorted out.

(The print version of this article incorrectly quoted K. Vijay Raghavan as saying the National Institute of Immunology is in Pune. The institute is based in New Delhi. The error is regretted.)

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