SPARK or an ember?

Earlier this year, top administrators in Indian science submitted a detailed project report to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This paper has reviewed portions of the 48-page report, titled Vigyan 2030: Science and Technology as the Pivot for Jobs, Opportunities and National Transformation. And the report, in its assessment of the state of Indian science, is stingingly honest: “The stature of Indian science is a shadow of what it used to be… because of decades of misguided interventions. We have lost self-confidence and ambition and the ability to recognise excellence amongst our own. In a false sense of egalitarianism, we often chose the mediocre at every level.”

One of its key recommendations is to have an independent science and technology authority that will have two parallel arms. One, a ‘discovery arm’ that can organise the expertise of various organisations across states and regions to solve a basic research problem. Two, a ‘delivery’ arm that will closely work with industry and evolve public private partnerships. Such an authority, the report envisions, will report directly to the Prime Minister. SPARK (Sustainable Progress through Application of Research and Knowledge), as the body is tentatively named, will be overarching yet have “light touch” governance.

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All very good, except that India already has bodies that were, in their wisdom, conceived as umbrella organisations that can pool the intellectual and technological resources of organisations and direct them towards specific missions.

The Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India is one such office. The NITI Aayog, now essentially a policy think tank, and tasked with coordinating States and research agencies, is another. Though they have no dearth of eminent, experienced scientists, they haven’t substantially vaulted science and technology in the country either. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research faces its own challenges of effectively translating its know-how. Scientific departments in India, from the Department of Atomic Energy to the Department of Science & Technology, have bureaucracies of their own. They battle the dilemma of having to take bold, expensive risks — that science by its very nature requires — and on the other hand, be accountable to the Finance Ministry. Not only does a new overarching body run the risk of “stepping on toes” but it will also be a challenge to exert solemn authority without being a cantankerous accountant. It must, somehow, marry commerce and knowledge without being commercial and ensure that good ideas — beyond the Indian Institutes of Technology and Science — don’t die out for lack of funds or recommendations from influential scientists. Any new idea, to rejuvenate the administration of science, must also ensure continuity. Very often, bold experiments are supported and incubated for a few years and by the exertions of individually-motivated leaders. A change of government and new leaders has frequently meant ‘new priorities’ and the infant-death syndrome for the bold experiment. Can SPARK have a legal structure that can have continuity and the purpose of its creation hard-wired into it? These are difficult questions that the council of science secretaries, who authored the report, must address.