Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The PM must fix our science and technology problem

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is right: “If India has to re-emerge as a knowledge power in the 21st Century, then it can only be through developing a strong capability in science and technology.” But his prescription for attaining the capabilities was something of a cop-out. The Prime Minister has usually held the Cabinet portfolio for science and technology and Dr Singh claims that under the United Progressive Alliance, the government has invested heavily in expanding and upgrading the S&T and innovation system in the country; indeed, as he put it, “we have worked hard to do what is good for science.”

Unfortunately, that good is not good enough. As the PM himself opined, Indian science is riddled with bureaucratism, favouritism and a “know it all” attitude. It has been impervious to government efforts to reform its system. A major example of the failure of Indian science has been its inability to support Indian agriculture effectively, despite the huge investments and extensive system of laboratories and institutions that were created for the purpose. This failure is costing the country dear, and will cost it more as the country finds itself unable to boost productivity, or cope with the challenges arising out of the vagaries of climate change.

The PM and his worthies at the annual science jamboree
The Prime Minister’s speech listed out a host of initiatives: the new solar mission to boost solar generation capacity to 20,000 MW by 2020, the technology mission for “winning, augmentation and renovation (war)” of our water resources, the Geo-spatial Technology Applications Mission to promote crop planning and monitoring as well as flood management and so on. In keeping with its proclivity for slogans, the government has declared 2010-2020 as the Decade of Innovations with a view of obtaining “out of the box” solutions for Indian problems in the area of economic growth, as well as healthcare, energy, urban infrastructure, water management and so on.


But there is one problem. These schemes have to be implemented. And, the instrumentalities the country has for the purpose are blunt. Dr Singh did say that he had taken note of Nobel laureate, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan’s comment about “the need for greater ‘autonomy from red tape and local politics’ for Indian scientists.”
But merely taking note is not enough. Nor will it do any good, as Dr Singh suggested, “to have our scientific institutions introspect” on the issue of autonomy and propose solutions. The government is virtually the monopoly investor in S&T in this country. It is the task of the government to come up with solutions.
Rarely are institutions capable of self-reform, and Indian science which has been ossified for several decades now, will not even be able to introspect, leave alone implement schemes for reform. For one thing, most of those who are being asked to introspect will deny that there is any problem at all.
Actually reform is probably the wrong word. A structure as inflexible and unproductive as Indian science and technology is incapable of being reformed. It needs to be built from ground upwards, all over again. The process must be led by the topmost leadership and its first goal must be to get the government out of the business of managing science and technology.
The government must, of course, continue to fund science strongly. It must audit the funds thus spent, but this role should keep the government servants away from deciding on scientific-technical issues. What is needed is an entirely new framework of relationship between the government and science to achieve what Dr Ramakrishnan wants—freedom from red tape and local politics.


The idea may seem outlandish, but the way to do this is to give science and technology back to where it should have remained in the first place—our universities and institutions of higher learning. One of the big failures of Indian science has been the extent to which it has vanished from teaching institutions. As is well known, S&T flourishes best in an atmosphere of openness and intellectual ferment. This can only happen in places where teaching and research go hand in hand. This is not to decry the need for specialised laboratories and institutions, but only to state that there is need to reset the balance in favour of the universities.
A good example of what the government can do can be had from China. In 1986, according to a recent article in The New Yorker, four of China’s top weapons scientists wrote to supreme leader Deng Xiaoping that China’s over-emphasis on military research had atrophied the civilian science set up. As a result of this appeal, Deng set up what is called Project 863 (The letter was dated 3-3-1986) which in the ensuing years poured billions of dollars into labs, universities and enterprises in a range of products “ranging from cloning to underwater robots.” In 2001, China added energy technology to the list of projects to be supported by 863.
The burden of the article is the advances that China has made in a host of clean energy technologies, but you can see the impact of the programme in a host of areas ranging from the new Wuhan-Guangzhou high-speed rail network, to the ambitious electric car project. The Chinese learnt their lessons from the US where the Pentagon and the National Institutes of Health create panels of experts who look into competitive proposals and award contracts.
The process has not been without its problems. The most celebrated was the case of Chen Jin, a researcher who got more than $ 10 million grants to make a chip to rival Intel’s, but it turned out that he had faked his results. But that has not deterred the Chinese who have incorporated the lessons of the Chen episode into their procedures. Chinese S&T probably still suffers from cronyism and fraud, but it has also come up with substantial achievements.
The key to what has happened in China is to get the bureaucracy out of the business of managing science and technology and debureaucratising the process of funding worthwhile projects. A similar process would do very well in India. More so than China, India has a tradition of entrepreneurship—commercial, scientific and technological. Indians like Laxmi Mittal and Swaraj Paul have shown their worth abroad, as have scientists like S Chandrashekhar, Hargobind Khurana and Ramakrishnan. As the case of Information Technology, reveals, Indians like Narayan Murthy and Azim Premji did great things within India, but that is because the government did not control or regulate the sector till it had already taken off.


Indian science and technology, too, has had an inordinate military orientation. For decades, the nuclear sector gobbled up an unconscionable proportion of R&D resources. They may have given us the bomb (though the thermonuclear device failed), but they have failed to deliver on the power front. The emphasis on the military has prevented the emergence of an aeronautics industry in the country. Because the focus has been on military products via the Ministry of Defence-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, India has not been able to establish a worthwhile civilian aeronautics industry, and is fated to import generations of passenger aircraft.
Ironically, despite huge investments, defence S&T has also been a monumental failure. The Rama Rao Committee is reported to have given some proposals to reform the DRDO to the Defence Minister A.K. Antony. But the proposals will not amount to much since Rama Rao, a former DRDO hand, is a “safe” scientist and was appointed to provide anodyne solutions. Nothing short of a drastic remaking of the DRDO, and indeed the structure of official science in India, will enable India to meet the ambitious goals that the Prime Minister outlined at the Indian Science Congress last Sunday.
This article appeared in Mail Today January 6, 2010

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