‘Poverty first, Mars next’ is a non-idea

The Copernican
April 4, 2014

I am on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side.” – Treebeard, Lord of the Rings

Thanks to two wonderful pieces in the April 3 edition of The Hindu (by D. Balasubramanian andR. Prasad) talking about how scientific enterprise in India has been constantly undermined, it’s pretty clear that there is a perception schism between the fantasies of and the reality of publicly funded scientific development in the country. The underminers in question have been bureaucracy and, periodically, ignorance by the Indian polity – of late, in the form of political manifestos choosing to leave out scientific agendas in favour of more populist schemes.

But with bureaucracy, that is only to be expected. What is not is that, beyond a circle of scientists and science communicators, people seem to be okay with it, too. And this exclusion from the scheme of things has become two-pronged. Among the people, science has been malleated into the form of an unpredictable tool to further our developmental goals. Among the politicians, science has become a thing whose fundamentals can be called into question to pander to political expediency.

Sadly, scientific research and development has been instrumental to India’s progress since even the British Raj, when the construction of factories, transportation routes and communication lines (including what is still one of the world’s largest railway networks) helped dismantle feudalism. After Independence, however, a series of unfortunate mistakes have come together to knock the scientific temperament out of its rightful place in governance.

As Dr. Mathai Joseph told The Hindu, “The fact that scientific departments are modelled on the rest of the bureaucracy has turned out to be a big mistake. That’s because bureaucracy is not designed to encourage innovation.”

Who runs the science?

In August 2012, Colin Macilwain had touched on a similar topic with a piece in Nature titled ‘What matters for science is who runs the country‘. Working on the reasonable assumptions that a) researchers would want someone in the government to further their interests, and b) a government would want a scientist on its side to hone policies, Macilwain suggested that the role of a Scientific Adviser was to bridge the political and scientific classes.

Over the years, however, the Indian chief SA’s role, though continuing to attempt to bridge this divide, has become steadily less effectual. At least as far as C.N.R. Rao is concerned: he set up the IISERs and the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB), which serve important goals in their own right but also fall prey to the effects of a bureaucratic administration. Moreover, though there has been a growing demand from the scientific community to get the Indian government to spend more than 1% of its GDP on R&D, there is no concerted call from either side to establish a mechanism to ensure that grants are allocated purely on merit, and thereafter to ensure accountability in spending.

In the Vote of Accounts presented by FM P. Chidambaram on February 17, point #74 did proposesomething remedial (albeit as a tax-redemption measure): “I … propose to set up a Research Funding Organisation [RFO] that will fund research projects selected through a competitive process. Contributions to that organisation will be eligible for tax benefits. This will require legislative changes which can be introduced at the time of the regular Budget”

Incidentally, when Rao helped set up the SERB in 2008, its stated aim was to promote research in the basic sciences and provide financial assistance to those who engaged in it. Detrimentally, its Board is chaired by a secretary to the Government of India, and 7 of its 16 other Board members are government agents. As for how likely the next government is to pursue the RFO: I don’t know, but I don’t have my hopes up. For as long as grant-allocation and the government remain strongly coupled, not much is likely to change.

In fact, the government’s involvement is not limited to grants but also extends to issues of autonomy, such as in the appointment of Chancellors or Vice-chancellors, all of which together directly affects the quality and direction of research undertaken. And the situation is only likely to worsen, as D. Balasubramanian mentions in his article, when educational institutions like IITs and IIMs are proposed to be set up to make political amends.

I write all of this, of course, keeping in mind the following lines from the April 3 Speaking of Sciencecolumn in The Hindu: “The central finance ministry, with one stroke of a pen, has cut the operating budget of all science departments by almost 30 per cent of the originally sanctioned amounts. As a result, the science ministries and departments have defaulted in their grant payments and in some instances even salaries. Many young research students are yet to be paid their monthly fellowship money.”

Good idea, bad implementation

Simultaneously, it would seem the government has acquired a bias over the years about the sectors it considers strategic and those it considering available for politically expedient manipulation. The former section accommodates areas like social policies, domestic policies, defence, PDS, employment, etc. The latter accommodates areas like scientific research – but not all of it.

Consider how areas like telecommunication and nuclear physics have received substantial monetary and infrastructural support from the government, while astronomy and materials science lag behind. This divisive addressing of different disciplines has also resulted in a fractious working environment for scientists: collaborations are too few and far between, and interdisciplinary R&D is stifled. If thewords of Luiz Davidovich, a Brazilian researcher speaking at the World Science Forum in Rio de Janeiro, are to be believed, this is a problem plaguing the world’s emerging powers. Perhaps this is one of the most important lessons we should be learning from the USA and the EU.

The government, in its choice of subjects, has also been limited by its own middling knowledge of how likely these enterprises are to elevate sections of the Indian population out of poverty and toward better access to the basic amenities (if not to further vested interests, of course). This is again an instance of expediency and is not sustainable for the scientific community because it implies a support-structure that requires scientists to submit to the government’s agenda. The ideal situation would have the roles well balanced, to see scientific research blossom to improve the quality of all walks of life.

Now, the country’s any meaningful scientific output geared at improving the quality of life in the country is becoming poisoned by government mismanagement. For instance, while many countries have been able to engender a healthy debate on whether a nuclear power plant should be built or if GM crop seeds should be sold, a pall of negativity has descended on these subjects in India because we are unable to separate the DAE from nuclear power generation and the DBT from genetic modification. We must thank a stubborn lack of transparency for this.

Scientific research as an industry

If the fantasy of a fully decoupled government support and government funding were to be realised, and the screen of bureaucracy lifted from our institutions, we would have the chance to be better organised with our research interests. Put practically, we wouldn’t have to fund a fusion project in France because we’d have the temperament to develop a low-cost alternative in India itself (where labour continues to be cheap).

Those in power should know that science, as an organised articulation of human curiosity, is capable of developing products, services and technologies that go beyond alerting farmers of approaching storms or reducing the cost of a smartphone to less than one-plumbed-toilet. Scientific research can also found industries (opening up the thousands of jobs that campaigning politicians promise to the marginalised sections of the electorate), engage graduating scholars (the number of research degrees awarded increased by over 50% between 2008 and 2011, to 16,093, according to a UGC report), elevate the quality of education in the country, promote innovation (by reducing the time taken for a prototype engineered in the lab to a product mass-produced – an important mechanism for labs to prove useful in the eyes of the tax-payer), and cure diseases (did you hear about the Foldscope?).

In fact, those who clamour that India should be alleviating poverty before launching satellites to Mars should shed a sadly prevalent impression of scientific research and technological development that precludes incentives such as job-creation and technology-transfer. Scientific R&D is an industry – rather, can be – like any other. By launching a satellite to Mars (hopefully Mangalyaan will make it), technicians at ISRO now have the capability to coordinate such sophisticated programs. They could also possibly bring in revenue in the future by affording high-load launch-vehicles like the GSLV for developing countries that can’t cough up for the American/European coffers. And in the midst of all this, we must not over-celebrate the frugal budget with which we achieved this feat but use it as an opportunity to ask for incrementally more funding.

In another example, India designed and manufactured some of the superconducting magnets, accelerator heater protection systems and cryogenic facilities used to operate the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. Such components are also commonly used in medical imaging and diagnostics, and India already has a burgeoning medical tourism industry which, according to some estimates, is going to be worth Rs.9,500 crore in 2015. Thus, it seems we also stand to gain if only we could leverage local talent in devising products tailored for the Indian consumer.

As Rahul Sinha, a professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, remarked: “Physics is a technology developer.” So this schism between ‘blue sky’ scientific research and India’s developmental hurdles is one that, in an ideal world, doesn’t exist. That it does in our country is thanks only to a government’s mismanagement of its powers.