‘Free Indian science’: Responses, rebuttals and retrenchments

In the April 3 issue of Nature, Joseph Mathai and Andrew Robinson published a Comment on the afflictions of scientific research in India – and found the interference of bureaucracy to be chief among all ills. Most of the writers’ concerns were very valid, and kudos to them for highlighting how it was the government mismanaging science in India, not the institutes mismanaging themselves. In the May 8 issue of the same journal, three letters in response to the piece were published, under Correspondence, which brought to light two more issues just as important although not that immense, and both symptomatic of mismanagement that appears to border on either malevolence or stupidity, depending on your bent of mind.

Biswa Prasun Chatterji from St. Xavier’s, Mumbai, wrote about the “disastrous” decoupling of research and education in the country, mainly as a result of newly created research institutions in the 1940s and 1950s. These institutions led bright, young students away from universities, which as a result were parched of funds. The research bodies, on the other hand, fell prey to increasing bureaucratic meddling. Chatterji then points to an editorial in the November 1998 (vol. 75) issue of Current Science by P. Balaram, now the director of the Indian Institute of Science. In the piece, Prof. Balaram describes C.V. Raman as having been a firm believer in universities being the powerhouses of research, not any separate entities.

The latest issue of 'Current Science' (May 10, 2014)
The latest issue of ‘Current Science’ (May 10, 2014)

In 1932, C.V. Raman helped found Current Science after recognizing the need for an Indian science journal. In one of its first issues, an editorial appeared named ‘Retrenchment and Education’, in which the author, likely Prof. Raman himself, lays out the importance of having an independent body to manage scientific research in India. Because of its relevance to the issues at hand, I’ve reproduced it from the Current Science archives below.

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The second letter’s contents follow from the first’s. Dhruba Saikia, Cotton College State University (Assam), and Rowena Robinson, IIT-Guwahati, ask for the country’s university-teaching to be overhauled. Many professors I’ve spoken to ask for the same thing but are turned to amusement after they realize that the problem has been left to fester for so long that the solution they’re looking for requires fixing our entire elementary education system. Moreover, after the forking of education and research described in Chatterji’s letter, it seems that universities were left to fend for themselves after their best teaching resources were drawn away by the government. Here is a paragraph from Saikia’s and Robinson’s letter:

Hundreds of thousands of students graduate from Indian universities each year. However, our own experience in selecting students indicates that many are ignorant of the basics, with underdeveloped reasoning skills and an inability to apply the knowledge they have.

There was also a third letter, this one critical of the Mathai-Robinson piece. Shobhana Narasimhan, a theoretical physicist from JNCASR, Bangalore, says that she is free to pursue “curiosity-driven science” and doesn’t have to spend as much time writing grant proposals as do scholars in the West, and so Mathai-Robinson are wrong on that front. At the same time, it seems from her letter that those things she has access to that her presumably better-equipped Occidental colleagues don’t could also be the result of a lack of control on research agendas and funding in India. In short, she might be free to pursue topics her curiosity moves her toward because the authorities don’t care (yes, this is a cynical point of view, but I think it must be considered).

So I emailed her and she replied.

“The quick answer to your question is I don’t think more overview of research funding is the answer to improving Indian science. My colleagues abroad spend more time writing proposals to get funding than actually carrying out research… I don’t think that is a good situation. Similarly getting tenure at an American university often depends on how much money you brought in. We don’t have such a situation (yet) and I think that is good.

We shouldn’t blindly copy foreign systems because they are by no means perfect. [Emphasis mine]

I have been on grant committees and I found good proposals always got funded. But I do agree that there is often much dead wood in many Indian departments, but that can also happen abroad.

I am aware that I may be speaking from a position of privilege since I work at one of the better funded institutes. Also as a theorist, I do not need much equipment.”

I would say Narasimhan’s case is the exception rather than the rule. Although I don’t have a background in researching anything (except for my articles and food prices), two points have been established with general consensus:

  1. The Rajiv Gandhi-era promise of funding for scientific R&D to the tune of 2% of GDP is yet to materialize. The fixation on this number ranges from the local – for unpaid students and ill-equipped labs – to the global – to keep up with investments in other developing countries.
  2. Even if there is funding, there is no independent body staffed with non-governmental stakeholders to decide which research groups get how much, leading to arbitrary research focus.