Our scientific experiment
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In general, we are people with a quasi-feudal mentality. Hierarchies are more important to us than passion for knowledge. Rituals and superstitions come more naturally to us than a scientific temper.Although the scientific community will claim to be more progressive than society at large, a quest for exclusivity, a bureaucratic disposition and comfort with mediocrity are hallmarks of India's science and technology community. There is a deep sense of inferiority to western science, although there is a general lack of desire to follow the good practices of science and technology management in the western countries.
The Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy 2013, authored by the ministry of science and technology and released at the 100th Indian Science Congress in Kolkata, unfortunately reflects all these propensities. It is a tepid document, full of wishes and desires, but it hardly describes any structural or procedural changes which will achieve the grand goal of integrating science, technology and innovation to create value in an inclusive manner. The declaration lists 12 points to capture India's aspirations in STI — promoting the spread of scientific temper; enhancing skills; making careers in science, research and innovation attractive; establishing world-class infrastructure and gaining global leadership in select frontier areas; making India among the five top global scientific powers; enhanced private-sector participation in research and development (R&D) and converting it into applications through a PPP model; seeding science and technology based high-risk innovations. All of these aim to create a robust national innovation system.
Haven't we wished all this before? Various departments of the science and technology ministry, as well as other ministries, continue to run scores of schemes trying to promote all these facets. In fact, there is a tendency to start new programmes and let the existing ones decay. What we need is an honest appraisal of all the schemes and learn from both the failures and the successes. Unfortunately, the cultural deficits of Indian society and the scientific community cannot be easily wished away. The hope lies in making structural changes that will circumvent our cultural deficit and break the vicious cycle of over-bureaucratisation in science and technology and comfort with mediocrity.
Here I will suggest some structural changes in the way we deal with STI issues which may bring better dividends.
India's grand challenge lies neither in science nor in innovation. Great insights in science cannot be seeded or wished for, they just happen, provided there is passion for knowledge in society. In innovation, India has done well. A recent report on India's STI achievements commends it for frugal innovations. With India's brightest opting for engineering and management degrees, innovation is bound to happen. What we should worry about more is creating a science-technology interface to develop robust technologies for meeting national needs and for the creation of wealth. This is where organised thinking and a proper policy framework could be most useful.
The most appropriate vehicle for supporting science, and a science and technology interface, is a competitive grants system funded by public money. All strong science and technology countries have excellent competitive grants systems where scientists and technologists individually, and more recently in large consortia, submit R&D projects that are reviewed and funded. Fortunately, in India, all the science departments have competitive grants systems for funding R&D projects. However, there are too many schemes and decision-making is excruciatingly slow. The most important innovation we require is a proposal tracking system that will track the progress of the proposal from submission to peer review to rejection or acceptance to final release of the grant. Currently, these procedures are taking about one to two years. If we care for science and technology, we need to cut short this time to six months. In any case, science departments very urgently require enterprise resource planning to streamline their processes. Innovation should start from the science departments itself.
The second important structural change is comprehensive funding of R&D projects, at least to the universities and public institutions. With the increased funding for R&D promised in the 12th plan, there is no reason to keep the concept of comprehensive funding out of the reckoning. This will bust the ill-conceived design of keeping universities starved of research funding.
Once the project is sanctioned, investigators should be given the freedom to use funding earmarked for consumables and procuring services without bureaucratic hassles in their own institutes. The vice-chancellors and directors of our universities and institutes must trust the scientific community to use the project funds properly.
Every effort should be made to expand and strengthen institutions that serve the cause of both teaching and research rather than to open exclusive research institutions around personalities. The culture of research institutes, in any case, is antithetical to creativity in the long run as scientists and technologists in such institutes do not teach and therefore do not contribute towards inspiring the next generation.
While some attempts are being made to attract young scientists and technologists who have drifted abroad for post-doctoral research back to the country, it is critical that a new generation of human resource is created by sending students for doctoral work in leading science and technology institutes across the world. The new IITs, central universities and Indian Institutes of Science and Education Research should be populated with such researchers and teachers, but our comfort with mediocrity is so high that we do not seem to care to look at a model through which East Asia, China and, more recently, Latin America have benefited tremendously.
All these structural changes can be carried to meet India's science and technology aspirations, but implementing them will require strong convictions and the ability to cut through the current policy haze. Otherwise, wishes will mostly remain just wishes.
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