Don’t tinker with autonomy, scientists caution government

Don’t tinker with autonomy, scientists caution government
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First Published: Tue, Mar 04 2008. 11 05 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Mar 04 2008. 11 05 PM IST
Mumbai: Scientists at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) are unhappy with a government proposal that could see the state playing an important role in the selection of the heads of the body’s network of laboratories.
CSIR is an independent body that is part of the government. Its director general is appointed by the government and reports to the minister for science and technology. However, the government has thus far chosen not to involve itself in most decisions made by the body—including its choice of directors for the 38 laboratories under its control.
According to a senior official at the department of science and industrial research (DSIR), part of the ministry of science and technology, where this proposal is now being discussed, the government wants to reconstitute the special committees formed for selecting the heads of the individual laboratories of CSIR and include its own nominees in these. The official, who did not wish to be identified, did not provide any further details.
A 23 February email to DSIR secretary Samir K. Brahmachari, who is also the director general of CSIR, asking for the details of the proposal remained unanswered.
The DSIR official confirmed that the ministry’s proposal to increase the number of special committee members, which was mooted almost a year ago, is still under consideration despite disagreement from the scientific community. “It will come out soon as the ministry and the department is trying to convince the scientists,” he said.
At least four scientists at CSIR labs said that apart from eroding the council’s autonomy, such a move could affect the competitiveness of individual laboratories in terms of research output and their ability to retain talent. The scientists, who did not wish to be identified, added that several key positions were being kept empty till the government can finalize its proposal. In a telephone conversation after receiving the email, Brahmachari said: “CSIR is a completely autonomous research organization and will remain the same, though there will be reformations taking place with changing requirements.”
Not everyone buys that argument. Currently, positions at each laboratory are filled by its own staff selection committees. Each staff selection committee comprises experts in the area where a candidate has to be employed. However, the directors (laboratory heads) are selected by special committees; these are constituted and chaired by the director general of CSIR and comprise scientists from the discipline in question (say chemistry, if the post being filled is that of director of National Chemical Laboratory) drawn from several CSIR laboratories.
“This method adds value to the selection process and ensures commitment and familiarity to projects undertaken by the laboratory,” said D.B.A. Narayana, a herbal scientist and a member of the research council of the Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, Lucknow, a CSIR lab.
“If the government takes away the autonomous power by inducting political nominees to staff selection committees, it will surely result in non-scientific people or people with low scientific calibre being appointed at the helm of affairs at these core scientific institutions,” said S. Nityanand, former director, Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow, another CSIR lab.
The controversy comes at a time when delays in the recruitment of heads at CSIR’s laboratories have left several research projects hanging, as each project requires the approval of the respective directors. With at least half a dozen directors given additional charges of more than two or three institutions, the approvals are slow in coming.
The delays in appointing laboratory heads are mainly due to the non-availability of eligible candidates, said Brahmachari. “We are constantly in search for qualified people to fill these vacancies, but there seems to be a dearth of such people in the scientific community.”
Scientists at CSIR and the government’s department of personnel and training or DoPT have been sparring for some time over the appointment of directors of CSIR laboratories. DoPT decides on government appointments and since the heads of CSIR laboratories occupy a higher position in the government’s hierarchy than joint secretaries in other departments, it wants a say in these appointments.
The issue is pending for decision before the appointments committee of cabinet, headed by the country’s top bureaucrat, the cabinet secretary.
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First Published: Tue, Mar 04 2008. 11 05 PM IST
More Topics: Autonomy | Scientists | Government | CSIR | Laboratory |