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For some scientific energy

For some scientific energy

The normally low-profile Indian scientific establishment has been jolted by the action to debar three recently retired senior scientists from working with the government. The incident exposes old wounds about India’s science and technology research model and begs the question about its future.

Different countries have followed different models for their science and technology research. These have evolved based on the scientific tradition, politics and the philosophy of pioneering scientists. The US conducts most of its basic research in universities. Science in US universities is funded either by endowments or more usually by grants from corporations and science grant institutes such as the National Institutes of Health. A critical component of the US programme has been its ability to attract global talent. This talent has migrated to the US to enjoy professional freedom, escape civil war or simply to work with the best. Scientists such as Russian helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky, Nobel laureates such as biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, and physicist S. Chandrasekhar are well known to Indians. One quarter of US Nobel prize-winning scientists have been immigrants. Japan and Germany follow the university model as well.

China follows a hybrid model that has been in transition for the last decade. A landmark decision to relocate scientific research from institutes to corporations and for project scope, staffing and funding to be flexible to the “market for grant funding" was made in 1995. Strangely no Chinese resident scientist has yet won a Nobel Prize for science.

India still follows the old Soviet model. Since independence, several National research institutions have been set up that are funded directly by government. The Institute for Plasma Research in Ahmedabad, National Aerospace Laboratories in Bangalore, the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre in Kolkata, and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in Delhi (CSIR—with several regional branches) are examples. Only a few academic institutions count as centres of research—the original IITs, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, the Indian Statistical Institutes and the postgraduate medical institutes in Chandigarh and Puducherry.

Contrary to common perception, India’s science and technology institutions have produced some successes. The satellite programme of the Indian Space Research Organization (Isro), the research and development of the thorium cycle and the anti-ballistic missile programme of the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) are feathers in the cap of the defence and atomic energy institutions. The National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research manages a multi-disciplinary research effort that makes up India’s successful Antarctic programme. The IISc has been the anganwadi for several world-class scientists particularly in the field of biophysics and biochemistry as has the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research been for mathematics and physics.

In my view, independent India’s science and technology institutions are proceeding along a three phase path. In phase one, pioneering scientists worked with commitment to set up institutions and were given a long leash of autonomy. The atomic energy programme, founded and led by Homi Bhabha, the space programme of Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan, CSIR and allied laboratories set up by Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, and the Centre of Advanced Study in biophysics and Crystallography by G.N. Ramachandran formed the foundation of this evolution in the space, atomic energy and general science areas. In phase two, without the founding zeal of the great scientists these institutions become routinized, administrative and career-oriented. I believe the episode of debarment of the space scientists is a clear manifestation of this phase at Isro. In phase three, the institution becomes a “has been" or is at best an incrementalist organization. Arguably this has already happened to CSIR.

India’s science research agenda needs institutions that nurture talent and autonomy. Many of the existing institutions are decaying. Universities and private research laboratories have not shown much interest or progress. The private sector has been largely focused on here and now. India’s best hope is to consolidate its research institutions, focus on a bunch of them, inject new leadership that is empowered and energized to do the job and provide latitude to succeed (or fail).

PS: “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening of custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, or a rich country inhabited by starving poor... Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid... The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science", said Jawaharlal Nehru.

Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets. Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com

Also Read | Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns

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