Free Science from Oligarchy

Published: 01st December 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th November 2014 11:04 PM   |  A+A-

There is a recent report that a group of academics and students led by Prof C N R Rao will present to the prime minister during the Indian Science Congress in January a proposal to invest at least 6 per cent of the GDP in education and stress the need for urgent reforms in science education. While one does not dispute the demand for investing more in education, especially in sciences, it seems very appropriate to take a look at how our science establishment is organised and functioning.

Raising questions is the sine qua non of science but in India few dare to question the scientific establishment. India has two high-power scientific advisory bodies—the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (SAC to PM) and the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SAC to Cabinet). The chairman of the former is not a member of the latter, whereas the chairman of the latter is a member of the former. Although the term of SAC to PM has ended with the term of Manmohan Singh according to media reports, there is no mention of it on its official website.

The SAC to PM consists of 24 members, including the chairman and several special invitees. The SAC to Cabinet is larger with 45 members. Unlike the special invitee status accorded to the secretaries and chairmen of statutory bodies and institutions in the SAC to PM, they are full-fledged members in the SAC to Cabinet. While the SAC to Cabinet was established in 1999 during the Vajpayee regime, the SAC to PM, according to its website, was reconstituted in 2005 after 15 years. This means it was formed when Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister and dissolved subsequently by successive governments until Manmohan Singh revived it.

There is an anomaly in its nomenclature. In a freely downloadable vision document on its website entitled “India as a Global Leader in Science”, the organisation is named as Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. Even Manmohan Singh, who wrote the foreword to the document in 2010, made the same error calling it the “Science” and not “Scientific” Advisory Council.

One can pardon the former PM for this gaffe as he is not a scientist and possibly someone else wrote the foreword and he simply signed it without careful reading. How can such a cardinal error in a document authored by an apex body charged with the responsibility of advising the government on scientific matters be condoned? As a colleague correctly observed, if they can’t even get their name right, what is the guarantee that the contents of the document are correct?

The SAC to PM’s website says it is the “uppermost body that deliberates on various policy issues pertaining to science and technology and also on the role it can play in the upliftment of the Indian economy” (sic). It adds that its recommendations are discussed with the PM based on which the implementation of ideas/policies are done by the government through its “various Science and Technology Ministries” (sic). It is common knowledge that the government has only one ministry of science and technology. The website of the SAC to the Cabinet also says that “it is the apex advisory body of the Government of India in science and technology. It renders advice on science and technology policies, strategies and missions for generation of innovations and support systems for multiple applications. It advises on generation of S&T tasks in critical infrastructure, economic and social sectors in partnership with government departments, institutions and industry”. Evidently, the role of SAC to Cabinet is better defined. A basic question that arises is, if the SAC to PM is the “uppermost” body in scientific matters and if the government implements its recommendations after the PM gives his nod, shouldn’t one suspect the role of the SAC to Cabinet which is the “apex” body? Or vice versa? Who to believe? Isn’t it strange that the chairman of the SAC to PM is not a member of the SAC to Cabinet, although some members adorn both bodies by their presence?

Doesn’t it appear that the prime minister is circumventing the cabinet in policy matters related to science and technology? What is the need for an advisory body to the cabinet if the advisory body to the prime minister is powerful enough to discuss its recommendations directly with him for implementation? In both bodies, the members are the “who is who” in science and technology administration in India. Ironically, none of them seems to have observed these contradictions. Becoming a member of these bodies is prestigious as they are entitled to many privileges that ordinary mortals in science lack.

Since Independence, we have failed to build institutions with robust foundations and credibility. Every pillar of democracy has been rattled by controversies. The question is why should the scientific establishment be an exception? The answer is, unlike other institutions, the character of the scientific establishment is unique as every action or decision taken by it has to be scientific. The cannon of law is based on interpretation unlike the cannon of science which is based on verifiable data. The scientific enterprise is logical, objective, precise and exact.

The Indian scientific establishment has often been accused of being feudal in character and whimsical in its approach. The existence of three academies of science is a case in point. The Indian Academy of Sciences headquartered in Bangalore, the Indian National Science Academy based in New Delhi and the National Academy of Sciences, India, of Allahabad are funded by the government. Possibly, no other nation has as many science academies funded by public money as India. The common man is often confused by their nomenclature and a fellow of any of these academies has a tough time explaining the role of his/her academy vis-a-vis others. The scientists often take pride in becoming fellows of at least two academies as it entitles one to an honorarium of `20,000 in addition to the salary which, again, is drawn from the exchequer.

The Indian scientific establishment is also known to be notoriously authoritarian. Indian science is controlled by a handful of individuals who can influence the ruling dispensation irrespective of which political party is in power. The existence of two parallel scientific advisory committees is justified neither from a scientific nor governance point of view. In China and South Korea, for example, only a single body is involved in policy making in science and technology that is both exhaustive and inclusive. We can draw lessons from them and they are far ahead of us. We need to liberate science and technology from the grip of vested interests if India is to become a global force to reckon with in this field.

The writer is a professor at IIT Chennai, and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Kerala and the Cochin University of Science and Technology

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