What ails Indian science?

“Getting funding [for research] is easy in India,” said Dr. Mathai Joseph “because there is no competition here. Money is not scarce [though R&D spending is less than 1 per cent of GDP]. But money comes with the same bureaucratic restrictions that apply to all government expenditure.” Dr. Joseph is a computer scientist and a consultant, and was earlier a senior research scientist at TIFR, Mumbai. For instance, while research students get no funding support to travel abroad to participate in conferences, scientists are constrained by “limited foreign travel.”

These restrictions on foreign travel prevent students and scientists from gaining in terms of networking, exchanging ideas and being exposed to the kind of work being done by their peers in other countries. “Science does not happen like that — by not allowing them to travel abroad,” he said.

The big mistake

But the systematic undermining of scientific enterprise started way back in the mid 1950s. According to an opinion piece published today (April 3) in Nature, (Dr. Joseph is the first author), the Department of Atomic Energy, which was created as a different model, had Homi Bhabha, the head of DAE as a “secretary to the government.” The mistake was repeated when the DAE model was replicated in other institutions — space and biotechnology, to name a few.

“The fact that scientific departments are modelled on the rest of the bureaucracy has turned out to be a big mistake,” Dr. Joseph said. “That’s because bureaucracy is not designed to encourage innovation. DAE and the department of space are the only institutions that undertake developments in-house. Others like the DBT [Department of Biotechnology] do not.” Contrast this with the system followed in the developed countries. For instance, in the case of the U.S., the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are outside the government bureaucracy.

By being a part of the bureaucracy, even those scientists in India who do remarkable research cannot be rewarded with promotion or pay hike. “If you reward scientific achievement rather than years of service, scientists would be motivated to take up novel scientific challenges,” he noted. Regrettably, the malaise of promotion based on years of service, and not by achievement has spread to institutions at the national level too.

“Indian science has for too long been hamstrung by bureaucratic mentality that values administrative power over scientific achievements,” the paper notes.

It is, however, pertinent to note that the department of space stands out from the rest. Younger people have been put in charge of important programmes, and they have succeeded. “This system is quite old in the department of space,” Dr. Joseph said.

The golden era

These essentially explain why prior to the 1950s important contributions from people like Jagadish Chandra Bose, Satyendra Nath Bose and Srinivasa Ramanujan came from within the country. The pioneering work by these people came before “the machinery of government took over and mismanaged research.”

Another problem is the lack of lateral movement from one institution to another. While collaborating with scientists from other institutions would go a long way in putting to test the usefulness of one’s expertise without actually moving to another institution, one ends up gaining more by moving out. “Vitality grows from being challenged in scientific terms [when one moves from one institution to another],” Dr. Joseph said.


Incidentally, even collaborating with scientists from other institutions is rarely seen in India. Worse, even the funding agencies do not insist on this. Funding is rather provided for collaboration within the institution than across institutions. This is true even in the case of the Nano mission launched in 2007.

According to the authors, the Nano mission has funded 150 individual projects, 11 centres of excellence and six industry-linked projects. “But [the mission] has required no collaboration between institutions,” the paper notes.

“There are very few national frameworks for collaboration,” he said, “working towards a common goal is missing.” Collaboration becomes all the more important as the size of the groups in any area is small in India.

It is true that there is an inherent resistance to collaboration across institutions in other countries as well. “But programmes like ESPRIT [European Strategic Programme on Research in Information Technology] insist on collaboration across institutions and countries for funding,” he said.

According to the paper, one of the four changes that need to be urgently initiated to reinvigorate research is to decouple funding and government control. “Indian science needs public funding, but not government control,” the paper notes. There are numerous examples in other countries and in Europe where such a system has been operating successfully.

The tenure of heads of institutions should also be limited and they should be encouraged to return to active research. “The rotation should be every five years. It’s very hard to do research when you head an institution,” he said, “you can’t do research full time.”