Stimulating scientific research: The Tribune India
Coinciding with the celebrations of 75 years of Independence, the government has chosen to appoint a woman to the highest post of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). It is the first time that the conglomerate of national research laboratories will be led by a female scientist, Dr Nallathamby Kalaiselvi. It is therefore to be hoped that this will also lead to a much-needed discourse on women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), as well as on key issues related to science and technology. CSIR, which is one of the oldest research councils, represents the backbone of the country’s vast science, technology and innovation (STI) infrastructure and has played a central role in connecting science and research. society. As we look to the future, it is essential that CSIR along with other research councils and science departments reinvent themselves to meet emerging challenges.
The inculcation of a scientific temperament must be brought back onto the public agenda to counter pseudoscience and obscurantism.
At the time of independence, India had an institutional structure that was originally built to meet the needs of the British during World War II and an archaic educational system. At the same time, the country was blessed with a strong scientific community which included giants like CV Raman, Meghnad Saha, Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar, PC Mahalanobis, M Visvesvaraya and several others. Many of them worked in universities and built independent research institutes, in addition to being well-networked with leading scientists in Europe, America and the Soviet Union. Before independence there was also ready a national development project with strong S&T inputs, in the form of National Planning Committee (NPC) reports. Subhas Chandra Bose, as president of the Congress in 1938, had formed the NPC and appointed Jawaharlal Nehru its president. After 1947, the sectoral reports of the NPC paved the way for industrialization as well as development based on the application of S&T to solve basic problems in the fields of health, food and nutrition. , housing, energy, infrastructure, etc. The era of “revolutions” – Green Revolution, White Revolution, Blue Revolution, Yellow Revolution, etc. — helped India become self-sufficient in key sectors and overcome shortages. National laboratories under various research councils have developed the necessary know-how, technology and techniques and successfully disseminated them. Given the pressure on the resources available for development projects in several sectors at once, help has been sought from international sources such as United Nations agencies and through bilateral agreements. From the beginning, the vision was the application of S&T to national development. This applied even to a high-tech field like space, as evidenced by the use of satellite communication for education, remote sensing, weather forecasting, and more.
The continuous emphasis on public investment in scientific research over the decades has helped India to develop indigenous capacities which have helped the country face new challenges from time to time. For example, the development and manufacturing capabilities that gave us the Covid-19 vaccines, and the health system that managed to deliver the vaccines to a billion people, are the result of early investments in the national research system. and the links he has built with industry. The revolutions in communication, software, information technology, outsourcing, supercomputing and digital observed over the past three decades are not only the result of economic liberalization or pro-market policies, but the fruit of state policy and vision to create institutions like IITs. , IIM, IIIT and NIT. Specialized mission-oriented agencies such as the Center for the Development of Telematics (C-DOT) and the Center for the Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) have played a leading role.
All this does not mean that all is well with the STI system. There are several issues that require urgent action as we chart the way forward. Some areas have either been neglected or marginalized in terms of investment and political support. For example, India was among the first countries in the world to have a dedicated department (later ministry) for promoting renewable energy. Electric mini-buses operated in the nation’s capital in the 1980s, pilot projects were funded for community biogas plants, off-grid solar power, smoke-free chulhas, and more. But investment in R&D remained sub-optimal and political support for renewables disappeared. Another example is semiconductor design and manufacturing where we took the lead but failed along the way.
A major problem is the stagnation of R&D funding over the years. Although it has increased in absolute terms, but as a percentage of GDP it is almost static at less than 1%. In contrast, China spends around 2.2% of its GDP on R&D. Private sector research funding in India is almost negligible. In recent years, even government labs are facing a shortage of resources. Links between the research system, industry and academia are still a distant dream. India has a large S&T bureaucracy with a plethora of science ministries, departments and funding agencies. And most of them work in silos, leading to delays, duplication and avoidable expense. The proposed National Research Foundation should be given the necessary mandate to change the situation.
While the government must adequately fund scientific research, scientists and research organizations must enjoy relative freedom and autonomy without political interference. The national STI system should focus on research in strategic areas such as climate change, energy transition, sustainability, new materials, mobility, food security, health and medical research. Above all, the inculcation of a scientific temperament must be put back on the public agenda to counter the threat posed by pseudoscience and obscurantism, as well as improving the quality of science education.