Saturday, April 12, 2014

Allowing Indian Science to Flower and Bloom

In a recent article in the prestigious journal Nature, Mathai Joseph and Andrew Robinson make a passionate call to “Free Indian Science” in order to allow it to flower and bloom. (Regular readers of this blog might remember Mathai Joseph from a review I wrote of his book.) Their core argument is that Indian science has not lived up to its potential (e.g. after independence, no Nobel prize has ever awarded to an Indian scientist working in India) and that the reason for this is the excessive bureaucratization of science – scientists are promoted on the basis of years in service rather than scientific accomplishments; funding is subject to unreasonable bureaucratic restrictions; and mobility is limited. They call for creating an independent funding agency with government money but outside government control, rotation of administrative roles, cross-institutional research groups, and rejuvenating science in Indian universities.

Too Broad a Brush?

Joseph and Robinson have used a broad brush to paint their picture of Indian science and, in the process, missed some nuances. My guess is that individual scientists working in theoretical domains have done well, even if they haven’t won a Nobel. I could point to at least two – Ashoke Sen (see picture above), a string theorist, who is regarded among the best in the world (he won the new Fundamental Physics prize instituted by a Russian billionaire in 2012), and Manindra Agrawal (see picture below), a computer scientist who, working with two of his students, created the first deterministic algorithm to determine whether a number is a prime in polynomial time, leading to his being awarded the Godel prize and the Fulkerson prize among others. The long arms of scientific bureaucracy couldn’t prevent either Ashoke or Manindra from doing their best!

Is Funding an Issue?

Joseph (see picture above) and Robinson (see picture below) acknowledge that funding is not the issue though they can’t resist criticizing the government for failing to raise the spending on R&D above the magic mark of 1% of GDP. The fact is that thanks to the influence of the scientific establishment and people like CNR Rao in particular, Indian science has no shortage of funds. I have heard stories of officials from government agencies camping at the IITs and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in the last quarter of the year literally begging professors to submit proposals.

India has science and technology cooperation agreements with several countries from the OECD. Historically, these were funded primarily by the foreign partner. Today, with the partners facing a funding crunch, the Indian government has taken over many of these finding obligations. This is another sign that India is not short of research funds.

If not, where is the problem?

The problems lie elsewhere. Globally, science operates through peer review, whether it is funding or acceptance of papers for publication. In India, though the government tries to use similar mechanisms to give out money, these peer review systems don't work well. Most of the funding tends to be "captured" by scientists from a limited set of influential, government-funded institutions. Historically, this was inevitable as India had a limited number of experts in each area and these were largely based in these marquee institutions. But while higher education in India is rapidly shifting to the large number of private universities set up in the last two decades, these are largely un-represented in the funding agencies’ review mechanisms and in the funds they give out. One reason is that they have not established their own credibility, the other is that the government tends to be suspicious of them in much the same way that the government is suspicious of private industry. It is not clear how this will change even if funding happens from an independent agency.

While Joseph and Robinson may be right about the evils of bureaucratization, the more potent evils are in a different arena. Even good institutions like the IITs and IISc lack an efficient and competent internal administrative system. I recently met a young faculty member who had a handsome start-up grant and access to government funding but finally threw up his hands and emigrated because of the huge number of obstacles to procuring the equipment he needed. Those who stay and wait lose out on productivity unless they are theorists and don't need equipment or laboratories. The system is particularly slow if you need a complex collection of equipment. This is one of the reasons that professors don't take on large projects that involve product or system development.

The situation is different and worse in the (public) university system. Rather than seeing a project as a matter of pride, the administrative system sees it as a source of rents. Several university professors have told me that they don't take on externally-funded projects because they have to constantly hang around university officials to be able to spend the money that has been granted to them. Given these problems within institutions, I wouldn’t expect to see a sudden boom in scientific output even if the government were to create a separate funding agency outside its immediate control.

Instead, the Indian science system, whether it be in government-funded research laboratories or universities, needs a new cadre of administrators who have some understanding of science and can promote it in a meaningful way. Professionalization of science management and administrative roles has not been given the attention it deserves.

Are charismatic leaders the solution?

Though Joseph and Robinson lament the absence of towering personalities like Bhabha at the helm, I have a different view. A certain democratization has happened in Indian science that is good for the country in the long run. Today, Indian science has a large number of competent scientists who have gone through the hoops of the Indian system (for example, competed with thousands of others to enter the portals of an IIT or IISc), done their PhDs at the best universities in the world or India, and then committed to working in India. Many in this category are today becoming leaders of scientific and academic institutions. They command respect because they have reached where they have due to their own talent and hard work, and they have demonstrated the ability to succeed in the tough environment that is India. 

I am thinking of people like VijayRaghavan of NCBS (now Secretary of the DBT, see picture above) or Sathyamurthy of IISER Mohali (see picture below). These quiet leaders are creating the right environment for research in their institutions, outside the spotlight. May their tribe increase.

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