The Problem with India’s Science Management

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The Problem with India’s Science Management Blog Image

Why in News?

  • Sustained economic progress on a national scale is intricately linked to scientific advances translated into deployable technologies.
  • The Indian government is currently revamping its science establishment, exemplified by initiatives like the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the restructuring of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
  • However, a critical analysis of the current administrative capacity is necessary to optimise the efficiency and resilience of Indian science.

An Analysis of Obstacles to India’s Scientific Progress

  • Low Research and Development Expenditure
    • India's commitment to research and development (R&D) is reflected in its modest investment constituting approximately 0.7% of the GDP.
    • This expenditure is significantly low in comparison to global leaders like the United States (3.5%) and China (2.4%).
  • Budgetary Constraints
    • The limited financial commitment to R&D arises from broader budgetary constraints, competing priorities, and a historical focus on immediate socio-economic needs.
    • As a result, India is facing the challenge of nurturing a robust scientific ecosystem on a constrained budget.
  • Inability of Current Scientific Administration in Budget Allocation
    • The current scientific administration has struggled to identify and invest in high-impact projects.
    • In 2022, the Indian Space Research Organisation ranked eighth in the number of space launches, while foreign startups excelled in important technologies like reusable rockets.
    • Similarly, India fell behind in nuclear energy, especially in adopting small modular reactors, and its plans for using thorium have not materialised.
    • In crucial areas like genomics, robotics, and artificial intelligence, India faces alarming challenges in science and technology.
    • The management and focus of scientific efforts are inconsistent and not well-suited for the essential role that science needs to play in the future.
  • Lack of Strategic Planning and Execution
    • The challenge goes beyond the quantum of expenditure; it extends to the strategic planning and execution of scientific projects.
    • The failure to adapt swiftly to emerging technologies and allocate resources judiciously has resulted in India lagging in crucial fields.
  • Lack of Consistent Long-Term Funding
    • A significant problem is the lack of consistent long-term funding for vital projects, especially when faced with occasional setbacks.
    • This ability to provide steady funding despite occasional failures is crucial for a strong and effective scientific management system.

A Critical Examination of the Role of Senior Scientists in India’s Science Administration

  • Dispersion of Focus Due to Diverse Responsibilities
    • Senior scientists in India often are engaged in various responsibilities, ranging from academic pursuits to administrative duties.
    • This diversity includes attempts to maintain international academic standing, micromanaging institutional finances, participation in various committees across different institutions, and seeking administrative positions such as directors, vice-chancellors, and government secretaries.
    • This dispersion of focus can lead to inefficiencies and a lack of dedicated attention to critical administrative tasks.
  • Scientists May Not Have Skills to Be an Effective Administrator
    • The common belief that successful scientists can effortlessly become competent administrators ignores the crucial difference between the skills needed for scientific work and those necessary for effective administration.
    • Managing complex institutions, distributing resources, and making organisational decisions involve a specific set of skills that may not match the qualities typically linked to accomplished scientists.
  • The Lack of Comprehensive Training
    • The lack of thorough training makes it harder for scientists to take on administrative roles.
    • Tasks like choosing the right metrics, handling conflicts of interest, and setting priorities often demand skills that are not naturally cultivated through scientific training.
    • Administration is the art of translating policy into outcomes — scientists are simply not trained to prioritise between time, cost, or precision, and certainly not in what proportions.
  • The Issue of Conflicts of Interest and Quality Control
    • The intertwined roles of scientists as academics and administrators can foster conflicts of interest within institutions.
    • Academic rivalries, bureaucratic red tape, and compromised quality control can emerge, resulting in detrimental consequences such as high plagiarism rates, unethical publication practices, and compromised scientific outcomes.
  • The Absence of Nation-Wide Transfer System
    • In a more harmful manner, the progress of scientific careers and important projects has been severely damaged by factors such as competition and egotism.
    • The absence of a nationwide transfer system for both scientists and science administrators only amplifies the control certain institutions have and contributes to internal divisions.
    • Allowing those within the system to also regulate it can lead to clear drawbacks.

Historical Roots of Challenges in India’s Science Administration

  • Concentration of High-End Equipment
    • The economic constraints faced by India in the aftermath of Independence led to a pragmatic decision to concentrate high-end scientific equipment in a handful of institutions, notably the IITs.
    • This concentration created a system of gatekeepers who controlled access to critical resources, giving rise to a hierarchical structure where a select few institutions held disproportionate influence and power.
  • The Concept of Gatekeepers and Institutional Captures
    • Over time, these gatekeepers solidified their positions, accumulating power, government patronage, and institutional control.
    • This gatekeeping system created an environment where young scientists had to navigate a complex web of influence, paying nazranas or tributes to those who controlled access to essential resources.
  • Impact on Scientific Careers
    • The gatekeeping system not only influenced access to resources but also dictated career trajectories.
    • The nexus between institutional power and individual careers became a defining feature, with appointments, awards, and foreign accolades often contingent on maintaining favourable relations with the gatekeepers.
    • Scientists who found themselves in conflict with this system faced significant hurdles, leading to the destruction of promising careers and stifling genuine scientific outcomes.
  • Normalisation of Unethical Practices
    • The gatekeeping system has normalised unethical practices within Indian science.
    • Instances of high plagiarism rates, paid publications in disreputable journals, and under-the-table dealings to secure government funding have become ingrained in the culture.
    • This erosion of ethical standards has not only compromised the quality of scientific research but has also perpetuated a system where personal connections hold more sway than merit.

A Comparison of Indian Science Administration with the U.S. Model

  • In the US, Scientists selected for administrative roles are identified early in their careers and undergo specific training for managerial tasks.
  • The emphasis is on maintaining a clear division between scientific pursuits and administrative responsibilities.
  • In contrast, India's science administration has traditionally involved senior scientists assuming administrative roles without a clear separation between the two functions.
  • This integration has led to challenges, as the skill sets required for effective scientific research often differ from those essential for efficient administration.

Conclusion

  • As India strives for economic and strategic advancement, reforming its science administration emerges as a critical imperative.
  • Addressing challenges such as low research expenditure, the outsized role of senior scientists, historical gatekeeping practices, etc., can pave the way for a more efficient and resilient science establishment.
  • The separation of scientists and administrators, coupled with comprehensive training and a strategic overhaul, is crucial to realising India's scientific potential and achieving its ambitious goals.

Q1) What are some key features of NRF?

It will pave the way to establish NRF that will seed, grow and promote R&D and foster a culture of research and innovation throughout India’s universities, colleges, research institutions and R&D laboratories. The proposed Bill also repeals the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) established by Parliament in 2008 and subsumes it into the NRF. The SERB is the Department of Science and Technology’s (DST) main funding body and is responsible for funding S&T start-ups, setting up incubators and funding science-related projects in central and state universities

Q2) What is the significance of NRF?

NRF will emphasise the funding of projects in peripheral, rural and semi-urban areas, which are neglected and never receive funding for science projects. The NRF would promote research not just in the natural sciences and engineering, but also in social sciences, arts and humanities. For the implementation of the missions such as the supercomputer mission or the quantum mission.


Source: The Hindu