Sans fanfare, PM Modi overhauls Indian science

Sans fanfare, PM Modi overhauls Indian science

By Chaitanya Giri | 27 August, 2017
GDP, GERD, New Delhi, CSIR, Narendra Modi, CSR, CSciR
The Modi administration’s scientific reforms are emblematic of the philosophy of ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’.
Recently, there were murmurs in the media about some apparent funding cuts by the Narendra Modi administration to the government-run scientific research and development (R&D) institutions. To countermand these apparent reductions, the protesters are demanding an increase in the gross expenditure on research and development (GERD) to 3% of India’s national gross domestic product (GDP). The Modi administration has declared its intention to increase the GERD to a realisable 2%, a value nevertheless higher than the current GERD of roughly 0.9%. So, if the government’s agendas and the murmurer’s demands are coherent, where are the differences arising? Is it about that approximately 1% difference in the GERD between the government’s target and the murmurer’s demand? Or is it about the difference of judgement what would increase the GERD exclusively, public treasuries or public-private investments?

Modern day science is an enterprise. It is moved by several micro- and macroeconomic, geopolitical, and domestic political variables of a nation. The longer any government controls the science in a country, the higher are the odds of the science becoming vulnerable to these variables. So, scientifically advanced nations of the world—South Korea, Israel, United States, Japan, Germany and France—invest higher than 2% on GERD through the safety-net provided by their diverse public-private and private funding mechanisms.

In the 1950s, when New Delhi commenced its scientific program, it did not have the expertise to contemplate the scientific necessities of the newly independent nation. India’s numerous research programs including the atomic, space and chemical ones were initiated by the government, but with significant inputs from an eclectic mix of philanthropic and scientific prodigies. New Delhi, in the decades from the 1950s to 1980s, became susceptible to geopolitical and domestic political coercion and began to embrace the now failed model of monopolisation from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s approach to science laid great emphasis on the classified military-driven R&D and achieving industrial development through it. Its science had the typical political traits of revolution and Soviet-exceptionalism. It broadly suppressed several domains of science, which its political class perceived as bourgeois and West-dominated. This exaggeration of political ideology did not help the Soviet Union, as it failed to catch up the rapid transformation of the global economy from pig-iron-based to silicon-based. This politicisation of science was one of the key falling dominoes that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Although New Delhi’s science was not military-industrial centric, it nevertheless got accustomed to other aspects of the Soviet scientific approach. It began holding the mandate for the R&D of something as mundane as leather or grapes to those as strategic as chemicals, physical standards, outer space and atoms. Various Indian institutions began, knowingly or unknowingly, modelling themselves like the Soviet R&D institutions in their style of bureaucratic operations, bottomless pit-like resource utilisation, the creation of non-interactive scientific silos, non-competitive cradle-to-grave employments, cartelisation, and in ideological logic. Invention and innovation were mostly missing from Indian institutions and if there were any, they were obligated to marques like “frugal” and “low-cost”. Although these epithets are principled, their realisation eventually became ambiguous and ineffective. The Soviet-era vestiges remained more so in Indian universities on an ideological level, as it was easy to bend history, philosophy and economic studies based on ideology. On the contrary, India’s scientific institutions remained comparatively less affected by thinking, but more so by impractical bureaucratic logic, archaic management structure, risk averse attitudes, and abhorrence to institutional evolution. Despite the successes achieved in few small R&D sanctuaries in Pune, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata and Hyderabad, the lack of scientific reforms and the silo-like non-interactive and non-collaborative operations did not allow for the smooth transfer of technologies from research laboratories to the market. Consequently, despite being a knowledge-venerating civilisation, modern India was not able to reform itself into a knowledge economy. The greater science became monopolised by the government, the more it stagnated. This also was a reason why innovation-driven wealth creation never transpired in India even after the landmark 1991 economic de-Sovietisation. For all its attributes, science is being more-or-less functioned by beseeching governmental alms when it should have been the motif for ushering wholesome prosperity in India.

Three years into his successful tenure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not had enough recognition as a reorganiser of science policy in India, for the several reforms that have been chalked by him and his administration. In his address to the 104th Science Congress, he ideated the importance of “scientific social responsibility”, where he called upon the national laboratories to work along with educational institutions located in their vicinities, to enhance scientific literacy. The Modi administration has asked its scientific institutions, especially the laboratories of the Council on Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), to explore non-governmental funding sources notwithstanding the government’s pronouncement to increase the GERD to greater than 2%.

This columnist has proposed bringing scientific research into the ambit of corporate social responsibility. The CSR focus of India’s private sector has largely been in primary education, skill development, health care and rural development sectors. However, very few Indian companies are conscious about the minor extrapolations needed from their favourite CSR areas to venture into what can be called “corporate science responsibility” (CSciR). The research and development (R&D) of life-saving medicines for diseases and epidemics proceeding in national laboratories could be a natural extension of CSR’s healthcare sector. Similarly, the R&D of technologies needed for next-generation transportation, agriculture, housing and urban and rural public management again could be an obvious extension of the infrastructure development CSR. Along the same lines, inquests in natural sciences are a sophisticated version of the skill development and education CSR.

The pragmatism of balanced governance and resource management holds that the Modi administration is right in not taking upon itself the entire upkeep of all the scientific institutions in the country. It is promulgating an array of competitive and diverse grants, venture capitals, prizes and corpus funds along with the private sector. However, these public-private funding mechanisms are focused more so on “applied sciences” where there is a technology or a scientific product in sight. It is here the CSciR could support, judiciously and without any laissez-faire, “high risk-high return” natural sciences that have relatively longer gestational periods than those for applied sciences.

India is now a trillion-dollar economy and is poised to grow at a rate much higher than any other region in the world. It not only has a vigorous agglomeration of Indian national and multi-national industrial conglomerates, but also is endowed with an ever-growing micro, small and medium enterprises. This only indicates that a well-regulated and binding Section 135 of the Indian Companies Act could earmark substantial capital for CSR purposes, a good fraction of which could support CSciR. Similarly, donations by individuals and companies, which have lower net worth than those who are presently obliged to have a CSR, should be encouraged to donating to scientific institutions. This could be possible by providing tax-benefits under the Section 80G of the Income Tax Act.

In all this, should the corporate sector be seeing CSciR as a burden upon them? No. The business community benefits from the inherent innovativeness of the populace, the inventions and discoveries made in the past, and the resources available in their immediate vicinity. They, therefore, are favourably positioned to accelerate any protracted process of economic, environmental and societal development. Science is not a dead-investment for the Indian corporate sector, it is a fountain-head for invention and innovation, and the foundation for the next-generation economy that the corporate sector will continue to grow on.

The Modi administration’s scientific reforms are emblematic of the philosophy of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”. The discontent about limited funds and mechanisms in the Indian scientific community is undeniable and equally certain is the dependence of science on the government. Indeed, the government should be the key agency to hold the strategic scientific offices. But regardless of that the enterprise of modern-day science is India’s liability and not merely the Indian government’s. It will be wrong to assume India’s prolific rise on the global stage entirely an outcome of the government and its policymakers. It is more so the Indian genius that has brought the nation where it is today, and it will be the Indian talent that will carry the torch further. The Modi administration intends to give this genius its long-awaited free-hand to operate beyond the realms of the government and expand its support system. If these reforms continue well, the most unimagined laboratories and CSciR and philanthropy will yield path-breaking discoveries, inventions, and innovations from India, for India and the world.

Dr Chaitanya Giri is Adjunct Fellow, Ocean & Space Studies, Gateway House, India, and EON Research Fellow, Earth-Life Science Institute, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan. 


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