In his inaugural speech at the Indian Science Congress, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised to improve the environment for scientific research in India. The takeaways: incentives to scholars who return from abroad; the National Science and Engineering Board (NSEB) to start functioning “soon”; school students to receive scholarships under the new Inspire scheme. Also academic and other research institutions will be asked to streamline processes, cut red tape and improve autonomy. Inspire appears to be a variation on the National Talent Search — it will highlight teenaged talent but the JEE examinations already do that. There are a plethora of boards and committees overseeing various matters. But it is an open question if they make a positive difference. Hence, a new NSEB doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. A new Protection of Intellectual Property Bill may offer comfort to researchers, who get an upside in revenues and recognition, if it is adequately drafted. Increased stipends for fellowships are also welcome, since the rising cost of living has eroded the value of such fellowships to subsistence.
But the problems lie deeper. Good research environments have several things in common. One is an emphasis on the publication of high-quality, peer-reviewed work. Remuneration, tenure and recognition is tied to that. A second point is that administration, with attendant red tape, is run by elderly, distinguished scholars, who have their best work behind them, while younger minds focus on research. Scientists usually do their best work before 40. In addition, in the best institutions, there is a tradition of movement between pure “ivory tower” and applied work commissioned by industry and government. Institutions with these commonalities ultimately benefit from the networks effects that arise when many high-quality minds regularly interact. Like draws like. The absence of this year’s Nobel in chemistry, Dr V Ramakrishnan, a person of Indian origin, at the Science Congress is a telling comment on the mindset of the event’s organisers.
Dr Singh did well to also bemoan cronyism in scientific institutions. In tenured posts, promotions depend on seniority and ability at bureaucratic judo, rather than research citations. Therefore, there is little, if any, incentive to produce papers. Nor is there much interaction with industry. Data-sharing between institutions is also notably absent, often leading to duplication. It’s not that Indians are inherently bad at research. Quite apart from the paid-up members of the brain drain, the multitude of MNC global research centres that have relocated into India are testimony to that. In fields ranging from chip design to pharmaceutical CRAM (Contract Research and Manufacturing), Indian labs have made large contributions. Undoubtedly, a better IP law will create more incentives. But ultimately administrative mindsets must change. The pros and cons of a rigid system, where seniority always trumps merit and walls exist between departments, can be debated when it comes to normal bureaucracy. It is so obviously counterproductive when it comes to academia that it shouldn’t even be the subject of argument. If India’s institutions respond to Dr Singh’s call to cut red tape, the science and technology environment will gradually improve as the networks build. If not, the rest of the measures will be palliative rather than curative.