Though India has some of the brightest brains, it is unable to develop any leading technology, feels T Ramasami, secretary, Department of Science and Technology. In an interview with Akshat Kaushal, he says the country needs to view science administration differently. Edited excerpts:
Your government has dedicated this decade to innovation. Do you see Indians innovating more than before?
I am not carried away by the word ‘innovation’. In India, science systems have emerged from our spiritual pursuits. Our grammar of thought process is built on understanding and analysing religion. An example of this is the ancient medical science of Ayurveda.
After the industrial revolution, in western societies, modern science took a different turn towards observation, experimentation and development of scientific theories and enunciation of scientific laws became what I consider scientific methodology. This methodology is built on deductions and works under controlled conditions. On the other hand, in India, what we call vigyan, treated the universe as an observation space. Our laboratory was nature.
In India, we have some of the brightest brains, but are still unable to develop any leading technology. This is because the ecosystem for scientific development is absent.
What kind of ecosystem are you talking about? What has the government done to create such an ecosystem?
Innovation requires two factors: the absence of the fear of failure; and originality in thinking. A typical Chinese cannot innovate because governance is controlled and individuals can’t talk freely. Democracy is an essential part of innovation. In India, however, the ecosystem doesn’t exist. We need a system that rewards failure, not punishes it. Indian society is risk-averse and the government cannot do anything about this. This is in our roots.
Are you saying Indians are incapable of innovating?
While our population is large, our resources are scarce. This creates a thinking of limitation and compromise. In societies where scarcity is less, risk-preparedness is high. For example, countries with small populations, such as Sweden, Finland, etc, have innovation as their fundamental economic model. Since their own markets are very small, they have to innovate to produce goods for the other countries. No such need exists in India.
However, the kind of innovation happening in the world is not sustainable. Innovation is driven by competition, which was created when science was converted into money. This kind of innovation differentiates between wealth and non-wealth. There is no end to this kind of industrial development as the global asymmetries between the haves and the have-nots will only widen.
Is developing new technology bad for society, then?
No, I am not saying that. But, in its present form, developing new technology or innovating is exclusive and elitist. I am not saying whether it is good or bad, I am just analysing it in terms of consequences. As it exists today, innovation maximises returns to investor and innovators. It should rather focus on benefiting the common man.
But, for many, money is the motivator. They are taking a risk by investing their money.
Motivation is certainly not driven by money. I am sure that if I work outside the government, I can earn much more. But being inside the government, my influence on society is much more. If money is going to be a motivation for scientific developments, you will have more Naxalites, Talibans and terrorists.
Most modern innovations such as Google and Facebook have emerged from universities. Why do our universities still struggle to develop marketable technology? What have been the government’s efforts here?
Most of the modern research today is happening in Asia. However, more people are not taking to research because it requires hard work and the economic returns are not much. They prefer taking jobs that pay them well. To attract more people to science at a young age, the government has launched a programme called Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE). The basic objective of INSPIRE is to attract talent towards the study of science at an early age and, thus, build the required critical human resource pool for strengthening and expanding the science and technology system and the research and development (R&D) base.
Your government’s record in forecasting monsoons has been the least inspiring. Why can’t the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) predict correct monsoons?
Earlier, when I was in the private sector, I used to ask the same question. But, now I am sympathetic to them. Predicting the monsoons is a tricky business, it requires the latest technology. IMD lacks the latest technology. While we need 48 doppler radars, we have just 12. The defence forces are one of the main reasons why the government has been unable to buy radars. Whenever we have tried to place these radars on the coasts, the defence forces have objected, citing security reasons.
There are other reasons too, such as lack of finances and leadership. Investments are low and most of IMD’s offices are understaffed. For the last 14 years they have not been able to procure equipment and people. We have now brought trainers from the world over to train these people. There is also a need to change the culture of working of these organisations. IMD has remained where it was under British rule. They have to graduate from thinking of themselves as rulers of people to those there to help them.
These are all long-term issues. What about the immediate need to predict correct monsoons?
This is not an issue that can be resolved in a short time. This year, we have introduced a new parameter system, which, we are hoping, would be able to significantly improve the prediction.
If the finances are short, the government can always involve the private sector. How encouraged is the government by public-private partnership in scientific development?
We are increasingly making private sector partners. Recently, we launched a new company, Global Innovation and Technology Alliance (Gita), a joint venture between the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Confederation of Indian Industry. The basic idea behind this is that if there is a global innovation anywhere in the world, it needs to be restored in India. Till Gita was launched, there was no system in the country to get access to global innovations.
In the wake of the Isro-Antrix deal, most scientists complained the bureaucracy didn’t understand the working of their community. You are a scientist and your present work makes you a bureaucrat. What is your opinion?
I completely disagree with anyone who says that bureaucracy is not supportive of scientists. The scientists think this way because they don’t communicate with the government as much as they should. When the communication from the scientists is effective, the bureaucracy is supportive and not insensitive.
And the CAG? Is there a fear of the CAG audit that has affected work?
Yes, there is a fear of the CAG. At present, the audit process has not been developed for scientists. There is a need to develop a new way of auditing the scientific institutions. But, work has been affected as some people are wary of taking decisions.