Existing research based institutions need to be urgently restructured to current and future trends
PRESIDENT KALAM'S speech delivered at the Indian Science Congress (January 6) serves as a starting point for some serious introspection on the state and management of Indian science.
Indian science has come a long way from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru's vision and the stewardship of many distinguished scientists and administrators. The creation of a chain of national laboratories and the mission they were entrusted with marked significant milestones.
All this happened in a different economic, political and global environment. In the fifties and the sixties, basic sciences were not the priority. `Reverse engineering' was the thrust. Industrial policies and targets influenced science and science policies.
Bureaucrats and politicians believed in `reinventing the wheel' in the `national interest.' Misunderstood models of Japan, Korea and Taiwan played a major role in policy formulations in an era dominated by state control and ownership, licences and regulations. In this environment, Indian science got mixed directives and signals.
Although there was no shortage of research institutions, paucity of funds led to resources being spread too thin and the results were not significant. With licensing and regulations, industry did not and could not play any meaningful role, although at a point of time many fiscal inducements were provided without a proper analysis of the `cause and effect' aspect.
Distinguished scientists and thinkers who visited India recognised the potential in India and Indian science. They cautioned against regulations and pleaded for a more open environment. It fell on deaf ears. More than 35 years were lost. We can point to our progress in space and atomic energy, but that was due to people like Homi Bhaba, Vikram Sarabhai, Prof. Yashpal, Dr. Bhatnagar and others. They were visionaries and also scientists who knew how to `manage' politics.
The nineties have heralded many changes globally and as a consequence locally. Globalisation and liberalisation have brought about a sea change in our economic and political environment. Licensing, controls and other regulatory conditions have been to a large extent dismantled and simplified. The success of the IT industry has made everyone think and act differently.
It is against this background that we need to look at Indian science. To start with, the interdependency of many sciences needs to be recognised. Existing research based institutions need to be urgently restructured to current and future trends.
We must recognise that progress in science is people (scientists) dependent and not institution dependent. Knowledge and skills are the driving force. Missions and priorities must be set by institutions in a national perspective and not by bureaucratic or political edict. Managements must be made accountable and responsible but with freedom to think and act freely.
President Kalam talked about addressing local problems. They do and must have priorities. Many countries have similar problems and our solutions could become their solutions. The popular phrase `think local and act global' can be adapted. The west looks for costly solutions for their problems but India can think of simple economic solutions for complex problems.
Science and research is a very vast field and no single approach or solution can be universal. It must be looked at in a decentralised manner and encouraged with a holistic approach not in a sectoral manner.
The issue of `product development' is frequently raised these days. In the sixties `reverse engineering' was the mantra. Laboratories embarked on redesigning what was already there all over the world. One can possibly rationalise the effort as dictated by foreign currency shortage.
In retrospect, it was a wasted effort that did not take India anywhere. Product development takes place either due to a market pull or a technology push or a combination of both. We have in India many products that are uniquely Indian but do they meet the high international standards of quality, reliability and safety? This is something that needs much scrutiny.
In conclusion, science is global. New developments in the World Wide Web have ushered in new levels of interactivity. These developments break frontiers and controls. Knowledge will be shared. Respect for knowledge will assume new dimensions. Science in the 21st century will be vastly different and India has to "think different." Are we prepared for that?
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