ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Missing the Real Issues

Rhetoric and even platitudes are necessary notes of any official policy statement. But usually the notes are the overtones of a song/symphony – not though in the government’s draft science policy statement. Drafted by a group of eminent scientists/science administrators and bureaucrats the policy, the third such statement to be issued since independence, is content to construct fetching word pictures without spelling out the processes which can reverse the steadily decreasing interest in science in the country. Even the implementation strategy document that accompanies the policy statement – an innovation, to be sure – fails to grapple with the real issues.

Rhetoric and even platitudes are necessary notes of any official policy statement. But usually the notes are the overtones of a song/symphony – not though in the government’s draft science policy statement. Drafted by a group of eminent scientists/science administrators and bureaucrats the policy, the third such statement to be issued since independence, is content to construct fetching word pictures without spelling out the processes which can reverse the steadily decreasing interest in science in the country. Even the implementation strategy document that accompanies the policy statement – an innovation, to be sure – fails to grapple with the real issues.

True, the policy recognises the decreasing interest in science. It points out that an “entire generation of scientists has been lost” because students are moving away from science and science teaching is in crisis. The preamble acknowledges the fact of an ageing pool of scientists and the need to infuse a new sense of dynamism in science and technology institutions. All that is offered, however, are a clutch of vague and pious prescriptions and statements of intention, hardly any different from the first policy statement on science. Even the implementation strategy draft fails to come to grips with reality. Its 12-point blueprint for revitalising the sector is a compromise formula – it never quite addresses the fundamental issues. Certainly, a thorough reconstruction of the academic science system is absolutely vital to energising the practice of science. One of the strategies suggested is to select 25 universities for close attention with special support for raising standards of teaching. While this may possibly yield results, the larger problem has to do with lack of funds and with corruption, political interference and break down of administrative discipline. There is little appreciation for innovation or merit nor any supportive investment. The centres-of-excellence model has not generated reverberations in the system. Time and again appointments even at high levels in the existing centres of excellence are dictated by factors other than merit, or these institutions are left headless for long periods. For the desired change to come about there needs to be an overhaul of the entire university system, not just in science.

The implementation draft also talks of an autonomous structure for funding basic science. Whatever the structure, where will the funding originate? Secondly, new developments, it has been pointed out, make it difficult to distinguish between basic science and applied science. Many of the newest developments in areas such as biotechnology have emerged directly from a process of going back to basics. In many countries the thrust has been on encouraging investment in particular projects which may include both what may be termed basic science as well as more advanced inquiries. Continuing to make this artificial distinction between basic and applied only fragments efforts, financial and managerial. It is these glimpses that show that the policy statement is content with tinkering with the existing structures without any attempt at productively and boldy revamping systems and structures incapable of supporting new science.

It is with some dismay that one notes the strategy proposed for enhancing human resource development. There is glib talk of “greater involvement of scientists in national institutions in the teaching and training of undergraduate science students”. The practice of science can never be a part-time activity. While as a principle it may be well to encourage interaction of scientists and students, it is prudent to allow scientific institutions to decide on the nature of that interaction. Far more vital is the creation of an environment for debate and discussion. Over the last few decades there has been a noticeable lack of involvement of scientists, state-employed or others, in public issues which impinge on the practice of science: the Bhopal gas disaster, nuclear power, or even GM foods. Scientists have essentially appeared as government and industry spokespersons unwilling to engage in intellectual exchanges. This cannot come about by a policy diktat, but by prompting professional bodies to create an environment where debate can take place. This then will also lead to the linking of people’s perspectives, ‘traditional knowledge’ and scientific goals.

The implementation document dismisses the entire issue of investment for science and technology with the assurance that the government will make the necessary budgetary commitments for higher education and science and technology. However, it is not so much the amount of funding that must be determined by policy but the nature of the flows. While clearly the quantum of resources invested by the state generates a momentum, policy must indicate how this will or could prompt other resource generation. Other countries too have had to grapple with this problem and have derived a variety of solutions – from encouraging industry investment to collaboration and cooperation on major projects, even in so-called basic science. Again there is little indication of any new thinking on these matters.

The tenor of the policy is set by the opening statement which attempts to claim a heritage and pedigree for Indian science – “science and technology have been an integral part of Indian civilisation and culture” and, further, “traditions in science and technology stretch over several millennia”. And, continuing in this strain, the policy objective is set out of “integrating the teaching and practice of science and technology with the widely prevalent and extensive knowledge acquired over the long civilisational experience”. While the contributions of ancient civilisations, including in this part of the world, to early science and continuing craft and artisanal innovations in technology have long been acknowledged, talk of science and technology’s civilisational roots in India is at best irrelevant in the particular context and at worst debatable. The roots of modern science in India lie in the practice of a C V Raman, a Jagdishchandra Bose or a Homi Bhabha, among others. Some of them created institutions and others energised those they worked in, but in every case they produced some of the best science, comparable to any in the world. The new science policy offers no insights into how best to continue and build on this more recent and altogether more relevant ‘tradition’.

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