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An Overview

An overview of the main recommendations of the Fourth Review Committee of the Indian Council of Social Science Research.

FOURTH REVIEW OF INDIAN COUNCIL OF SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH

An Overview
second one in 1976 and the third in 1986, reviewed the activities and functioning of the Council in considerable detail, highlighted weaknesses and made re A Vaidyanathan medial suggestions. But these were not

An overview of the main recommendations of the Fourth Review Committee of the Indian Council of Social Science Research.

A Vaidyanathan (avnathanster@gmail.com) was chairman of the Fourth Review Committee of the ICSSR.

Economic & Political Weekly february 2, 2008

I
n recognition of the importance of social science research for development planning and policy the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) was constituted by the government of India in 1969 as an entirely government funded national organisation that would promote social science research, but without placing it completely under governmental control.

Achievements

The most important achievement of ICSSR has been its role in creating and supporting 27 national institutes in different parts of the country with state governments as funding partners. These institutes are free to decide and implement their research agenda subject only to periodic external reviews of their overall performance. They are active centres of research on regional social and developmental issues at the regional level.

Since its inception, the Council has funded some 3,000 research projects by scholars from universities, colleges and research institutes; awarded nearly 400 research fellowships, and 860 doctoral fellowships. It also provides a number of services (such as documentation, training in research methodology and use of computers, and bibliographic assistance) to help young researchers.

Concerns

The functioning of the Council and its performance have been reviewed by external committees of scholars thrice in the past. The first review done in 1973 sought to provide a vision and a broad strategy for research promotion and also articulated concerns about the implications of the governance structure envisaged in the memorandum of association (MoA) for the autonomous and effective functioning of the Council. They were not in favour of any change at that point in time. The two subsequent external reviews – the pursued seriously either by the Council or the government.

Meanwhile there is growing concern that ICSSR’s impact on social science research has fallen far short of expectations. The Fourth Review Committee was constituted to review the performance of the ICSSR and to suggest ways of making it more effective. This paper is by way of a summary of its report (the full report is available on the ICSSR web site).

The disappointing performance of the Council is attributable in part to the sorry state of social science research generally and to weaknesses specific to the Council. Governments and public agencies, which have been the main source of funding independent scholarly research, continue to be sceptical of its value.

Social research is increasingly commercialised and driven by the interests and concerns of the sponsors as distinct from public interest. Commercialisation has led to the rapid growth of more lucrative opportunities for individuals, consultancies and non-government organisations (NGOs) in “research”. The best of the graduates from premier institutions prefer to go to foreign universities and stay abroad after completing their doctorate.

The better performing students prefer to take jobs in information technology, financial services and even NGOs that offer salaries and career prospects which no academic or research institutions can match. The quality of postgraduate PhD students in social sciences, and the quality of their training have declined. These factors together have led to a decline in the supply of teachers in higher education. Even the best university departments are unable to attract high quality faculty.

Interest in and competence of academia for rigorous research on societal trends have also declined as the cumulative result of lowered standards for recruitment of teachers in colleges and universities and incentive systems that do not encourage,

FOURTH REVIEW OF ICSSR

much less reward, quality of teaching and research. The report’s survey of research articles in select social science journals showed that 40 per cent of authors were located in research institutes, and only a third in universities.

Internal Weaknesses

Besides these systemic trends, ICSSR’s performance has been severely impaired by external constraints and internal weaknesses specific to it. External constraints are the result of the basic features of its constitution, the manner in which it has operated and the availability of funds. The constitution of ICSSR, set out in its MoA, provides for a Council comprising ex officio members representing various departments of government and academicians nominated by the ministry of human resource development. The chairman of the Council and its member secretary are also selected by the government. Formally, though created and wholly funded by government, the Council is free to make its decisions as an autonomous body.

However, the MoA specifically makes these decisions and their implementation subject to government approval.

Ex officio government representatives presently constitute far too high a proportion of the Council membership. Appointments of the chairperson, member secretary and non-official members of the Council are all decided by the government. Lack of transparency in the criteria and procedures for these appointments and failure to observe the spirit of the provisions in the MoA have eroded the credibility of the Council as an autonomous and professional body.

The council is funded entirely by the ministry of HRD. While the quantum of grants has increased in absolute terms, they have been inadequate to meet the Council’s commitments to meet the rising costs of the growing number of institutes it has sponsored. Allocations for projects and support services have been squeezed leaving little room for expansion. Inadequate budget allocations are compounded by arbitrary cuts, and cash flow problems due to irregular release of funds. Grants to the Council are subject to stringent and rigid conditions regarding personnel policies for its staff as well as the terms of institutional grants, projects and fellowships. Cumulatively these have severely constrained the Council’s capacity to plan and consistently pursue a coherent long-term strategy and prioritise different activities.

The salary structures approved by government are inadequate to attract and retain qualified academics in professional/ managerial positions. These positions are now mostly staffed through internal promotions. Ad hocism in recruitments and promotions, as well as the inability of the Council (for lack of ministry approval) to ensure parity in salaries and benefits with those of government, has meant that the morale and motivation of Council staff are low. Internal organisation and procedures follow patterns typical of government departments. The mechanisms for appraisal of requests for grants, assessing their performance on the basis of rigorous and

FOURTH REVIEW OF ICSSR

professionally credible peer review have been lax and ineffective.

Committee’s Recommendations

The following are the main recommendations of the Committee.

(a) Crucial Importance of Autonomy:

Based on its detailed review of the Council’s functioning and its extensive consultations with a wide spectrum of respected social scientists from across the country, the Committee is convinced that ICSSR can and must be enabled to play a lead role in promoting independent scholarly research. The report spells out measures to remove both external and internal constraints that currently impede the ICSSR’s functioning.

Functional and financial autonomy of the Council is a necessary precondition. This requires major changes in its constitution to entrust overall governance of the Council to a governing body comprised of eminent scholars drawn from different social sciences, and a limited number of government representatives. The governing body will lay down the general policy. An executive council will be responsible to oversee its implementation by the Council’s chairperson and chief executive. The report suggests that the reconstituted body be called the Indian Academy of Social Sciences and also spells out the criteria and processes by which these councils and executives will be chosen.

Subject to broad guidelines, the Executive Council should be free to decide, without any requirement to get government approval or clearance, all matters relating to the strategy of research funding; prioritising within different activities; mechanisms and procedures for giving grants and for monitoring and peer review of outputs; internal personnel policies and financial controls suited to the specific needs of the council. Periodic peer review of the Academy’s overall performance in relation to its mandate by a committee of eminent social scientists should be mandatory.

(b) Council’s Mandate: The Council’s mandate should be to fund and support high quality social science research of a kind that documents,analysesandinterpretsdifferent (economic, social and political) aspects of society, emerging trends and important

Economic & Political Weekly february 2, 2008

contemporary issues in a broader perspective and from multiple viewpoints. This has a crucial role for generating more knowledge and better insights which, in turn, helps policymakers, facilitates informed public policy, public discussion and a deepening of democracy. It should at the same time address the task of enlarging the pool and improving the quality of researchers and enlarge its support activities.

This calls for a significant expansion in the scale of its activities. Substantial increase in quantum and assurance of funding is therefore essential. Knowledge-generating research of the kind that the Council is expected to support calls for liberal public funding. While private sector and international funding agencies are unlikely to be interested in supporting such research, the Council may be left to decide whether and on what terms it accepts offers of funding from such sources.

The Committee has suggested that a mere 0.1 per cent of public sector plan outlay be earmarked for social science research. Since it covers practically all aspects of economy, society and politics, it would be appropriate that the government as a whole, rather than any individual department (as is the case at present), take the responsibility for funding.

The increased resources should be used to expand all major programmes (research institutes, research projects, fellowships and support services) and achieve a better balance between them. In order to be effective, the restructured Council needs to reorient its strategy for research funding along the lines indicated subsequently.

The Council should play an important role in increasing the pool of qualified researchers, by increasing the number of doctoral and research fellowships and bringing stipends on par with those of the University Grants Commission (UGC), and taking a proactive initiative to encourage and support, in collaboration with UGC, selected research institutes and universities in different parts of India to organise and conduct intensive and structured pre-PhD courses and specialised research methodology courses in social science.

The Committee also recommends a substantial expansion and reorientation of its Research Support activities for (a) expand

expanding access to the library resources and reducing costs by using computer networks in collaboration with other organisations;

  • (b) continuing reviews of current Indian research in different disciplines and also of current state of knowledge in the thrust areas of research; (c) translating reviews of theoretical work and reviews of literature on selected themes into major Indian languages for wide distribution to college teachers and students; (d) facilitating access to and use of the rich material in regional language newspapers and periodicals; and (e) revival and reorganisation of the Data Archives unit.
  • (c) Changing Strategy of Funding: At present the bulk of research funding goes to the 27 national institutes. Inadequacy of grants to meet rising costs of even existing staff and facilities has forced them to depend increasingly on sponsored projects. This makes it difficult to pursue sustained work on specific themes. More importantly, under the current system, the magnitude and periodic revisions of grants to institutes are not related to their performance.
  • Funding for independent research projects is not only quite small (both in absolute terms and relative to those of institutes) but highly fragmented in terms of scope and objectives. The Council has not implemented suggestions to promote research around selected themes. Laxity in refereeing of proposals, and peer review of the output of research has resulted in inordinate delays and poor quality. Very little of the work is published.

    In order to remedy this situation, the Committee has recommended that while projects and programmes on topics of individual researchers’ choice should continue to be eligible for funding, a substantial part of its resources should be earmarked to projects/programmes relating to selected broad areas/themes. The aim should be to promote sustained, multiinstitutional and interactive research on selected themes. The themes, to be chosen and changed periodically, should reflect contemporary social and economic concerns which are widely recognised to be important.

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    dicate the broad themes on which they would like to be researched. However, the elaboration of the specific agendas and modalities of implementation should be decided by the academy through a credible

    FOURTH REVIEW OF ICSSR

    and transparent consultative process along the lines spelt out in the report.

    Funding should be on a liberal scale with greater flexibility for grantees to decide, subject to broad guidelines, appointments, remunerations and other personnel matters. At the same time there should be effective incentives for timely completion of research and ensuring its high quality.

    Such a strategy calls for major changes in the Council’s current policies and practices for research funding. The Committee has suggested that the Council should not support any existing or new institutes on the present pattern. In respect of existing ICSSR institutes, the present system of recurring grants should be changed. Specifically, the quantum of block grants to be given to each institute be kept at roughly the current levels without any commitment to meet the rising costs of the core staff. But all of them, along with individual scholars or groups of them in other institutions (including universities and colleges), will be eligible to seek Council funding for individual projects and thematic research programmes including especially multi-year research programmes/ projects. Proposals should spell out clearly the objectives, methodology, expected outputs and time schedules of their components. Decisions on funding will be based on recommendations of a transparent and rigorous peer review of proposals.

    Final reports should be reviewed by independent scholars at the end of the programme with reference to the stated objectives, the quality of analysis and adherence to time schedules. Publication of results in refereed journals and as books/ monographs, as well as rating the overall performance of institutions on this basis should be given much greater attention and weight in assessing performance than is presently the case.

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    plify monitoring systems, leaving grantees free to decide matters relating to their internal administration and utilisation of grants without having to obtain its approval. Focus should be on getting strategic and substantive information on the utilisation of grants and progress on programmes for which grants are given.

    Renewal of research grants to institutions should not be automatic. In order to ensure accountability in terms of both quality and meeting time schedules, each grant should be based on a fresh review of the programme proposals, taking into account earlier performance.

    (d) Internal Administration: The internal organisation and administrative procedures of the Council should be thoroughly restructured to encompass a manifold increase in the scale of operations, significant changes in its mix and professional leadership of high quality. The Council should be free to determine and adapt personnel policies (staff structure, emoluments, qualifications, recruitment; evaluation and promotion criteria) in the light of its specific requirements.

    The main job of the professional staff is managing research programmes and projects, rather than actually doing research. They should be trained in one or more social sciences and given special training in research management.

    Open competitive recruitment should be the basis for selections. Serving employees should have the opportunity to compete for these positions, by availing of special training at the academy’s expense to upgrade their skills.

    The organisation should be made flatter, with a reduced number of administrative and support staff, by introducing computers for internal and external communication, maintenance of accounts and other records.

    Conclusions

    The Fourth Review Committee of the Indian Council of Social Science Research has attempted to provide an overview of the current scenario and challenges facing social science research in India. Its recommendations seek to broadbase the funding of the ICSSR, reconstituted as the Indian Academy of Social Sciences; give it the autonomy proper to an institution seized with the task of promoting social science research; and professionalise this institution and strengthen the peer dimension of its functioning, thereby restoring some of its eroded credibility. Above all, these recommendations are intended to further the larger purpose of encouraging independent social research oriented to generating knowledge.

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