Scientists versus govt: The procedural gap widens

Last Updated: Fri, Mar 02, 2012 19:50 hrs

In September 2009, when the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) was yet to declare the Isro-Devas deal could have caused more loss to the nation than the 2G scam, the then chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), Madhavan Nair, had a word of advice for his countrymen.

“I think our problem is we talk too much,” Nair told the business magazine, Forbes, in reply to a question on the need for transparency at Isro. He had some suggestions for the media too. “I must also complain about the media. The media wants only sensation; they want only failures,” he said. Two years later, things changed for Nair. The government showed him the door and barred him from all government appointments. Arrested in a verbal duel with the government since then, Nair got the backing of the entire scientific community, which opposed the government and in the process, for the first time, exposed the deep fault lines lying between the two.

Differences, most scientists and bureaucrats admit, have always existed. This time, however, they came out in the open.

“Generally, the bureaucracy is a nuisance,” said Ashok Jhunjhunwala, faculty-in-charge at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

“As a scientist, I have to take risks. Some of them will work, others won’t. Now, if you define my failures as loss to the exchequer, then science will never advance.”

Jhunjhunwala accepted the relationship between the government and the scientific community had deteriorated in the last one year. “The whole climate in the country is vitiated. Till a few years back, scientists were one set of people trusted by the citizen and the government. But today, even they are seen as corrupt, when some of them are very honest.”

Most senior scientists, who have held some of the most prestigious scientific positions, complained of repeated questioning by the expenditure department, bureaucratic delays in clearances, more focus on procedure than on result and the lack of an environment for science to grow, as the major irritants that are demoralising the community in their work.

Added to this is the recent addition of the fear of the CAG finding fault with scientific work. A senior government scientist working with the government here said, “The fear of notional loss bothers everyone. Supposing, I develop a technology and a private company applies to manufacture a successful product. I am worried that someone would accuse me of favouritism and profiting.”

Samir Brahmachari, director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, admits the government is too much focussed on procedures and protocols. “Nobody shies away from having a debate on the success or failure of our experiments. At present, there is too much focus from the government on the process rather than the result. To move forward we have focus on results and not on the process,” he said.

V S Ramamurthy, director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies and former secretary in the department of science and technology, said part of the problem was most in the government didn’t understand how scientists worked.

“We believe experiment is a risky proposition, which doesn’t follow basic rules like building a road or a bridge,” he said. “As we speak, the world’s largest accelerator is being built in Geneva. Suppose the experiment fails, will the audit agencies ask what was the need to pump in billions of dollars?”

However, in stark contrast are the views of the other part of the government, represented by the bureaucracy. Former cabinet secretary T S R Subramanian said the scientists had got much more than their due, but had only disappointed. “The scientific community is the most pampered. The government has put so much money in the development of science, but except the space programme what have been their achievements?” he questioned.

The concern was also echoed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the 99 th annual session of the Indian Science Congress on January 3 in Bhubaneswar. “Over the past few decades, India’s relative position in the world of science had been declining. Things are changing but we cannot be satisfied with what has been achieved. We need to do much more to change the face of Indian science,” he said.

Here, the PM also announced the country’s total spend on research and development will double from one per cent of the GDP to two per cent by the end of the 12th plan in 2017.

According to the Thomson Reuters’ Global Research Report on India, the country has shown significant increase in its annual output of scientific publication, but still has a long distance to cover. The report, published in 2009, says the number of scientific publications in India has increased by 80 per cent from 16,500 papers in 1998 to 30,000 papers in 2007. Despite this, the publication in the country is just about half of countries such as UK, Germany, China or Japan.

(With inputs from Praveen Bose in Bangalore)

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