Science & technology

Cashless & headless

Print edition : June 12, 2015

Research scholars of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, demanding a hike in scholarship on February 18. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

In a laboratory of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Thiruvananthapuram on June 17, 2014. Photo: S. Mahinsha

Budgetary cuts, failure to make appointments in time, and political interference in the past year have affected all aspects of science development in the country and lowered the morale of the scientific community.

THE SCIENTIFIC community has increasingly begun to perceive that the attitude of the Narendra Modi government in one year towards the science and technology (S&T) sector is far from encouraging. Scientists feel that there is an overall lack of interest in S&T and that the sector does not seem to be a priority for the government. This, in fact, prompted Bharat Ratna C.N.R. Rao, who was the chairman of the Science Advisory Council under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to say early this year that Modi was only talking about development but had not come out with anything for science.

The negative signals have come in different forms: significant cuts in budgetary allocations; the failure to appoint directors for scores of research institutions; the summary removal of the Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, who is also the Secretary of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO); putting a bureaucrat in charge of a scientific organisation for months; and the scant respect shown by the Minister of Human Resource Development (HRD) to the directors of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and other people of eminence in higher education and research. At the other extreme has been the government’s tacit approval of obscurantist and jingoistic Hindutva brand of science as reflected in the mention of “ancient Indian aviation” at the forum of the Indian Science Congress and the blatantly irrational talk by ruling party politicians of the so-called benefits of “cow urine”, of excavating the mythical river Saraswati, and so on. “We had hopes and expectations of the new government,” said Dipankar Chatterji, the president of the Indian Academy of Sciences (IASc) and a biologist associated with both the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the Jawaharlal Centre for Advanced Scientific research (JNCASR), Bangalore. “The repeated announcements by the previous government, particularly during its second term, did not yield result. All we wanted was an increase in the basic science budget and freedom of operation. However, that has not happened yet in spite of a positive indication from the Prime Minister’s lecture at the Science Congress.”

The Indian National Science Academy (INSA) responded similarly to a query from Frontline about the government’s performance in the S&T sector. In a statement it said: “We expected a significant boost in financial allocation as well as significant organisational and bureaucratic reform in the S&T sector. The government’s talk about ‘make in India’, ‘smart cities’ and ‘high-speed trains’ only increased our hopes further because expansion of research and education in S&T is essential for the success of these new initiatives. And yet, the first year of the new government has belied our expectations and indeed lowered the morale of scientists.”

“Financial allocations to many S&T-related activities have not seen significant increase, and in many cases, there has been an actual decline. Our already impoverished universities are especially vulnerable to this kind of neglect. More damaging than the inadequacy of the announced allocations are the unexpected and arbitrary cuts imposed during release of funds,” the statement added.

Perhaps as a result of the combined effect of all these, science has suffered. An editorial, written by M. Vijayan, a molecular biologist at the IISc, in the latest issue of the journal Current Science said: “During the past couple of years, Indian science has been going through a rough patch. There have been substantial cuts in public R&D expenditure. Uncertainties prevail in several segments of the scientific establishment. Furthermore, science appears to have largely gone out of national discourse. As a community, scientists need to face up to the situation.”

“Often suggestions are made,” said the editorial, “that we need to seek private funding in order to make us relatively independent of the government. Transition from dependence on public funding to that on private funding is like a transition from the frying pan to the fire. The core activities of autonomous institutions should be funded essentially by the government…. Of course, we need private funding. But that should be in addition to, and not instead of, public funding.”

On a personal level, INSA president Raghavendra Gadagkar, who is a social and evolutionary biologist at the IISc, said: “My greatest concern is for our young scientists who are unable to achieve their full potential and will be judged inferior to their international peers for no fault of their own. If the feeling that one cannot pursue competitive science in India creeps in among our young scientists, then we will be in trouble for the long haul.”

“Academic scholarship in life-medical sciences has been seen by governments, for quite some time now, as intended primarily for technology development for providing an edge to economic activity,” said Satyajit Rath, a biologist at the National Institute of Immunology (NII) of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in New Delhi. “This government appears perhaps even more inclined to that point of view. In the absence of any public-sector, public-interest industry, this means that the interests and participation of profit-making biotech industry are being seen as necessary validations for an ever-broader range of scholarship. This makes academic scholarship more focussed on the short-term, narrow in its range, and more and more intimately connected to private-sector perspectives, all of which are inadvisable outcomes. Further, it has led to a perception that this sector of public-interest, public-sector research is not really a societal commitment of great significance,” he said.

These factors, he felt, had contributed to inadequate funding increases for what would be good for a healthy system, a tendency to freeze career openings and to use inappropriate bureaucratic rules for the academia. “While the present government has not created any of these problems, it has not made any apparent efforts to resolve any of them and has instead given incidental signals that indicate, sadly, a willingness to see them exacerbated,” Rath said.

Budgetary cuts

Indeed, from the Twelfth Plan onwards the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II had been imposing budgetary cuts. Modi could have won over the scientific community had he ensured adequate budgetary support to the different science Ministries. The budget estimates (B.E.) in the first Union Budget of the new regime in July 2014-15, however, merely restored the allocations to the 2013-14 B.E. levels. Then came the cruel cuts in September 2014 when the 2014-15 revised estimates (R.E.) imposed as much as a 30 per cent cut in the Plan expenditure. The 2015-16 B.E. are only marginally (about 5-10 per cent) above the 2014-15 B.E. levels.

Take the case of the R&D and industry part of the allocations for the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). The Plan expenditure in the 2014-15 B.E. was Rs.4,910 crore; this was reduced to Rs.3,500 crore in the 2014-15 R.E. In the 2015-16 B.E., it was raised to just Rs.5,000 crore. The latest Parliamentary Standing Committee Report on Atomic Energy has observed that, as a result, only 27 per cent of the Plan outlay has been disbursed to the DAE in the first three years, leaving 73 per cent of it for the remaining two years. But the suboptimal allocations in the 2015-16 B.E. would mean that a substantial fraction of the Plan outlay would spill over into the Thirteenth Plan. “Due to budgetary constraints and delay in the sanction of XII Plan allocation and drastic cuts in XII Plan allocation, several Plan Projects of the Department could not be taken up or are delayed. The projects will be taken up during the remaining Plan period or spill over to the XIII Plan,” notes the report.

A similar situation prevails with regard to the other strategic sector, space. The 2015-16 B.E. of Rs.7,388 crore for the Department of Space (DoS) has merely restored the 2014-15 B.E. of Rs.7,238 crore after the drastic cut-down to Rs.5,826 crore at the R.E. stage. While cuts in strategic sectors will affect major programmes and projects in the respective departments, basic R&D in other areas have also suffered greatly because of the decline in the allocations to nearly all the other scientific departments and Ministries (see table).

For instance, for the Ministry of Earth Sciences the 2014-15 B.E. of Rs.1,699 crore was cut to Rs.1,333 crore in the R.E.; the B.E. for 2015-16 is Rs.1,619 crore. For the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the 2015-16 B.E. of Rs.1,681 crore is, in fact, less than the previous year’s B.E. of Rs.2,256 crore (the R.E. was Rs.1,764 crore). The allocation for Health Research has remained the same: Rs.1,018 crore, whereas the 2015-16 B.E. of Rs.303 crore for the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy is way below the previous year’s Rs.956 crore (R.E. Rs.554 crore).

The Departments of Science and Technology (DST) and Biotechnology (DBT), however, have not been affected much though they have not seen great increases either. The 2014-15 B.E of the DST was Rs.3,544 crore; it has been marginally increased to Rs.3,835 crore in the 2015-16 B.E. after a cut of about Rs.700 crore at the R.E. stage. The corresponding figures for the DBT are Rs.1,517 crore and Rs.1625 crore, and Rs.100 crore.

“Our budgets have been flat for far too long,” said K. VijayRaghavan, Secretary, DBT. “That can effectively be seen as a cut, but we have not been cut as other Ministries have. We have embarked on many new projects that require resources whose delivery cannot be postponed as costs will rise. The resource crunch not only has an impact on science but affects all aspects. Our human resource development plans will not be easily scaled up as planned. This is not good. We must scale our investment in people in a big way.”

Support to the IISc, the premier research institution in the country, and the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER), which comes under the HRD Ministry has also come down. While new IITs continue to be set up, the budgetary allocation for them has declined significantly. “Even the Academy is in difficulties,” said Chatterji. “We have been told to plan as per last year release, which was a reduced budget. Our major objective is to train manpower and we operate a summer programme across the nation for about 2,000 MSc students, then lecture workshops, refresher courses, etc. This year I have somehow managed the summer programme from our corpus fund but have reduced the other two. If the same level of budget continues, I may need to stop all the activities next year. Our demand this year is only about Rs.15 crore!” Chatterji said.

Headless organisations

Many research institutions have been without regular full-time directors for a long time. This government apathy in the matter of appointing heads of programmes, laboratories, institutes and universities is also lowering the morale of the scientific community of the country, the INSA statement said. “Long periods of time without leadership can do incalculable harm to institutions and their scientists. Headless organisations can neither undertake long-term planning nor provide inspirational leadership to inculcate a healthy work culture. This latter shortcoming of the government cannot be attributed to shortage of funds and can only suggest lack of interest and concern and that is why it is all the more worrying,” the statement said.

Even where appointments have been made through the established procedure of search-cum-selection committees, they have been held up awaiting the government’s approval and there have been instances of apparent political interference. As was seen in the case of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the JNCASR (“Disappointing a director”, Frontline, April 17), there is an apparent bid by the government to enforce a standard procedure across all research institutions, which is widely seen as unwarranted politico-bureaucratic interference and the undermining of institutional autonomy. The new mandated procedure is likely to include government approval even for the search-cum-selection committees that research councils or boards of institutions constitute for the purpose.

“What we find is that… no real search is taking place to fill up the positions,” Chatterji said. “Advertisements are published in newspapers, a large number of candidates are called for interview, each is seen for a few minutes and decisions are made. One may argue that Indian science has not done very well so far by the usual individual-based selection method and thus a large net is essential. I do not think it will work.”

Political interference

It is such direct political interference in the appointment of directors of some IITs by HRD Minister Smriti Irani that drove Anil Kakodkar, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), to resign from the board of IIT Bombay. While there was apparent reconciliation, and Kakodkar may have taken back his resignation, the political masters won at the end of the day, eroding the autonomy of the IIT system. “The S&T system certainly needs improvement, including in matters of autonomy, but the way the present government is handling matters is a very headmasterly, high-handed and arrogant approach,” pointed out the head of an institution who did not wish to be named.

The sudden and unceremonious exit of Avinash Chander as the DRDO chief is indeed curious. In January, less than two months after Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar gave Chander a contractual extension for 18 months, he was removed. The Minister explained this casually by saying that someone young and good from the DRDO who has the urge for development was needed rather than “a retired employee, hired on contract”.

If that indeed was the government’s view, there is no visible sense of urgency in the government in appointing such a person. Instead, the government has given the current Defence Secretary, a bureaucrat with a non-scientific background, the additional charge of the DRDO. The DRDO has more than 50 laboratories under its wing which together employ over 5,000 scientists and 25,000 other scientific and technical staff. “There are at least two or three very capable and young heads of DRDO programmes who can fill the seat. Such delay in appointment can affect some important future programmes,” pointed out a former head of the DRDO.

The shoddy handling of the case of the post of the Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), is also evidence of the government’s apathy. Although it was known well in advance that K. Radhakrishnan would retire in August 2014, the government did not institute a process to identify his successor. Instead, Radhakrishnan’s term was extended to December 31, 2014. And in a move that drew widespread criticism, Shailesh Nayak, a geologist from Gujarat and Secretary of the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), was given additional charge as ISRO chief. But all-round criticism forced the government to appoint the senior-most scientist in the reckoning, A.S. Kiran Kumar, the Director of the Satellite Application Centre, as the ISRO chief on January 12. Similarly, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) has been headless since August. In spite of interviews having been conducted, it has been claimed that no suitable candidate was found.

As many as 21 laboratories of the network 37 R&D laboratories under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have been reportedly without heads for significantly long periods. The process of selection for a few of them is on, but for as many as 16, it is yet to begin. An advertisement for the post of 10 directors was issued recently. “If it was sincere about R&D, a year is more than enough to finish the process of selection for all the laboratories,” said a senior scientist of the CSIR.

But more pertinently, even the appointment of the Director General of the CSIR has been a messy affair. A search-cum-selection committee had recommended the name of Suresh Das, the Director of a CSIR laboratory, to succeed Samir Brahmachari after his superannuation on December 31, 2013. But the then Union Minister for S&T, S. Jaipal Reddy, rejected this choice. T. Ramasami, a former Secretary of the DST, officiated as the CSIR Director until his retirement in May 2014, after which P.S. Ahuja, the Director of another CSIR laboratory, was given additional charge as DG. He retired on December 31, 2014, which meant a full year passed with ad hoc appointments. Meanwhile, a search-cum-selection process selected Rajesh Gokhale, the Director of the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), New Delhi, but that ran into a controversy because of the conflict of interest of one of the members of the committee, R.A. Mashelkar, a former DG of the CSIR. Mashelkar happens to be the chairman of the board of directors of Vyome Biosciences, a Delhi-based biotech company, which was co-founded by Gokhale.

Since then the CSIR has been headless, with M.O. Garg, the Director of the Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP), a Dehradun-based CSIR laboratory, shuttling to and fro two to three times a week to handle affairs at his institute as well. Only very recently was the search-cum-selection committee for the DG constituted; it had its first meeting on May 21. This leadership vacuum in the CSIR has not only affected major R&D programmes but also has greatly reduced the morale of a lot of researchers in the system. The problem, as one senior CSIR scientist pointed out, is the current government’s emerging thinking of not granting extensions even at the highest level. For example, if an institution selects a 59-year-old after the rigorous process of search-cum-selection, what should the institute do? Should it advertise again assuming she/he is going to retire or not advertise assuming that the extension will come? If she/he does not, why should another person in the late 50s who would rather go to a university be interested in the director’s post?

“Leadership appointments have typically been when the person is in the late 50s with an expectation of extensions from 60-62 and 62-64. The extensions have been gridlocked and will hopefully restart soon. In the meanwhile this has caused leadership gaps,” said VijayRaghavan, the DBT Secretary. Two institutes under the DBT are at present headless. Ashutosh Sharma, the new DST Secretary who is about three months into his job, feels that extensions can be given at least to people who are performing. “Sixty has been the age for long, and I think this can change; extensions can be given at least to people who are performing. That will definitely be a morale booster,” he said.

But in contrast to this overwhelming negative opinion in the scientific community about the government’s attitude towards the S&T sector, these two Secretaries have a rather positive perspective of S&T under the new regime. “I understand that there is this negative perception but I see no basis for that,” said Sharma. “I think the signals are extremely encouraging because the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] has been very proactive, calling meetings to know the things that are wrong and how they are to be set right. I am sure that the Prime Minister himself is very proactive about it and so is the whole of the PMO. The typical inertia that we have always had in our system could result in that perception and we are trying to set many of those things right,” he added.

“The last years of the previous government saw very poor traction on the ground,” said VijayRaghavan. “Everyone had an opinion and every civil servant, scientist and civil society member had a veto on every subject. Nothing moved. We have now moved to a situation where there is a view that we need to get things done. There are many serious problems and challenges, but I think the system is moving from discussion and not doing to discussion and doing. I am very positive.”

“While more funds for research are certainly important, there is also a certain intellectual slothfulness that abounds amongst us as scientists,” he added. “In addition to being correctly and critically demanding of the government, we must be self-critical and demanding of ourselves. While we push hard for increases in funding, we have to deal with reality. This means taking hard decisions at every level to shed poor investments and enhance good ones. We will work hard to make a quality case for more funds.”

“We can certainly reprioritise our programmes to match the level of funding. But the more serious problem is that of cash flow even at the reduced level. Much of it is released towards the year-end, rendering its proper utilisation in buying equipment, etc., difficult,” pointed out a senior astronomer. “Personally,” he said, “I am not overly worried about the government’s attitude, at least for the DST. I have not got that signal. I think it is more kind of hearsay. The CSIR situation too is getting resolved. Yesterday, we had a meeting in the PMO with all the science Secretaries about what the issues are and they want us to make an hour-long presentation to the Prime Minister. They also want to know as to what is the reason for this gloom or low morale. It is not that there is a negative approach from anybody’s side. It could be a lack of understanding of mechanisms, but there certainly is a desire to see things move in the right direction.”

“We must also articulate policy and national directions well, be involved in pushing agendas in basic and applied science and run our institutions better. We need to engage more with politicians and Members of Parliament and the media to convey the importance of science. So, I don’t think there is apathy from the government,” said VijayRaghavan.

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