Policy and perspective

Print edition : February 02, 2002

A critique of the Science and Technology Policy-2001.

FOR the last three months, the draft of a new science and technology (S&T) policy document has been under discussion among the science administrators of the country. Called the Science and Technology Policy-2001 (STP-2001), this draft of October 29, 2001, was prepared by a drafting committee set up by the Ministry of Science and Technology under the chairmanship of Goverdhan Mehta, Director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, and the then president of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA). The Mehta Committee has also come out with a document outlining the Action Plan and Implementation Strategy framework along with the STP-2001.

However, the pertinent question is: what necessitated the enunciation of a new policy? In terms of past policy enunciations in S&T, what we have today is the expression of a political commitment to science in the form of the Scientific Policy Resolution (SPR) of 1958 and the Technology Policy Statement of 1983 (TPS-1983). The development of S&T in the country has been guided all these years by these basic documents. In 1992-93, Minister for S&T Rangarajan Kumaramangalam proposed a Technology Policy. The Technology Policy Statement of 1993 (TPS-1993) was "aimed at giving a renewed sense of purpose to indigenous technology for its accelerated development and use in the context of the Industrial Policy Statement of 1991 and keeping in view the need to adhere to international quality systems as well as preserve the environment." Following the processes of economic reforms and industrial liberalisation that were initiated during the same period, it was a political initiative on the part of the Minister, rather than an initiative from the scientific community. The draft TPS-1993, as a revision to TPS-1983, was circulated among scientific institutions, Central and State level scientific departments, scientocrats and technocrats and the public for discussion. The draft was discussed at various levels but the policy, for reasons best known to the government, the change of party in power certainly being one, never saw the light of day.

Later, the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SACC), under the chairmanship of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the government, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, resurrected the TPS-1993 document to give it a new shape in the light of the ongoing process of globalisation and the emerging ground realities that indigenous technology development will have to face in the wake of trade regimes under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) system. The draft document prepared by the SACC was submitted to Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi after it was discussed and approved by the advisory committee comprising eminent scientists and the empowered committee comprising essentially secretaries to the government that function under the PSA.

The Minister called a discussion meeting to consider the SACC draft at the end of which he, in his wisdom, decided to set up yet another drafting committee under the IISc director. (Informed observers say that this provided evidence of the chasm that had developed between the Minister and Abdul Kalam, as a fallout of which the scientist is believed to have quit office.)

According to reliable sources, the Mehta Committee includes scientists whose views are close to the Bharatiya Janata Party's perspective on S&T development. In fact, one component of the new draft, pertaining to integration of science teaching with the "extensive knowledge acquired over long civilisational experience", is susceptible to the interpretation that it legitimises subjects such as Vedic Mathematics and Astrology. Although the SACC draft was not made public, people in the know said that the Mehta Committee's draft was somewhat different from the SACC draft.

The draft has been put up at the websites of various scientific departments and the scientific academies in a bid to solicit comments from the scientific community. The comments are to be considered by the new SACC headed by R. Chidambaram, the new PSA. The original idea was to evolve a final policy document to be announced at the January 2002 session of the Indian Science Congress in Lucknow. Politically speaking, this was to parallel the announcement of TPS-1983 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. However, it appears that the process could not be completed in time.

Besides the imperatives warranted by the process of globalisation and the impact of the WTO regime, the apparent aim of the SACC was to integrate both the S&T policy statements in a single document instead of the earlier separate documents of 1958 and 1983. In fact, in the otherwise excellently phrased SPR, the importance given to technology development was only secondary. It said: "...technology can only grow out of the study of science and its applications." While the truth of the statement cannot be denied, the focus of the wording of the SPR was to foster and nurture science in the country. The sharp distinction between science and technology is no longer possible with the advances currently in evidence, especially in the emerging field of biotechnology where the time and space difference between discovery and application has become extremely short. Conversely, high technology is increasingly being used in the laboratory to do modern basic research. From such a perspective, a single document may seem reasonable.

However, the way the SPR was worded did not imply that technology development itself was not on the same footing as science. In fact, following the clearing of the SPR, the identification of the steps involved in the implementation of the SPR and the task of working out a plan of action was taken up by the government, resulting in three national level conferences (in 1958, 1963 and 1970) that brought together scientists, educationists and industrialists. Moreover, a round-table conference of young scientists was called by the Prime Minister in 1967 to get their perspectives on critical issues.

The setting up of the National Committee on Science and Technology (NCST) in 1971, at the initiative of C. Subramaniam, was an important step towards systematic planning in the S&T sector. In 1973, the NCST brought out a policy document titled "An Approach to Science and Technology Plan". It was a classic document that addressed all the relevant issues concerning the demand and supply components of S&T development - forward, backward and horizontal or inter-sectoral linkages, fiscal issues and funding patterns, industrial participation and investment in research and development (R&D), identification of priority areas and so on.

With some appropriate modifications the document can still, in the altered context, serve as the basis for technology development in the country. The NCST document spelt out the objectives of meeting minimum needs, achieving technological self-reliance, maximising the utilisation of existing scientific and technological resources, developing human resources, generating employment opportunities of matching supply and demand of S&T. The details were all fleshed out in 24 sectoral volumes which went down to such micro-level issues as the possible participating institutions/industries in a given technology development project. It also formed the basis of the NCST's exercise in formulating the nation's first S&T Plan - a watershed in the development of S&T in the country - in which about 2,000 scientists, technologists, social scientists and technical personnel belonging to various Ministries participated. This S&T Plan was linked to the Fifth Five Year Plan.

However, the NCST approach had two major shortcomings. It lacked the mechanism and machinery to monitor and review the progress made in the implementation of the various decisions taken. In fact, most of what was envisioned in the document, in terms of policy instruments, could not be implemented, particularly owing to the change of government. For instance, the NCST recommendation that investment in R&D should constitute 1 per cent of gross national product (GNP) is something that is yet to be realised even as statements about achieving a level of 2 per cent of GNP by the end of the Ninth Plan have been made by those in power (see chart). Moreover, it lacked the leverage on the demand side. While new institutional and administrative structures were created on the supply side, measures to strengthen linkages between this and the demand side were not in place. For example, the supply side R&D institutions had no involvement with regard to the choice, terms and conditions of import and their further development (adaptation, absorption and indigenisation), which resulted in a widening gap between R&D institutions and industry. Whatever attempts were made to build linkages between the national laboratories and industry were also thwarted by vested interests. Although efforts were made from time to time to have a clear-cut policy on technology development, it had to wait until the TPS of 1983.

The basic premise of TPS-1983 was the "attainment of technological self-reliance". TPS-1983 stipulated that the government will evolve instruments for the implementation of the policy and spell out in detail guidelines for Ministries and agencies of the government and for industries and entrepreneurs. With a view to fulfilling this mandate, a high-level 12-member Technology Policy Implementation Committee (TPIC) headed by the Chairman, SACC, and Member (Science) Planning Commission was set up in 1983. However, the TPIC's recommendations could not be implemented because of the absence of leverage on the demand side.

Moreover, the economic policies - fiscal, trade, industrial and so on - were at variance with the objectives of the TPS. As a result, the thrust envisaged for indigenous technology development and achieving self-reliance, particularly in the socio-economic sectors, could not be fulfilled. For example, the TPIC had recommended the creation of a Technology Development Fund (TDF) by levying an R&D Cess of 1 per cent on the production turnover of industries. However, it was never implemented. Only in 1986 was a variant of this - in the form of a 5 per cent R&D cess on technology payments for the import of technologies - put in place through the R&D Cess Act. The Cess collection started only in 1988-89. The feasibility of such a fund to foster indigenous R&D was demonstrated by the Technology Development Board (TDB), created in 1995 (well after the liberalisation process started) in order to utilise the collected cess fund.

In fact, there is nothing in the objectives of the SPR and the TPS-1983 that can be considered irrelevant even in the present context. Perhaps, self-reliance is considered a dirty word and accordingly the emphasis on various elements of the revised policy could be different. Nevertheless, there is nothing in the SPR, the TPS-1983 or in the TPIC recommendations that cannot be implemented even in the present scheme of things.

The major drawback of the proposed policy is that it does not say clearly why a new policy is needed; the need for an integrated document alone is no sufficient argument. Any such new policy document must first spell out the reasons, by means of detailed analyses of the earlier policy instruments (proposed or implemented), for the need for new policy instruments, what these should be and how they can bring about the changes envisaged. In fact, the new policy does not offer any radically new policy initiatives. For example, it has proposed the creation of "technology incubators" around academic institutions without any feasibility study. The idea appears to be an imported one.

Experience with the earlier policies has shown the imperative of having leverage on the demand side. The economic policies should enable the goals of an S&T policy to be realised and not run counter to it. The manpower issue has become critical with the "loss of an entire generation" of scientists because of a drop in recruitment in the basic sciences. As part of the implementation strategy, the draft TPS-2001 has focussed on academic science, funding basic research and manpower development. Attracting young talent into basic sciences has become vitally important. However, there must be a simultaneous recognition of this need in the National Education Policy and the measures mooted therein for higher science education. Unless this, and the similar need for linking economic policies with the S&T policy, is recognised, any new S&T policy will once again be mere rhetoric.