A policy and realities

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

(From right) K. Kasturirangan, ISRO Chairman and General President of the Indian Science Congress, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Karnataka Governor T.N. Chaturvedi and Chief Minister S.M. Krishna at the 90th session of the Indian Science Congress in Bangalore on January 3. - G.R.N. SOMASHEKAR

(From right) K. Kasturirangan, ISRO Chairman and General President of the Indian Science Congress, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Karnataka Governor T.N. Chaturvedi and Chief Minister S.M. Krishna at the 90th session of the Indian Science Congress in Bangalore on January 3. - G.R.N. SOMASHEKAR

Will the Science and Technology Policy announced by the Prime Minister at the 90th session of the Indian Science Congress in Banglore succeed in achieving the stated goals in the areas of education and research?

ONE of the highlights of the 90th session of the Indian Science Congress (ISC-03) held from January 3 to 8 in Bangalore, was the declaration of the new Science and Technology Policy (STP-2003) by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. At the draft stage of the policy document, in 2001, the intention was to have the policy announced at the 89th session of the Science Congress (ISC-02), which was held in Lucknow (Frontline, February 15, 2002). However, the document could not be finalised in time. Although nothing prevented the government from releasing it in the intervening period, the movers of the policy preferred to wait until ISC-03 since the political intent behind it was to repeat what Indira Gandhi did two decades ago.

At the 1983 Science Congress held in Tirupati, Indira Gandhi unveiled the Technology Policy Statement (TPS-83), which in turn had emerged from the classic document "An Approach to the S&T Plan" brought out in 1973 by the National Committee on Science and Technology (NCST) set up in 1971 at the initiative of the late C. Subramaniam. These two provided the policy framework and the principles for technological development in the country all these years. The Scientific Policy Resolution of 1958 (SPR-1958) expresses the political commitment to developing science and technology. Commenting on earlier policy documents, the Preamble to STP-2003 states: "They embody a vision and a strategy that are applicable today and would continue to inspire..." Yet, the proponents see sufficient reasons for a new policy.

Releasing the new policy document, the Prime Minister said: "This shows that we can respond to the breathtaking changes that have taken place in the world of science and technology in the closing decades of the last century, and also to the challenges and opportunities before us in the new century." One of the arguments presented in favour of a new policy is the emerging ground realities that indigenous technology development will have to face in the wake of the trade regime under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the ongoing process of globalisation. Besides, the new policy is also the result of an attempt to integrate both science and technology policy statements in a single document, instead of announcing them as separate documents (in 1958 and 1983 respectively). The preamble to the new document states: "Science and technology have become so closely intertwined, and so reinforce each other that, to be effective, any policy needs to view them together".

Significantly, in keeping with the country's current nuclear and missile postures, the STP-2003 aims "to accomplish national strategic and security-related objectives, by using the latest advances in science and technology." This aspect, which was not there in the draft version of the document, has been accorded a level of prominence in the final document. Given the various claims made following the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, terming them as great scientific and technological feats, this element of the policy also reflects a skewed political view of what constitutes advanced technology.

Other policy statements in STP-2003, which did not figure explicitly in SPR-1958, include the "empowerment of women in all S&T activities"; providing "necessary autonomy and freedom of functioning of all academic and R&D institutions"; the establishment of an intellectual property rights (IPR) regime, "which maximises the incentives for the generation and protection of intellectual property... and provide(s) a strong, supportive and comprehensive policy environment for speedy and effective domestic commercialisation"; ensuring "high-speed access to information, both in quality and quantity, at affordable costs"; and, encouraging "research and application for forecasting prevention and mitigation of natural hazards".

Interestingly, the document adds: "It is recognised that these objectives will be best realised by a dynamic and flexible STP, which can readily adapt to the rapidly changing world order." This carries the implication that the policy may be revised whenever it is politically expedient to do so, and not so much scientifically expedient because there is nothing radically new in the new policy.

The need for a single document cannot be reason enough for enunciating a new policy. Even in the altered context of globalisation and the competitive environment driven by knowledge-based production and service sectors and new trade regimes governed by IPRs, the earlier documents are relevant and can serve well only if there is a proper understanding of why they failed to achieve the desired level of growth in the sphere of science and technology. "They were beautifully worded documents. What we lacked was a strategy to implement them," says space scientist Yash Pal. Basically, the governments in power lacked the political will to put in place policy instruments and measures to implement the strategies that were needed as had been articulated in the recommendations of the Technology Policy Implementation Committee (TPIC). Often fiscal, trade and industrial policies worked at cross-purposes with the technology policy. For example, if the current proponents tend to interpret the earlier policy as having encouraged only reverse engineering and import substitution, it was not because of the policy per se but because of its flawed implementation.

Therefore, mere tinkering with the words of the policy document will not deliver the goods. There has to be a political commitment to evolve and put in place appropriate policy instruments in order to implement the stated objectives. What is needed is an expression of that political commitment in deed. In this context, it is significant that STP-2003 is not a stand-alone document and it is tagged along with a Strategy and Implementation Plan (SIP). But it is a moot question whether the pious statements in the SIP constitute anything more than rhetoric.

In its preamble, the draft version of the companion document had made some critical observations with regard to the state of science education and research in the country, the truth of which cannot be denied (see box). The final version has been toned down perhaps at the level of the chief executives of the concerned Ministries, those of S&T and Human Resource Development, as the remarks amount to a direct criticism of the manner in which the said Ministries have been discharging their functions and of the government's commitment to the development of the S&T sector. It is a criticism of the government's system of science administration, provision of financial and other resources, including manpower, and policy instruments. Some of the key actions envisaged in the SIP document will make things clear.

Under S&T Governance and Investments, the document calls for a "certain percentage of the overall allocation of each of the socio-economic Ministries to be devoted for S&T activities." There is nothing new in this as socio-economic Ministries have budgetary allocations under the head "R&D". But there is no comprehensive information on or monitoring of how the Ministries concerned spent the funds allocated for R&D. There is also a call for the de-bureaucratisation of the S&T system and, surprisingly, the need for a specific policy statement to ensure that "all science-based ministries/departments of the government are run by scientists and technologists (and) all the major socio-economic Ministries will have high-level scientific advisory mechanisms." If this is indeed translated into reality, it would be commendable, but that seems unlikely given the mounting influence of the civil service, apart from the fact that three Ministries Communications and Information Technology, Environment and Forests, and Non-Conventional Energy Sources have Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers as administrative heads.

It is extremely unlikely that the IAS would give up these three top positions. "We put it in and nobody objected to it. So I hope it does indeed happen. In fact, in the spirit of de-bureaucratisation, we wanted the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to be made into autonomous societies under the Science Ministry, like the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). But that did not generate any favourable response," said V.S. Ramamurthy, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology.

With regard to investments, the document states that "the government will, through its own resources and also through contribution by industry, raise the level of investment to at least 2 per cent of GDP [gross domestic product] by the end of the Tenth Plan. For this, it is essential for indusry to increase steeply its investments in R&D." The recommendation made in the 1970s by the NCST that R&D investment should be 1 per cent of GDP is yet to be realised. However, the latest estimates and projections indicate that it may have just crossed the 1 per cent mark (see table). But even if these projections are realised, it is highly unlikely that the 2 per cent mark will be reached by the end of the Plan period.

The investment in R&D by industry has shown only marginal increase, a rate totally insufficient to meet the target. The government's own investments, while on paper at the time of budgetary allocations, show an increase, the manner in which the appropriations are disbursed or revised during the mid-term review runs counter to the objectives of increased funding. A case in point is the Rs.20 crores allocated on paper to the ICMR's genomics programme in the last Budget. Till date not a fraction of it has been disbursed. Indeed, the Council has been told to carry on with the programme with the help of routine budgetary allocations.

Similarly, many other programmes have been suffering because of lack of timely disbursal of funds or fund cuts for various economic reasons. Towards `strengthening of infrastructure for S&T in academic institutions', the action plan has recommended that a "significant number of academic institutions, especially the universities, as also engineering and medical institutions," be selected to provide special support to improve the standard of teaching and research. This statement sounds farcical, given the fact that the universities are being starved of funds, fresh posts and appointments, let alone new infrastructure. For instance, the Research Scientists Scheme launched by the University Grants Commission (UGC) way back in 1986 is being sought to be withdrawn for reasons best known to the Minister. Hundreds of research scientists in various scientific departments of the universities have not received their fellowship money for months together.

The document envisages "New Funding Mechanisms for Basic Research" either by creating new structures or by restructuring existing ones. "In particular," it says, "administrative and financial procedures will be simplified to permit efficient operation of research programmes." However, a specific proposal to set up a National Science and Engineering Research Board, in order to scrutinise major projects and sanction funding, seems to have been rejected in the final document. Among the scientific community it is an accepted professional hazard that funds for many major projects and programmes might be slashed or rejected by bureaucrats in the Finance Ministry. It is not clear what the new structures or simplified procedures being envisaged are, although the Principal Scientific Adviser to the government has made some specific recommendations in this regard. Since the STP document has ensured that the Apex Advisory Body will continue to assist in formulating and implementing various programmes and policies, hopefully the recommendations will be accepted by the government.

The document envisages flexible mechanisms for the transfer of know-how to industry and to enable scientists to receive financial returns. However, the specific measures that are being thought of are unclear because the system that is in place is quite rigid and unresponsive to the transfer of technology to industry. Even in the Departments of Space and Atomic Energy and in the CSIR, where special technology transfer cells have been put in place, the process is not efficient and there is lack of a proper system of evaluation and monitoring of technologies transferred as a result of which the linkages are being weakened progressively.

In a bid to encourage industry to increase funding for R&D - which is currently only a fifth of the country's total R&D investment - the action plan has called for "innovative fiscal measures". It is significant that what was only a brief mention in the draft SIP has been fleshed out into a separate section in the final document. Perhaps this is because the government is banking on industry to shore up its R&D investment to meet the target of 2 per cent of GDP. However, past experience has demonstrated unequivocally the failure of the various tax and non-tax fiscal instruments to attract higher industrial R&D investment. What other new fiscal measures are being envisaged is not quite clear though the document has called upon the Apex S&T Advisory Body to set up a task force to suggest appropriate fiscal measures.

In sum, the policy and the action plan are unlikely to alter dramatically the S&T system of the country. While neither of the documents was really necessary, the fact that the government (and the scientific community) has gone through the exercise and reiterated some of the known solutions provides some hope.

But given the state of governance, especially in relation to the economy, any immediate improvement is unlikely. If any significantly positive policy instrument is established in the Tenth Plan, it will indeed be a remarkable achievement.

Key concernsThe draft document states:

"There is an urgent need to revitalise the scientific enterprise in the country and to raise the standards of S&T in our institutions...The university system... is under severe strain and science departments have difficulties in attracting high-quality students and faculty. Science teaching at the undergraduate level is in a state of crisis... research laboratories are faced with the problem of an aging pool of scientists, a consequence of the slow pace of recruitment, inadequate infrastructure, declining number of research students and limited resources.

"Indeed, we appear to have lost an entire generation of scientists, as students over the last several years have moved away from fundamental science. Even the best of our national institutions do not have access to state-of-the-art facilities, and strategic departments such as Space, Defence and Atomic Energy find it increasingly difficult to attract the best of human resources. The transfer of technology from academic institutions and national laboratories to industry has been limited... our institutional structures and ambience have also limited the growth of intensely collaborative research..."

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