Rethinking science administration

Published : Oct 22, 2004 00:00 IST

The Prime Minister's proposal to set up an apex Science Advisory Council is viewed with scepticism by the scientific community in the light of its experience with such mechanisms in the past.

in New Delhi

ON September 13, in his speech at the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Awards presentation function in New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced his plan to constitute a Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (SAC-PM), to be headed by a distinguished scientist. The SAC-PM, he said, "will advise us on strategies, policies and programmes for the development and utilisation of science and technology as an essential input for all our developmental processes".

The proposal evokes a sense of dj vu. It also implies that the existing machinery for advising the government on science and technology (S&T) matters - the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SAC-C) - will have to go. The SAC-C was constituted in March 2000 under the chairmanship of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam when he was made the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the government with Cabinet rank after retiring as Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister. It is now headed by R. Chidambaram, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

Both the SAC-C and the SAC-PM are not new concepts. The creation of the former dates back to 1956. The latter came into being in 1986 when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi felt that the existing SAC-C had been ineffective. The original SAC-C had served until 1968 when the Committee on Science and Technology (CoST) replaced it. In 1971, the National Committee on Science and Technology (NCST) was constituted under the chairmanship of C. Subramaniam, Minister for Planning and S&T. It carried out the most comprehensive examination till date of the S&T sector. In 1981, the SAC-C was revived as a much larger body and with a somewhat different structure until the SAC-PM replaced it in 1986.

Technically speaking, however, the SAC-C was never dissolved; it had only ceased to function after the SAC-PM was created. After the tenure of the SAC-PM lapsed automatically with the end of the Rajiv Gandhi government, there was no functioning apex advisory body in place until the SAC-C was revived in 2000, with a modified structure. The V.P. Singh government constituted a National Committee of Science and Technology (NCST), but it remained on paper. The subsequent governments also did not feel the need for such an apex advisory body on S&T.

During the period from 1986, however, the post of the Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister, with the rank of Minister of State, was created mainly as an exercise to accommodate scientists such as M.G.K. Menon and Vasant Gowariker. The post of the PSA to the government, which was created for accommodating Abdul Kalam after his stint as the Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister in November 1999, has replaced the post of the Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister. The PSA is the chair, ex-officio, of the SAC-C. Once the SAC-PM is revived, it is not clear whether the post of the PSA will continue to exist and if it does what role the PSA will have.

The more pertinent question, however, is, what has prompted the Prime Minister to replace the existing SAC-C with the SAC-PM? While the more basic question of whether there is a need for an apex advisory body remains, by adopting the Science and Technology Policy 2003 (STP-2003) the government has made a conscious decision on the continued existence of such a body. The policy states: "Government will ensure continued existence of an Apex S&T Advisory Body which will assist in formulating and implementing various programmes and policies. It will have appropriate representation of industry leaders, leading scientists and technologists and various scientific departments."

However, the SAC-C has not been an effective body. According to some of its members, the body hardly functions. Moreover, it lacks any executive authority and its recommendations are only on paper, with implementation being left to various Ministries or State governments. Apparently, even though secretaries of scientific departments are ex-officio members of the SAC-C, they perceive external advice from a body like the SAC-C as an infringement. So, there may well be a need to revamp the body. But it is not clear if a new SAC-PM will achieve effectiveness, particularly if the structure, terms of reference and powers are the same as that of the earlier SAC-PM.

APPARENTLY, a section of the scientific community conveyed to the Prime Minister that the community is being neglected. While the Prime Minister and the government are seen as keen on economic and fringe technology issues such as Information Technology, the core of science and technology, which should be the engine for the economy, is being ignored.

Of particular concern to them is the dwindling interest in the younger generation to enter the stream. The reason for that, they perceive, is partly linked to the government not giving importance to S&T issues, in particular higher science education and employment. There is also a consequent lack of visibility of science-related matters in the media. An eminent scientist (who had served in the earlier SAC-PM) is believed to have written a letter to the Prime Minister and subsequently met him as well. It is conjectured by many that the letter and the meeting may have triggered the idea of reviving the SAC-PM.

If not anything else, by reporting directly to the Prime Minister, the SAC-PM had a feeling of being heard by the government. But that did not necessarily result in the implementation of the SAC-PM's recommendations. So, if there is any truth in the conjecture, it would be most unfortunate as that would imply that a decision was taken on the basis of the opinion of a handful of scientists without going into the fundamentals of the issue.

The fundamentals are: Is an advisory body needed at all? Who wants it, the government or the scientific community? What were the deficiencies in the functioning of earlier structures? What does the political system and the bureaucracy expect from such a body? Should the apex bodies be vested with executive powers? Equivalently, what kind of changes need to be effected in the government machinery to make the system work?

All these require a proper analysis of and a debate on the experiences of the past advisory mechanisms. Advisory bodies should not be mere vehicles to accommodate a few individuals or to cater to the worldview of a few powerful scientocrats. By doing so, such bodies achieve less than what the learned academies, which represent a wider cross-section of opinions and expertise, can deliver - provided, of course, they too function in right earnest and strive to fulfil their mandates.

WHILE the terms of reference of the SAC-PM were mainly macro-level S&T issues, its composition differed significantly from earlier advisory bodies. Unlike the earlier ones like the SAC-C, which included representatives from scientific departments and some individual scientists, it comprised only of specialists with diverse expertise, including representatives from multinational companies, and a Chairman (C.N.R. Rao) who was not part of the government machinery.

The Council sent its recommendations to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's Office, after deciding on those to be considered for future action, forwarded them to an Empowered Group. The Empowered Group, which consisted of secretaries to the government and was chaired by the Cabinet Secretary, was specially set up to consider these recommendations for implementation. According to P.J. Lavakare, the Secretary to the SAC-PM, who wrote in Current Science in July 1989 shortly before the SAC-PM wound up, the Council had made 36 concrete recommendations. Besides, it also produced 11 technical reports on various topics such as robotics, minerals development, advanced materials, parallel computing, lasers, photonics, chemical industry, agriculture and fertilizers, to highlight the importance of emerging areas in which national activities should be initiated. A two-volume perspective plan document (referred to as the `red book') for the new millennium was also produced.

As Lavakare observed: "Unfortunately, within the government system and within its operational framework and limitations, coupled with multiplicity of departments even within the S&T sector, it has not always been possible for the Empowered Group to arrive at quick decisions on the various recommendations. The Council has recognised this as an inherent price one has to pay for a democratic decision-making process... . But one often notices a sense of disappointment in the members of the Council when they find that their recommendations are tossed around from one forum to another and the decisions delayed." Not just delayed, but confined to reports and files and bureaucratic jottings in them.

The root cause of the problem lies in the inevitable bureaucratic process that underlies the functioning of the government and the consequent inertia and resistance to change. Even if the recommendations were forwarded by a body such as the SAC-C or an Empowered Group (of secretaries) under the SAC-PM, individual departments perceive these as interference in their functioning and as something that does not come under their `allocations of business'. If at all any recommendations of the advisory bodies get implemented, these are, by and large, ones that do match their perspective of things and would have probably been initiated by the departments themselves in due course.

It would seem, therefore, that advisory bodies - the SAC-C or the SAC-PM - have little utility in giving direction to S&T in the country. If academies performed their role better, their observations on diverse issues would probably get picked up by individual departments and perhaps have a better chance of being implemented in the normal course through consultative committees without deviating from their `allocations of business'.

Similar perhaps would be the outcome if new initiatives formed part of the S&T planning process, which filter down to department levels. Unfortunately, over the years, the apex advisory mechanisms have divested themselves from the planning process. The idea of integrating S&T planning into the overall economic process formed the underpinning of the task undertaken by the NCST (1971-74). The classic 1973 document of the NCST, An Approach to National S&T Plan had noted: "Without a national plan for S&T, we run the risk of fragmented efforts by different agencies with possibilities of duplication and waste. At the same time, scientific and technological tasks crucial to the economy cannot be left unattended to for want of planning and coordination." For the first time, the NCST introduced the idea of a National S&T Plan. Since the Fifth Plan, the S&T Plan has been integrated into the overall economic planning process.

But it is well known how, in spite of its tremendous effort, in the form of 24 sectoral reports, many of Committee's recommendations could not be implemented because of their mismatch with economic, financial and trade policies being pursued then. In fact, from 1977 onwards, NCST's mandate did not include S&T planning. However, when the SAC-C was revived in 1981, this integrated institutional mechanism was sought to be retained to an extent by appointing Member (Science) in the Planning Commission as its chairman. SAC-PM, however, broke with this tradition and from then on the Planning Commission has not been associated with the different advisory mechanisms that have been created.

Perhaps the government should think of creating new autonomous structures akin to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States. These will provide not only enhanced quantum of research funds but also perspectives for the future by identifying key areas of research and technology development and initiate new macro-programmes - say development of powerful DRAM chips or grid computing or hydrogen energy or nano materials - so that there is a closer match between funding and research and to channel the limited skilled S&T manpower for national development.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment