Too many scientific advisory councils?

Tags: Op-ed
Too many scientific advisory councils?
Recently, I came across a reliable and very interesting report entitled ‘Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation’. Published by the European Environment Agency in January this year, report was produced by external authors and peer reviewers from across the world, but mostly by European Environment authors who focused on the rapid emergence of a new society, challenges such as radiation from mobile phones, similar other genetically modified products, nanotechnology, invasive alien species and also whether, how and where precautionary actions can play a role.

The report is structured and written among other things to help politicians, policymakers, industry persons, scientists and the public to better understand how scientific knowledge is financed, created, evaluated, ignored, used and misused in taking timely and precautionary decisions. It also suggests how to minimise the negative impacts while stimulating benign innovations and generating useful employment.

The statements made in the report are of importance to India’s youths who desire to be world-class scientists via our public and private universities and national science laboratories ranging from council for scientific and industrial research (CSIR) to the latest labs working in modern biosciences and emerging technologies.

These laboratories, mostly funded by various ministries at central level, have created their own identity that is protected by a group of senior scientists engaged in the decision-making process for the past several decades. Indeed, there are hardly 100 scientists who control science research in our country. This appears to be an odd statement, but it is true.

In India, the quest for scientific growth was initiated by Jawaharlal Nehru, who launched the CSIR in 1947, the year we became free as a nation. India was fortunate in having a strong foundation for science and technology at that time and was at the forefront, in this regard, of nations that had gained independence around that time.

While some of this was due to traditions dating back to the origins of Indian civilisation, its modern base was built through the endeavours of individuals like Mahindra Lal Sircar and Asutosh Mookerjee in Bengal and JN Tata in Mumbai, all great promoters of science, along with the outstanding work of Indian scientists like JC Bose, PC Ray, Srinivasa Ramanujan, CV Raman, SK Mitra, Birbal Sahni, Meghnad Saha, PC Mahalanobis, SN Bose and Vikram Sarabhai.

All these scientists worked in educational institutions and their achievements were at par with the very best in the contemporary world. CV Raman did win a Nobel Prize; some others could and should have too, considering their contributions, though their work was essentially ‘small science’ in today’s context.

There were also achievements by engineers, notably M Vishwesvaraya, which laid the foundation for self-reliance and self-confidence in taking up large complex projects such as dams, irrigation systems, power generation and the like. It is important to emphasise that these remarkable men were products of the indigenous culture, largely self-taught, and without the advantages of foreign education and guidance. Moreover, it was an all-India representation. Now there are groups of scientists, form Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. This is an unhealthy situation as all state and central universities are totally out of the picture.

There are many issues facing Indian scientists, with some calling for transparency, a ‘meritocratic’ system and an overhaul of the bureaucratic agencies that oversee science and technology.

The challenges of turning Indian science into part of an innovation process are many. Many competent Indian scientists, coveting power and political patronage, aspire to be ineffectual administrators, rather than pursuing science that makes a difference.

The real process that triggered this unwelcome change was the constitution of a 28-member scientific advisory council to the prime minister (SAC-PM). The members, who were to advise the prime minister on issues relating to science and technology’s development in the country were chosen to cover a wide range of fields and different sectors, including government research centres, academic institutions and the industry.

However, we always love to keep certain things alive because we do not want to disturb our working scientists. We chose to continue with the earlier scientific advisory committee to cabinet (SAC-C) and its chairman R Chidambaram, a nuclear scientist, who was made a member of SAC-PM. He would act as a bridge between SAC-PM and SAC-C. While the SAC-PM would formulate policies, the SAC-C would be responsible for implementing its recommendations.

This arrangement was made because the central government felt the need to keep senior scientists happy. The question is has it helped today’s young scientists? Moreover, have these committees helped our huge state and central universities? We will address this question in my next column.

(The writer is former chairman of UGC, former vice-chancellor of University of Pune and founder director of NAAC)


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