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Research in elite institutions must focus on the problems of their surrounding environment

As a developing country, India faces many challenges. The systematic study of such problems and their solutions will lead not only to better development outcomes, but also new science, enterprises and jobs.

Written by Milind Sohoni | New Delhi | Updated: October 16, 2019 9:58:44 am
There should be better alignment of research and development with existing programmes at the national and state level (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

It is good to hear that the Department of Science and Technology (DST) of the Government of India has engaged in a review of its State Science and Technology Councils (SSTC) Programme. The SSTCs were formed to spearhead the use of science and technology (S&T) for regional problems and to foster “scientific temper” within states, and the DST programme was mandated “to provide core support”. Sadly, this was neglected and most SSTCs are now intellectually adrift. The second review meeting is being held this week in New Delhi, and is led by notable bureaucrats, scientists and educationists. This provides an opportunity to reform our scientific institutions and align them with the interests of the people.

As a developing country, India faces many challenges. Managing floods and droughts, designing better timetables for city buses or developing biodegradable paints for Ganapati idol makers, are all extremely challenging tasks. The systematic study of such problems and their solutions will lead not only to better development outcomes, but also new science, enterprises and jobs. The primary responsibility of solving them lies with our scientists and bureaucrats, not politicians. Unfortunately, this is not fully appreciated by our society or accepted by our elite institutions as their mandate.

The result is that our industry imports much of its sophisticated machinery. Our state agencies call on expensive international consultants even in traditional areas such as irrigation. International companies fill our pot-holes with cement, and foreign universities prepare our smart city plans and assess our drinking water systems. These universities know that solving hard real-life problems is the road to “world-class” research and international rankings.

Many of the development problems, for instance, water or public health, are on the State List. Most state departments do not make any provision for research in their budget simply because it may be too disruptive, or that they do not find viable partner institutions. The SSTCs are well-placed to enable problem discovery, identify higher education institutions to work on these problems and engage with state agencies.

However, there are three hurdles. The first is funding. From the DST kitty of Rs 3,000-4,000 crore, barely Rs 100 crore makes it to the SSTCs put together. State funding is scarce. For example, the Maharastra SSTC has an annual budget of about Rs 60 crore. Compare this with the Rs 200 crore research grants that IIT Bombay alone receives from central agencies, with little to show. Second, much of the SSTC budget is disbursed in the same patronising “project proposal and approval” method of the DST, rather than in sectoral engagement and people-driven problem identification. Chronic issues in rural electricity or public health or disasters such as the recent Sangli floods are never analysed since they are not seen as scientific problems but social, political or implementation problems to be undertaken by NGOs or the concerned state agency.

Finally, there is the imagination, peculiar to us, of a “world-class” science, of gifted scientists working on new discoveries at the frontiers of science. However, the more informed paradigm is that science is about empowering people, and not merely about few fashionable research areas. It is about the practice of observation, analysis, reporting and argumentation, which may happen within a laboratory or outside it, and which speaks not only to scientists, but to administrators, people, their representatives and the civil society at large. Thus, “why is my bus late” is as much a question for science to address as “why does a solar eclipse happen”. Only such an approach will enable us to fix our public transport, analyse the droughts of Marathwada or manage the sea of solid waste which drowns us all.

The above hurdles primarily arise from the largely unaccountable “babu science” of the DST, and other central agencies, the venerable sarkari science of nuclear, space and defence scientists — a science of “national priorities” rather than social comprehension, and the fiction of global “cutting edge” science of our elite MHRD institutions.

So what is to be done? The DST should disburse about Rs 2,000-2,500 crore directly to SSTCs with precise guidelines on problem area selection, publicly available reports as research outcomes, identification of regional institutions, strengthening of universities, and working with regional agencies. The DST should be a clearing house for data from central agencies such as the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA).

The SSTC should become the nodal center for research in and for state agencies and administrative units such as forests lands, watersheds, districts or cities. This will enable sectoral research, funds, logistical support and access to state-level data. There should be innovative funding mechanisms, for example, providing Rs 10 per capita or Rs 1 crore per district per year as research funding for work on regional problems. This will enable rolling out a citizen’s right to science, for a community to seek scientific analysis of the problems it faces. For example, Nasik city may choose to develop a public transport plan, or a village may want a study of its disappearing groundwater and advice on installing an RO plant.

The SSTC should work with the state higher education department to evolve curricula and research frameworks for the state’s development requirements and provide academic space for SSTC projects, and evolve a network of regional institutions to work with district-level agencies.

There should be better alignment of research and development with existing programmes at the national and state level. For example, the SSTC may offer a programme for institutions or enterprises to prepare air quality action plans for cities as required by the National Clean Air Programme or district irrigation plans as a part of the national PMKSY programme. The elite MHRD institutions can play an important role since they are largely above the hurly-burly of state-level politics. They must anchor research on regional problems, develop suitable curricula and mentor and collaborate with regional institutions. A beginning would be for each Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) to identify a thrust area of regional interest. The SSTC should help in ensuring this. Finally, there should be a Model State Science and Technology Council Act to ensure the above agenda to prevent capture by venerable scientists or elite institutions, and to allow people and their representatives to initiate studies on problems which bother them.

This is, of course a decentralisation of the agenda of science and democratisation of access to science and its methods, which is long overdue. This will bring real science closer to schools and colleges and allow the community to participate in its own development. This approach is certainly in line with the spirit of science, and certainly what was intended by Bharat Ratna C Subramaniam, who initiated the SSTC programme and was a key figure in both the Green Revolution and the White revolution.

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 16, 2019 under the title ‘A need to democratise science’. The writer is with Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, IIT Bombay. He is currently on deputation to IIT Goa.

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