SPARK (Sustainable Progress through Application of Research and Knowledge) is a proposed initiative to synergise science activity in India. A new, more efficient way of managing science is surely welcome, but one needs to put in a lot of thought before taking any action.
The existing systems of science governance in this country are robust with departments reporting to ministers who in turn report to the Union Cabinet. There is no lack of sound advisory bodies and committees within these departments. As for overarching bodies, we already have the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Prime Minister and the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India. Why are there two such similar bodies? Have any of their recommendations resulted in concrete actions? In the end, they have remained toothless. Do we need a third such body?
The science departments are too different from one another to come under the purview of one “overarching” body like SPARK. The Department of Science and Technology and Department of Biotechnology are purely funding and outreach organisations. The Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) has a special and tricky mandate which involves interaction with industry.
The Department of Atomic Energy, Defence Research and Development Organisation, Department of Space and others are into mission-mode projects. There is hardly a government department or ministry that science does not touch.
Reality of Indian science
The goals of SPARK seem to be most closely attuned with NITI Aayog, and it might well be effective only within this parent organisation, taking inputs from various quarters such as industries, the ministries themselves and NGOs to make proposals, some of which could move forward to become major initiatives. What one needs is a management technique that effectively identifies scientific challenges and links the resulting breakthroughs with national problems.
However, the issue is not that we need a new system of science management. The bald fact is that we do not have so much to manage. The report of top science administrators that recommended the setting up of this independent authority is correct in that “the stature of Indian science is a shadow of what it used to be” but this is not because of “misguided interventions”.
It is because there is a lack of scientific expertise across all levels. We have failed in our educational system to harness the enormous latent talent in our country and build a solid foundation of science.
Science does not end with the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research and other elite institutions. I disagree with the report’s contention that “there is a huge support system, and global goodwill which is positive. We have none of these.
Anyway, India does not need global goodwill to succeed in science. It needs hard work, honest management and a critically large base of experts.
Soothing yet baffling expedients to solve the problems of Indian science might make for good copy in the short run but they are not going to yield real results. For example, SPARK is not even required to “closely work with industry and evolve public private partnerships”. That is the mandate of CSIR.
Decisions on new initiatives like SPARK should not be taken within government departments in Delhi following a proposal from one closed administrative group to another. A broad-based consultation with stakeholders is a must.
Even if SPARK is constituted, it needs financial independence; given the relationship between the Ministry of Finance and its Department of Expenditure on the one hand and the science departments on the other, this remains a moot point.
Large systems that work even moderately satisfactorily should not be tinkered with too much, for we may then have to face unintended consequences. Indian science is certainly not in a good state of health today. But what is wrong is not the structure of the system. The wrongs emanate from the many sins of omission and commission over the years by the individuals who have led the system.
Gautam R. Desiraju is a professor at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and former president of the International Union of Crystallography