Orchestrated Attack on India’s Research System
“There will always be circumstances when private investment lags – when the innovation creates a public good, such as clean air, for which an investor can’t capture the value, or when the risk is too high, such as novel approaches to new antibiotic drugs, or when the technical complexity is so high that there is fundamental uncertainty as to the outcome, such as with quantum computing or fusion energy. For these cases, government funding is the only possible source to spur innovation”. This is not an excerpt from a report from a scientific establishment in India. The quote is reproduced from a report produced in 2015 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – a premier research university in the United States and often cited as among the world's top universities. The report titled: “The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a US Innovation Deficit” laments the decline in US government funding for basic research.
Public funding for scientific research in the US declined from almost 10 percent of the Federal budget in 1968 to under 4 percent in 2015. The MIT report concludes that this decline in funding is responsible for the US lagging behind other countries (such as Korea and the European Union) in critical areas of scientific research and technological advancement.
BLATANT ATTEMPT TO UNDERMINE
S&T INSTITUTIONS IN INDIA
A telling commentary indeed, coming as it does, from the premier research institution in the United States. The MIT report acknowledges the widely held understanding that scientific research is a public good and government funding of such research is a key instrument necessary for technological and economic advance. Yet, in India, such voices of sanity are singularly lacking in a situation where the current BJP government has embarked on a mission to choke public funding of the government’s own research institutions. In a clearly planned exercise, conducted between June and August 2015, the ministry of science and technology organised separate conclaves of the heads of CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) institutions, institutions linked to the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and those affiliated to the Department of Biotechnology (DBT).
Each of these conclaves, it is understood, followed a similar pattern. Institute heads were required to make presentations about their work and subsequently were lectured to by private management consultants, the ministry of science and technology (Dr Harsh Vardhan) and his deputy (Y S Chowdary), and representatives from Vigyan Bharati – an RSS front organisation (reported in The Hindu, October 28). The content of the harangue that the senior most public scientists were exposed to was very similar in each of the three meetings. Two messages dominated – one that they should not expect to continue to receive government funds, and two that they have a duty to pursue research on ‘indigenous science’.
The responses from the S&T minister and his deputy, RSS ideologues and management consultants smacked of ignorance about the basics of how research, especially fundamental research, is conducted. For example the management consultants rebuked institute heads for being involved in ‘similar research’ in more than one institution. An RSS representative while lecturing participants at the DST meeting in Hyderabad came up with an absolute gem. He claimed that Dr C V Raman had done all his research with a mere Rs 200 endowment and it was wrong for scientific institutions to ask for secure funding. There was a combined display of a fundamental ignorance regarding how research is conducted and specifically that 'duplication' is the essence of scientific research in frontier areas as such duplication leads to the scientific scrutiny of different approaches to a particular problem. The participants were fed banalities of the necessity of aligning research to societal needs on one hand and the nation’s strategic concerns on the other. While both are legitimate concerns, there was little discussion conducted about the need to for these concerns to be embedded in a cogent understanding of societal needs and strategic concerns, constructed through a dialogue that involves research institutes, scientists, policy makers and the public.
The first conclave involving CSIR institutions, held in Dehradun on June 12-13, also produced a ‘Dehradun Declaration’. It is understood that participants at the Dehradun meeting were taken completely by surprise by the contents of the declaration, which was presented to them as a fait accompli. The subsequent two conclaves did not end in adopting similar declaration, as it is understood that participants had been alerted to the earlier ploy and resisted signing up to any further declarations.
Reproduced below is the text of the ‘Dehradun Declaration’ which was elaborated upon by Dr Harsh Vardhan in subsequent interactions with the media.
Team CSIR (CSIR Directors and through them all employees of all CSIR institutions) today at Dehradun resolve:
To develop technologies for National missions like Swachh Bharat, Swasthya Bharat, Skill India, Smart Cities, Digital India, Namami Ganga.
We also resolve to:
- Be a catalytic agent to evolve into Samarth Bharat-Sashakt Bharat;
- Achieve global standards;
- Develop at least 12 game changing technologies every year;
- Cater to aspirations of common man and develop technologies beneficial to the poor;
- Focus on technologies for improving quality of life;
- Develop one technology for the strategic sector;
- Bring confidence to society about relevance of lab in terms of Social impact;
- Conduct Mid-term review of 2015-16 activity plan with clear milestones achieved;
- Make preparation for Platinum Jubilee celebrations beginning Sept. 2016;
- Attempt for self-financing of all labs in next 2-3 years;
- Develop a Revenue model in business-like manner with clear cost: benefit analysis; and
- Develop Entrepreneurship in Small, Medium and Big Industry.
Sd/- TEAM CSIR
Before we go into the substance of the declaration, it is important to address a fundamental concern. How did a meeting organised by the government of India involve a key role for private management consultants (on the mere personal recommendation of the minister) and activists of the RSS. Non-government experts can legitimately attend such meetings, but the rationale for inviting experts needs to be clarified in advance. Is it the case that the RSS and private management consultants who happen to be friends of the S&T minister are viewed as the premier authorities on scientific research?
FATALLY FLAWED APPROACH
The Dehradun declaration is a curious mishmash of sophistries without substance, combined with the central message that S&T institutions need to be ‘self sufficient’. Swachh Bharat, Swasthya Bharat, Skill India, Smart Cities, Digital India, Namami Ganga are currently empty slogans without any coherent effort to unpack the substance behind any of these. How S&T institutions are expected to contribute to the promotion of such slogans when the government has limited its role to merely coining slogans begs any rational explanation. Nobody would quarrel with the objective of aligning research with priority needs of the poor. But for the objective to be realizable, there needs to be a coherent understanding of the concrete needs that can be addressed by research institutions. Moreover most meaningful research has a long gestation period and a cowboy approach demanding instant results and immediate milestones just do not work. Further, fundamental research takes years or even decades to manifest as solutions to societal needs. No fundamental research would be done if the possible direction of research were to be entirely fixed in advance. Clearly the BJP ministers and their friends in the RSS and management agencies have little knowledge about the dynamics of research, the role that public funding plays in stimulating research and importantly, the links between fundamental research and translational research.
The MIT report discussed earlier illustrates the link between fundamental research and downstream effects on societal needs in the context of cancer treatment. It says: “Basic research is often misunderstood, because it often seems to have no immediate payoff. Yet it was just such federally-funded research into the fundamental working of cells, intensified beginning with the ‘War on Cancer’ in 1971, that led over time to a growing arsenal of sophisticated new anti-cancer therapies –19 new drugs approved by the US FDA in the past 2 years”.
There is clearly a deeper intent behind the entire process – that of laying the ground for future cutbacks in funding of scientific research. The arguments for future cuts in research budgets are embedded in the Dehradun declaration. Significantly the PIB release after the June meeting with CSIR institutions said: “The two days of ‘Chintan Shivir’ held on 12th & 13th June 2015 concluded this evening with all CSIR labs agreeing to make efforts to be self financing in next 2 years”. A year down the line we can anticipate the government claiming that financial cutbacks were justified because research institutes have not delivered on promises made in the Dehradun declaration. This is an agenda that is aligned with the aggressive neo-liberal agenda of the BJP government that involves reducing public spending in a range of areas. It also opens up the possibility of reducing public research institutions to appendages of private enterprises. It is another matter that the interests of private enterprise in the medium and long term lie in the nurturing of a public funded research system. Global experience shows that public funded research systems also support private enterprises and make them more competitive.
FUNDING FOR RESEARCH
IS ALREADY TOO LOW
Let us turn finally to the level of public funding that S&T institutions receive in the country. The entire narrative of the meetings conducted by the government appears to be centered around the notion that S&T research receives too much money. How correct is this notion? The 2014-15 budget allocated Rs 6,725 crores to CSIR, DBT and DST put together. By the end of the year this was slashed by 20 percent to Rs 5,495 crores. The 2015-16 budget has allocated Rs7,288 crores, a mere 1.3 percent of the total Plan allocation. Past evidence suggests that revised estimates at the end of the year will significantly slash this allocation.
India is among the worst performers, if we look at countries with an S&T base, as regards research funding as percent of GDP. The accompanying Table provides a comparison with other countries and regions. It shows that research spending in India is well below the global average and even the average for low and middle income countries.
Table: Public Expenditure on Research and Development (R&D) as Percent of GDP (2011)
Investment on R&D as percent of GDP
Low & middle income
Source: World Bank Database
Ineptitude in governance and a singular lack of vision characterise the functioning of the present BJP government in all sectors. Their ham-handed diktats to research institutions have the potential to derail the already tottering edifice of Indian science. There is a need for a national debate on the role of public investment in scientific research. In the past public funded research has delivered in a variety of areas. Without public funded science, there would be no domestic pharmaceutical industry – the third largest in the world today. Without public funded science, India would still be dependent on food imports. Unfortunately, today, the same public science institutions are being asked to do the impossible – to deliver with their hands tied behind their backs.