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New Draft S&T Policy’s Confidence Is at Odds With India’s Real Potential – The Wire Science


Illustration: cdd20/pixabay.

India’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) recently released a draft of the fifth science, technology and innovation policy (STIP) for public feedback. The document is 62 pages long and is divided into 11 chapters.

The most noticeable thing about it is its verbosity. It lists everything you can think of under the rubric of science and technology (S&T), and every proposal is accompanied by multiple adjectives and descriptors. Sample this:

“All stakeholders of the STI ecosystem including public, private (local and MNCs), academic and other non-governmental sectors will be impactfully engaged in the programme to ensure holistic participation and development of interlinkages. The programme will extend to cross-cutting and critical domains that include but are not limited to (with special emphasis on critical infrastructure support) strategic areas, areas of economic and social security, emerging, sustainable and indigenous technologies and traditional knowledge.”

Phew!

Of course, most proposals sound good in terms of the literal prose. However, how realistic and well-informed they are are questionable.

For example, the idea of “open science” is a lovely one. It involves setting up an observatory to host data repositories, a computational grid, communication platforms and the works. In parallel STIP also proposes an archive of all research, the promotion of Indian journals, sharing publicly funded research facilities and public libraries.

But is such a humongous observatory realistic? What is the current quality of websites and servers hosted by public agencies? With what confidence and efficiency can we run grids, databases and similar digital facilities? And what kind of data do public authorities make available for public consumption? Whenever I have looked, all I have been able to find are bureaucratic, ill-prepared reports or glossy brochures extolling the virtues of this or that scheme, and very little data.

Similarly, there are likely to be very few scientists in the country who will publish papers about high-quality research in Indian journals and forego opportunities to publish in more “eminent” journals. And research facilities in elite institutions are barely able to service those institutions and are maintained with great difficulty, so whatever scope there is for ‘sharing’ is bound to be laughably small.

Second, the proposal to ensure equity and inclusion with respect to marginalised and discriminated groups into the S&T system is welcome. This should be true of every public policy in the country and a stated commitment by the state. However, it does seem glib to add one very expansive sentence that attempts to cover every group – “gender, caste, religion, geography, language, disability and other exclusions and inequalities” – without any reference to the extent to which such groups are already represented in S&T institutions.

And since most of this exclusion begins earlier, in the family and in school, how does this connect with other relevant public policies?

Representative image, of journals stacked on a shelf. Photo: yeaki/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

These examples also serve to illustrate two striking features of the draft STIP. First, that policymakers believe creating a policy means writing a long, generic essay listing all kinds of platitudes, some of them bordering on the inane (e.g., “they will be required to follow minimum acceptable scientific or ethical standard and safety certification protocol”).

Second, the policy document is very broad and proposes to repair everything in S&T (and the allied universe). It pitches for so many new agencies, funds and mechanisms that it looks like a new nation is being built from scratch.

These features in turn prompt us to reflect on what a policy document should contain.

First off, a policy formulation should have a sense of history. It can’t just be a recollection of policies past but should also assess what the objectives were, whether they were met and why the policies that failed did so. Referring to these outcomes allows policymakers to identify gaps and fill them.

Previous S&T policies, except perhaps the earliest ones, have been full of mostly good intentions – and little action. Every government has stated in the last few decades that investment in R&D as a fraction of the GDP is very low – around 0.5-0.6% – and that it should be increased. That has never happened. However, the draft simply says:

India’s Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D is low in comparison to the developed nations and most of the developing countries. There is inadequate private sector investment along with inadequate enablers such as direct financial support to the private sector, public procurement strategies, incentives to carry out and participate in R&D activities and mechanisms for hybrid funding models. There is limited leveraging of foreign STI investment and weak overall financial management of the ecosystem.

There is no indication of why this is so. Merely saying that this will no longer be the case doesn’t mean much.

There is also ample talk in the draft STIP about building infrastructure, but again without touching on what state the infrastructure is currently in, spread as it is across so many sectors and institutions. For instance, what is the state of the industrial labs set up under the Council of Scientific and Industrial research (CSIR)? These labs were supposed to be halfway houses between academia and industry R&D. Have they been able to execute their mandate?

Similarly, how well a job has the Defence Research and Development Organisation been doing to develop defence technologies?

In fact, we have a mere one and half pages of history in the entire draft.

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Students during a school assembly in Hyderabad, March 4, 2020. Photo: PTI

Second, a policy document should provide a background that assesses what plagues the system currently. The draft fifth STIP doesn’t. Some of the more significant problems that afflict India’s S&T ecosystem are (a) a large number of low-quality research candidates coming out of a school system that trains them with rote-learning, and (b) college education that simply continues this tradition. As a result, the research cohort has a very long quality-tail; a work culture that chases metrics – number of papers, citations, impact factor, etc. – and often encourages publications in fake journals.

This is also the case with patents. In 2016, the director-general of CSIR had admonished his own scientists for filing useless patents. Such an ethos produces mediocrity in copious amounts, and schemes like institutional rankings encourage even more of this mass production of incremental or even trivial knowledge. No amount of benchmarking under fancy labels like ‘Research and Innovation Excellence Frameworks’ can stand in for broad-based capability to go beyond the incremental.

There is also a lot of dysfunctional infrastructure and administration. The state of buildings and laboratories is quite bad, even in elite institutions. Administrative structures and staff job profiles belong to a bygone era. Faculty member and researcher shortages are gaping and chronic, and most institutions have expanded beyond their physical and functional capabilities.

While the degree of autonomy varies widely across institutions in academic matters, there is almost none in governance. Here, the state plays a dominant role – formally or otherwise – in determining top-level appointments and ‘guiding’ top level policies, especially in public institutions. This is of course politically convenient and is the principal mechanism to keep institutions under control. How could an S&T policy change that?

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Third, a policy is expected to create a prioritised list of issues and strategise the government’s response to them. But there is no prioritisation in the new draft STIP because it establishes no sense of what is more important and what less. Instead, in its attempt to be comprehensive, it drowns significant issues in a sea of everything, big and small.

Finally, a policy document must have at least critical amounts of detail. If it proclaims that a new fund will be established or a new body will be set up, it must at least describe where the money will come from, how the new body will fit into the existing structure and who will be in charge.

Every chapter in the draft STIP has recommendations – sometimes multiple ones – that follow this formula: there is a problem X, to address it we will establish a fund named Y, which will be run by an authority called Z, and we will set up a framework A to measure how it is working and a mechanism B to monitor. This is just generic verbiage.

It’s therefore pointless to attempt to develop a detailed, chapter-wise critique of the draft policy, given the kind of generic proposals and ‘solutions’ it suggests.

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Instead, it may be more instructive to examine some proposals and claims the document has chosen to publicise.

First, there are proposals to spread scientific temper.

“STIP aspires to reach towards sustained investments in science and technology that are necessary to inculcate and promote scientific temper, nurture innovations, and cater to the diverse needs of the country.”

That is a lot in a single sentence. Come to think of it, the idea of scientific temper has been around for seven decades, starting from the adoption of our Constitution, but it hasn’t permeated much. Superstitious beliefs, lack of rationality in everyday living and nurturing of conspiracy theories – today intensified by misinformation spreading generously through social media – are the order of the day.

In August 2013, Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead for his efforts to spread scientific temper through the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti. More recently, there have been innumerable instances of pseudoscience being thrust into the mainstream – like ancient spacecraft, etc., but a few days ago the announcement of an “examination” to test knowledge of Indian cows by the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog. Today, inculcating a scientific temper through public education requires much more than paying lip service to the idea in a policy document.

File photo of Narendra Dabholkar.
File photo of Narendra Dabholkar.

On a related note, it’s a tragedy that genuine traditional knowledge systems (TKS) end up being discredited by their association with irrational beliefs. The draft policy proposes, and again not for the first time, that “an institutional architecture to integrate TKS and grassroots innovation into the overall education, research and innovation system will be established”.

We should certainly evaluate ancient medicine and technologies through epistemological as well as cultural lenses. However, the draft STIP doesn’t seem to be aware of the dangers of integrating TKS into mainstream S&T without due diligence and in fact an awareness of the wider political climate. Doing so could in turn end up undermining trust in actual science, and lead to the propagation of more pseudoscience under the auspices of the policy itself.

The draft also includes proposals to establish other linkages of all kinds, particularly between academia and industry and between researchers and the people. Nothing new here, again, but tragically this is also history repeating itself as farce.

Members of the government and industry have sought to improve academia-industry collaborations for many decades but few ways have eventually proved meaningful. The fact remains that Indian industry doesn’t undertake much serious R&D – much less of the cutting-edge variety. Even if something ‘hi-tech’ occasionally emerges from an industrial laboratory or an education institute, industrial partners who can absorb this technology are hard to find.

Translational transitions seldom happen. Multinational companies and some large Indian business houses may be a few exceptions but industry is grappling with routine technical problems for the most part. Researchers in elite research institutions sometimes work on advanced problems too exotic for the domestic ethos. For example, since we don’t design or make processors or aircraft, there are no takers for research on advanced materials from the domestic sector.

So no amount of committees, collaboration centres and funding schemes can fix this unless design and manufacturing capabilities rise to better technical levels.

The vaunted “S&T in the service” of the “people”, for solving “societal problems”, is a mirage. It may happen in exceptional circumstances, like during the COVID-19 pandemic, a novel pest attack on crops or in some specific contexts like space and atomic energy research. But different people tend to play up generic S&T-society linkages for political expediency, and their claims usually serve to obscure the real, political factors responsible for something not happening.

Remote, rural hinterlands lacking proper roads, access to clean water and electricity has nothing to do with S&T; the political establishment likely has no interest in providing these facilities. So unless scientists are expected to invent pills that satisfy hunger or create auto-erecting houses, there’s little an S&T policy can do to solve basic societal problems.

In addition, touted ‘innovations’ like solar lamps and smokeless stoves are small, useful inventions – but let’s not pretend they are scientific breakthroughs. And often these are also poor substitutes for better entitlements, like continuous power and regular, gas-based cooking stoves. It’s hard to see how “respect for grassroots innovators” can lead to any significant research programmes.

One proposal has found some traction in the press: ‘One nation, one subscription’ (ONOS). India’s university libraries pay crores every year to scientific journals so their scholars can access the journals for free. ONOS’s idea is that a single entity will negotiate with the journals on all universities’ behalf for better negotiating power and for a common bulk price.

Indeed, it would be good if the government can work out this deal with journal publishers so that the resulting ‘national’ subscription is comparable in cost to the total aggregated cost of journals across the country. Such a deal could also deliver a much needed rap on the knuckles to publishers that currently charge exorbitant prices for journals carrying research reports that, ironically, are the result of publicly funded projects.

We also seem to suffer from the illusion that international researchers, agencies and institutions are desperate to link up with us. The draft STIP states that international engagement will:

… be based on the concepts of ‘equal partnership’ and ‘value-positive narrative’ … wherever desirable, India will play an agenda-setting role. … India will take up a proactive agenda-setting role in global S&T discourse … including, but not limited to, standards and regulations – particularly, concerning emerging, disruptive, critical, futuristic and dual-use technologies and their application areas. … To make India self-reliant in cutting edge technologies and setting-up world class scientific infrastructure, India will participate in the large S&T projects from the position of strength.

Really, we can just proclaim all this – that ‘we will set the agenda’ and that ‘we speak from a position of strength’. But respect is earned, not proclaimed.

Ultimately, in its fetish for for generic statements about innovation, development of indigenous technology and assimilation of imported ones, sustainability, STI governance, research, etc., the draft fifth STIP is just more of the same.

As one of its “visions”, the policy says it aims “to achieve technological self-reliance and position India among the top three scientific superpowers in the decade to come”. The source of this confidence is a mystery. Look around. Almost every technology we use has come from somewhere else, as have the more significant scientific discoveries, in the modern era. How will we shed these delusions of grandeur and acquire the humility to acknowledge what we do not know?

Anurag Mehra teaches engineering and policy at IIT Bombay. His policy focus is the interface between technology, culture and politics.



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