When scientists blow a fuse

Published: Friday 30 September 1994

THE much-publicised winds of change supposedly sweeping through the official corridors in India seem to have passed by its scientific institutions. The latest evidence of this comes from the turmoil that has enveloped the country's premier government research institution, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). This behemoth, with about 23,000 scientific personnel on its rolls, may be the centre of further disturbances in October if the long charter of demands presented by its scientists' association is anything to go by. It is easy to dismiss the discontent in the CSIR, and other such scientific institutions, as employee unrest over pay and promotions. But workers' unrest over routine matters is usually a symptom of much deeper maladies in the institution concerned.

In the case of the CSIR, or for that matter other big government-run research institutions, the malady has indeed afflicted the very foundations by now. It does not require any great insight into the workings of these bodies to realise that, professionally unstimulating as they have been for a long time, their very structures are now beginning to crumble. The only activity that seems to have happened in most of the Indian science establishment in the past 2 decades is in the areas of recruitment and payment of salaries. Worse still, even as the institutions grew in bulk, little effort was made to give them direction, promote research and reward talent. As a result, while a lot of growth has taken place in undesirable areas like red tape and political squabbling, there has been decline in the quality of research.

Where the CSIR is concerned, for instance, financial allocation has grown at a measly 10 per cent, which is often not enough even to offset annual inflation. If salaries and dearness increments were to be taken into account, there has actually been a sizeable reduction in the corpus available to scientific pursuit. But this is not to make a case for more doles for research laboratories. They must be productive and useful enough to support themselves. Why this has not happened is what must be addressed if a solution to the problems of the Indian science establishment has to be found. The basic problem is that in all these years, the government has failed to understand that there has to be difference between the way a research laboratory functions from the one in which the usual bureaucratic machinery works.

In the absence of such a distinction, the productivity and the quality of the laboratories has become the same as that of the innumerable indistinguishable red and yellow buildings all over the country. A good evidence of the lack of concern in the upper echelons about the state of the research institutions is the absence of a new science policy which will be in line with redefined national priorities and challenges. It is indeed interesting that even though the draft of such a policy has been ready for over a year, but the government is yet to make up its mind over it, for one reason or another. It should be clear that no realistic assessment of the strengths or weaknesses of these institutions can be made in the absence of such a policy.

Today, no one can claim with any degree of confidence what potentials a particular laboratory in India has. This is the situation at a time when government spending is coming under severe stress in all areas and even science establishments are being exhorted to raise resources from the private sector. However, it seems to have escaped the attention of the advocates of such a route that the industry is run with an eye on profits and no industry would be willing to sink its resources into something as chaotic and directionless as the Indian science and technology laboratories. Umpteen government spokespersons have also made it clear that this is the only way to survival for these bodies.

There is an urgent need to trim these behemoths to shape so that they can move and gradually build up a momentum of their own. But the trimming in such areas cannot be mindless a bureaucratic exercise like a moratorium or a "cut" on recruitments. Both recruitments and retrenchments must be aimed at making them productive and competitive. This means the creation of space and an environment for those who can do meaningful research, and so that those do not fit into the overall research agenda of an institution have no option but to go away.

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