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Investment in science

Highlights

Investment In Science. Bharat Ratna awardee Prof CNR Rao has had an equal share of fame and infamy after he was conferred with the country’s highest civilian honour on Saturday.

"A district office in Bangalore and a science institution are governed by the same rules. This is ridiculous. Scientists and IAS officers are governed by the same rules. We may be outstanding, but rules will run down even those who want to join science. We must change this. Some changes don't require money, just a mindset change.”

Bharat Ratna awardee Prof CNR Rao has had an equal share of fame and infamy after he was conferred with the country’s highest civilian honour on Saturday. The coveted award, given to the 79-year-old eminent scientist for his world-class work in material sciences, is considered as a recognition for Indian science by our political leaders and bureaucrats since he is the only the third person, after CV Raman and former President APJ Abdul Kalam, to get the honour since the inception of Bharat Ratna in 1954.

On the flip side, Prof Rao’s comment that “politicians are idiots” in reference to investment in science, a day after the Ratna announcement was made, has raised many eyebrows and created ripples in political and scientific circles. The professor, of course, clarified what he had meant, “inadequate funding of science in the country was an idiotic situation,” stressing that there was a lot of difference between ‘idiotic’ and ‘idiot’ and he would never insinuate the politicians.

His clarification, though little convincing, is damage control and nobody would have expected him to blurt out what many, including large sections of intelligentsia and scientists, think is true. Probably, he might have said it in his exuberance after being named Bharat Ratna. But by focusing on whether -- or what -- he said not, most people seem to have missed the crucial point. That is, inadequate government funding for science.

Prof Rao, as chairman of Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, knows better and his point was well taken by Union Science and Technology Minister Jaipal Reddy who said, “I do not disagree with him… The importance of science and technology is so high that any amount government allots is not adequate.”

According to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s own admission, India is woefully lagging behind China in R & D and over the years our relative position in the world of science has been declining. Inaugurating the 99th Indian Science Congress in Bhubaneswar in Januray last year, he announced that the spending on R &D would more than double by the end of the 12th Plan. It is a well-known fact that India spends a fraction of its GDP on R & D (a mere 0.9 per cent) and the aim is to raise it to at least 2 per cent by the end of 2017.

But the gap between aims and actual spending is too wide to fill with expectations. In the 2013-14 Union Budget, over Rs 4,000 crore was allocated to nine research departments, just 4 per cent more than what was earmarked in 2012-13 budget. If inflation is taken into account, probably, it would nullify the increase. In fact, in 2012, the Central government had unveiled a new policy on science and technology under which the country is supposed to increase the number of scientists by 66 per cent by 2017.

With general elections due next year, it is anybody’s guess how much money science and technology will get in the 2014-15 Central budget. As many scientists agree, resource crunch is the biggest obstacle to scientific and technological advancements in the country. The only exception is rocket science, which even with limited budgets is able to achieve spectacular progress. But shoestring budgets will not always produce amazing results as research and development itself will take a lot of time without any assured returns.

While there is a need for the government to increase its R & D spending since most of the country’s premier labs and institutions are under its umbrella, the private sector can’t shirk its responsibility from chipping in. When compared to the developed countries where corporate giants are major players in research and product development their counterparts here pale into insignificance.

So, naturally, Prof Rao is indignant over the state of science affairs in the country and vented his frustration in an interview with The Times of India. "Their (private sector) contribution is negligible. It may be just 5% to 10%. The remaining 90% is dependent on the government. How will it improve if this is the situation?"

Lamenting the rules governing scientists and science, Prof Rao said: "A district office in Bangalore and a science institution are governed by the same rules. This is ridiculous. Scientists and IAS officers are governed by the same rules. We may be outstanding, but rules will run down even those who want to join science. We must change this. Some changes don't require money, just a mindset change.”

Prof Rao might have expressed his own opinion; but it reflects the collective views of everyone in the scientific community in this country that there is no dearth of scientific and technological talent in India but it is yet to see the emergence of the best. It is inexplicable how the same brains when they migrate to the West prove their worth whereas when they are in this country are considered worthless? Obviously, the conditions are not conducive enough to grow and give out the best to the community and the country.

Retaining the talent is only one aspect of improving the scientific climate that should be dovetailed with private and public investment in R & D. As Oliver Smithies, co-winner of Nobel Prize in physiology in 2007, said, the money invested in science and research is well spent because it helps improve things and make products (as well as lives) better. The Nobel Laureate who attended the 26th Foundation Day celebrations of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad on Monday has the last word on what Prof Rao and others of his ilk have been saying: Countries that invest in science do better. If you don’t do research, you have to wait for somebody else.

The choice is clear.

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