The dark side of Indian science

THE annual convention of the Indian Science Writers' Association (ISWA) always provides a contrast to most other scientific meets in the country, which tend to be gala, self-congratulatory affairs. In contrast, the ISWA gathering this year, held in Delhi on February 18-19, took a critical look at some skeletons in the vaults of the Indian scientific establishment.

The beginning of the meet, whose central theme was Whither Indian Science, was somnolently mundane. ISWA had invited N Vittal, secretary, Department of Electronics, to give the inaugural address, evidently in the hope that he would be as censorious in his review of Indian science as he had been about several technology departments of the Union government. Instead, Vittal disappointed them by talking of the need to "impart a dynamic character to government R&D organisations by moving them towards stronger linkages with industry".

The gathering was more interested in discussing why the blessings of dynamism had passed the Indian scientific establishment by. Many of those present at the meet had substantial experience of working in government science and technology institutions; the range of problems they perceived individually and collectively was made remarkable by the candour of the participants. One observation came through consensually: that the head boffins of India's scientific establishments were directly to blame for the coma.

In a much-lauded paper, D***(what?) Pant of the department of botany, University of Allahabad, drew attention "to a self-perpetuating clique which is omnipotent and omnipresent". His anguished observation that the topmost rung of science-managers consisted of a handful "which claims expertise in every discipline and controls all the academies, councils and advisory bodies of the government" was endorsed by many.

Rapidly, this became the dominant point of discussions at the meet. ISWA chairperson K S Jayaraman referred to a study by the Indian National Science Documentation Centre, which revealed that a select group of scientists cornered most of the awards and honours between 1990-93. Former head of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology***(where?), Pusph Bhargava, "In recent times, the Bhatnagar prize -- the highest award in India for scientific research -- has hardly ever gone to people whose work has been acclaimed outside the country."

A poignant expression of the frustration among scientists came in the form of a paper which listed 9 nationally-funded research institutions where 23 scientists had committed suicide since 1970. AT the top of this blacklist was the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. Said Y P Gupta, the author of the paper, "If we consider all the science institutions in the country, the overall figures indicating such extreme alienation among Indian scientists would be much higher." The ISWA annual convention X-rayed Indian science, long considered above reproach, and it could be the beginning of a radical change in the country's scientific establishment.