Bridging the gaps in R & D policy
The 80th session of the Indian Science Congress ended in the first week of January in Goa without adding to anyone's knowledge or wisdom. The importance of the theme of the conference -- Science and the Quality of Life -- did not get the attention it deserves in a country that has made large investments in science, but still has the world's largest population of illiterates and poverty-stricken. Now, with the deterioration of the environment, even the rich in India are beginning to suffer the side-effects of development just as much as they suffer from medicine-induced diseases.
What can we do to solve the problems of the poor without getting trapped in the problems that the rich face elsewhere in the world? Surely, science alone cannot provide all the answers. But, it would be nice to know what answers it can provide and what Indian scientists deem are the answers that the nation's politicians, social workers and others must provide. The reason why such answers are not forthcoming is the lack of seriousness with which the Indian Science Congress is taken by the scientific community. If it were not for the presence of the Prime Minister at the congress, which has become a regular practice, it is unlikely that the conclave would attract any serious scientists.
Nevertheless, the congress was rightly chosen by eminent scientists as the venue to voice concern about the impact of structural adjustments on Indian science. In seeking to reduce budget deficits, the government is cutting down investments in R&D and in higher education, which will leave research institutions in a precarious financial situation. International negotiations under the auspices of the Uruguay Round and domestic compulsions for liberalisation, under marching orders from the World Bank-IMF combine, are opening doors for foreign technological flows wider than ever before. As Indian industrialists show a keen desire to import, it leaves domestic producers of scientific technology without customers. And, this is creating a near-crisis situation.
Recent statements of Union minister of state P R Kumaramangalam, on the draft policy on science and technology and the first-ever meeting of the Finance Minister with scientists to discuss the annual budget, show the government is conscious of the problems created by reducing R&D budgets. But it wants to involve industry in R&D planning and to raise funds through its own revenue collection mechanisms.
These may be useful directions to take, but the new policy needs to be discussed more widely and in its entirety. There are many areas in which private or industry-driven R&D will never take the initiative. What then will be the role assigned to public sector R&D? What will be its thrust areas and how will it promote sustainable development?
Clearly, science policy is far too important to be left entirely to scientists or politicians.