Needed: Dynamism in institutions

A recent visit to one of the east Asian countries brought into focus one major achievement that India needs to be proud of - an achievement that normally does not merit much attention in media circles. The reference here is to India's scientific and technical institutions, which in terms of capacity, represent a quantum improvement over the existence of individual experts in several Asian countries. Not only are institutions able to effectively put together the requisite skill sets to holistically address the increasingly complex problems of the world, but also offer the advantage of building on institutional memory while at the same time bringing greater stability, independence and accountability into their actions.

We owe the existence of these institutions largely to the vision of the early governments in India and, in no small measure, to the pioneering industrialists of the time - in particular, the Tata house. However, now more than ever, we need to ensure the dynamism and the innovativeness of India's institutions. Not only are we living in an age of unprecedented challenges (climate change, food security, human health) but also in such a fast-paced world that no longer can we afford to sequence the quest for, and development of, new solutions to their testing and wide-scale implementation and acceptance in society. As brought out succinctly by the national knowledge commission (NKC) in their recommendations relating to science and technology, we are faced with "disappearing boundaries between various disciplines of knowledge and knowledge emerging as a continuum." This blurring of boundaries is a reflection of the need for holistic solutions - the development of scientific solutions that build on and further technological developments; the dissemination of technologies that would be sensitive to societal perceptions and inclusivity.

However, it is a common refrain today that the productivity and innovation in India's institutions is on the decline. While the increasingly dismal scenario in science and technology institutions has been recognised by the government resulting in an increasing emphasis on promoting science education and research, the scenario with social sciences is even more alarming. Not only are there too few a number of good quality institutions in the wide field of social science research but many disciplines vital to understanding and promoting societal transformations are under-represented, if not missing. Unless these social science institutions are developed and become more visible in terms of their contributions and relevance, it would be difficult to visualise a breaking down of boundaries between scientific research and social research within institutions leaving Indian research capacities lagging!

In the context of science and technology research, the NKC enumerated the major causes of what they called the "current crisis in Indian research" as: the lack of interaction between natural and social sciences, lack of a long-term vision (one could add in a coordinated or integrated manner), lack of differential remuneration and the lack of scientific methods (the last being a reflection of the quality of education in the country). Undoubtedly, these are critical factors ailing the research establishments in India. However, one of the most crucial additional barriers to good quality research in publicly-funded institutions is the lack of peer-pressure and accountability while in the (quasi-) independent research institutions it is the lack of regulatory support to such institutions in order to access funding. Another big challenge is to find ways to improve quality research in universities. Research universities are in poor health due to inadequate infrastructural facilities and inadequate funding for quality research.

While proposing an extended version of the National Science Foundation for India - the National Science and Social Science Foundation, the NKC has tried to indicate some benchmarks of accountability by saying that we should aim for "at least a 20 per cent success rate". However, maybe in the conception and design of new institutions at least we need to go beyond purely publicly-funded organisations. Requiring publicly-funded institutions to leverage at least 20 per cent of their revenue from non-government sources would provide the test of the market place to such institutions. At the same time, significantly enhanced incentives should be provided for the corporate sector to invest in research in pre-qualified institutions. A precedence for this type of pre-qualification exists in the system of FCRA registrations for recognising institutes that can receive foreign contributions. Having said that, the process of receiving foreign contributions itself is in dire need of streamlining - the clearance process today are between 12-18 months and a lot more in terms of human resources.

In summary, India is privileged to have a good institutional base to build on. However, the creative spirits in these institutions need to be freed and nurtured to ensure a globally competitive research environment in the country and an ethos that results in India's re-emergence as an innovation leader.

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