Draw from past lessons for new science policy

The draft policy acknowledges earlier initiatives like the Scientific Policy Resolution (1958), Technology Policy Statement (1983), Science and Technology Policy (2003) and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, 2013. What have been the inadequacies of the 2013 policy that another one has been necessitated in seven years? If the pandemic is making us rethink our approach, we would like to understand the departures from earlier documents that address such concerns.

Draw from past lessons for new science policy

Crucial document: The draft Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP) should spur discussion in the scientific and non-scientific communities. PTI

Amitabha Bhattacharya

Former Bureaucrat

Government policies are often marked by characteristics that normally stem from the processes followed. First, the draft is prepared in the ministry concerned by its officials or a committee formed for this purpose. It is then circulated to other ministries, which examine it from their own perspective. Based on such feedback, the draft is modified and placed in the public domain for comments. On receipt of responses from individuals and institutions, the draft is further refined and placed before the Cabinet for approval.

The process appears to be appropriate and consultative, and therefore, the product, i.e., the policy document, widely acceptable.

However, in the bureaucratic method adopted, questions that arise include: Was there a need for a new policy? Does it highlight the failures of earlier approaches and seek to resolve them with a forward-looking vision in sync with the times ahead? If an expert committee is formed to prepare a report, how are the members selected? Does the committee represent diverse and sometimes contradictory views? Once the draft is placed in the public domain for eliciting views, how does the committee or the ministry process such responses? Does it alter the draft on the basis of the favourable ones and ignore the opposing suggestions?

Clearly, this is not an easy task. Consequently, most policies end up seeking more funds, creating new institutions and structures, and accommodating concerns of other ministries. The final document reads like a list of pious intentions, sometimes with no linkages established between them, and couched in a language that sounds right but is too terse to penetrate into. No wonder, informed public debate on such documents is rare to come by.

Whilst the summary and some key features of the draft Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP), recently unveiled by the Ministry of Science and Technology, have been covered by the media, STIP has not created any ripples so far.

The problems ailing Indian science — and, by implication, technology and innovation — have been underscored over the past few decades. In Whodunit — Pathology of Modern Indian Science: Genesis of its Ecosystem (2019), Rajiva Bhatnagar has raised pertinent questions about the centralisation of science and technology and the way the epicentre of research has moved away from our university system.

The National Education Policy-2020 (NEP) seeks to address this question, inter alia, through the establishment of a national research foundation, the overarching goal of which “will be to enable a culture of research to permeate through our universities.” How the measures proposed in the STIP synchronise with the relevant ones in the NEP should be dealt with in greater detail. This draft “fully endorses the new NEP” and wishes to ensure the synergetic efforts of both policies! But how?

The STIP acknowledges earlier initiatives like the Scientific Policy Resolution (1958), Technology Policy Statement (1983), Science and Technology Policy (2003) and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, 2013. What have been the inadequacies of the STIP (2013), for example, that another policy has been necessitated in seven years begs a clear answer.

If the current pandemic is making us rethink our approach and the demands of an Atmanirbhar Bharat have prompted this move, the people would like to understand the departures from earlier documents that specifically address such concerns.

Ideationally, this draft has many progressive features. Promoting ‘open science’ that would empower the public to access outputs of research funded by the governments, is one such. Setting up a national STI observatory as a ‘central repository for all kinds of data related to and generated from the STI ecosystem’ and a dedicated open-access portal for this purpose are important points delineated.

Similarly, to ensure all students and researchers access journal articles, ‘one nation, one subscription’ has been recommended in which the Central government would negotiate with and pay the journal publishers. Equally important are sophisticated software requiring periodic renewal. Besides journals, therefore, such software should also be brought under its umbrella. These initiatives, as many others, appear laudable, provided they avoid duplicity of efforts and are cost-effective, with security of data fully protected.

It is proposed that a Research Excellence Framework for higher educational institutions be evolved aiming at assessment of research. Would it conflict with the role of the assessment architecture of the NEP? Similarly, the ideas to establish higher education research centres in reputed research-focused universities/institutes, and to transform the existing R&D institutions to research universities require to be fleshed out in detail. Shouldn’t converting a scientific R&D institute to a research university negate the liberal idea of a university espoused in the NEP?

The draft recommends the expansion of the STI funding landscape and various measures to achieve the desired level of funding from the public and private sources.

Our R&D investment being sub-optimal by every conceivable standard, enhancement of funding is a fundamental necessity. But is there a need to set up a national STI financing authority and an STI development bank? Modifying/waiving the General Financial Rules for large-scale programmes and projects of national importance is also problematic. While bureaucratic and audit requirements often dampen innovation, they are also meant to ensure discipline and public accountability. This is an area where public consultations can provide meaningful solutions.

Other interesting features include fostering S&T-enabled entrepreneurship and mainstreaming grassroots innovation and traditional knowledge systems. While indigenisation of technology has been pursued for decades, it is not evident how a strategic technology development fund would be helpful. Including equity and inclusion “as a sub-text to all STI policies and programmes”, expanding women’s reservation to at least 30 per cent in all decision-making bodies, including in selection and evaluation committees, and promoting the representation of LGBTQ+ community are progressive measures, per se.

While the importance of scientific communication and public engagement has been duly highlighted, the significance of doing so in regional languages deserves to be highlighted.

Despite some inadequacies, the draft STIP is a crucial document that should spur wide discussion in the scientific and non-scientific communities. The final document should also begin with the vision and not have it at the end, as in the draft.

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