CSIR cries for renewal as it turns 75

By: | Updated: September 25, 2016 11:09 AM

India's largest civilian research agency Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is celebrating its platinum jubilee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is joining in the celebration on September 26.

CSIREarlier this year, Prime Minister Modi while chairing a high-level meeting on CSIR called for laying down parameters to assess the performance of its labs and a mechanism whereby there could be internal competition among various labs. (PTI)

India’s largest civilian research agency Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is celebrating its platinum jubilee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is joining in the celebration on September 26.

The 13,500 staff strong yet aging agency with 38 laboratories was looking to get a renewal but is instead being tasked with training ‘school drop outs and XII pass students’ as part of a new Integrated Skill Initiative which hopes to train some 10,000 youngsters in a year. A job for which the nearly 12,000 Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) that dot India are probably better placed to fulfil.

Under the Rs 10,000-crore skill development initiative it is the ITI’s that need to be upgraded and linked to the labs of CSIR today but on the contrary top class research institutes are being diluted. Minister of Science and Technology and Earth Sciences Harsh Vardhan defends his new proposal saying, “scientists will get additional work force through this initiative.”

Linking national labs to universities was probably a more viable alternative. Vardhan a staunch believer of this new push says, “only 4.69 per cent of India’s total workforce has undergone formal skill training, compared with 52 per cent in the US, 68 per cent in the UK, 75 per cent in Germany, 80 per cent in Japan and 96 per cent in South Korea.”

CSIR has a glorious past, but its future unfortunately remains hazy. The average age of a scientist in this once well-known powerhouse of industrial R&D has steadily crept up to over 50 years since induction of fresh blood has literally been on a hold in the last several years.

More than a decade ago it had a bench strength of about 6500 scientists which today it is down to half of that and many more will be retiring soon.

A leadership crisis has been plaguing CSIR. A year ago, more than 31 of its laboratories were without full-time directors and for several years, in the second term of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, even the director general’s position was being filled on an ad hoc basis.

Today with a renewed push by Vardhan only three labs don’t have directors. But on gender balance, the agency still lags far behind with only one leadership position being held by a lady in Madhu Dikshit as director of the Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow.

A pioneer in its own right, the mega agency is known for providing the suitable technology that gives billion plus Indians their daily dose of salt, one scientist remarked “aakhir zyaadatar desh CSIR ka namak khata hai”. CSIR helped track the 553 million Indians who voted in the last parliamentary elections and the tick-tock of the Indian Standard Time is maintained by its laboratory.

India is indeed indebted to the unknown Indian scientists who toil in the confines of it’s under-equipped and under-staffed laboratories.

On its 75th birth anniversary the unsung stories from the dingy CSIR labs that power India in the 21st century need to be acknowledged, applauded and failures discarded.

India spends a minuscule amount, less than one per cent of its gross domestic product, on research and development but the benefits of Indian science and technology have been huge and often unrecognised.

CSIR is celebrating its 75th birth anniversary and it has had many successes and failures. From making the country self-sufficient through reverse engineering in the early days, to making drugs that fight diseases to exploring the oceans and high Himalayas, the 3,500 scientists who work in 38 national laboratories make dirty coal clean and also design super computers.

There have been stark failures as well, like the around Rs 400 crore the government invested in the making of India’s first civilian plane Saras, both the ambitious project spearheaded by the National Aerospace Laboratories, Bengaluru and the plane itself crash landed with no gain and much pain. Also, the much hyped ‘Open Source Drug Discovery’ program wilted just as it was gaining strength.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Modi while chairing a high-level meeting on CSIR called for laying down parameters to assess the performance of its labs and a mechanism whereby there could be internal competition among various labs.

He had called upon the scientific community at CSIR to list at least 100 problems being faced by people in various parts of the country and take up the challenge of solving them technologically within a specified time period.

Mentioning key areas where CSIR could take the lead in providing breakthroughs, the Prime Minister had spoken of sickle cell anaemia among the tribal people, defence equipment manufacturing, life-saving equipment for the jawans, innovations related to solar energy and innovations related to the agriculture sector.

Indeed, the CSIR was an early mover in solar photo voltaic technology well before the world woke up to solar energy, but a lack of support killed the initiative.

The key stone of a flourishing democracy is the single secret ballot that the constitution empowers every adult Indian citizen with.

In 2014 Parliamentary elections some 553 million Indian’s flashed the small black-violet mark on their finger nails. Little known to many, that indelible ink was first made in 1952 by the scientists of the CSIR.

Every Member of Parliament who enters the hallowed portals of the Lok Sabha sports this on his nails. The secret formulation of the ink, that does not fade for at least three weeks, was made by the scientists of the National Physical Laboratory.

The ink is today manufactured at a factory in Mysuru and is even helping Sri Lanka and Indonesia conduct fair democratic elections. R A Mashelkar, former director general of CSIR, calls the development of the indelible ink “a great achievement” for the preservation of India’s democracy.

India was a floundering basket case with food grains being imported by shiploads in the early 1970s from the US, then the green revolution was ushered in with the introduction of high yielding seeds, but one key catalyst was missing mechanisation of farming. It was in those times of dire need that in 1974 the Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute, Durgapur gave the country its first tractor called ‘Swaraj’.

This robust machine has since sold more than 100,000 units and transformed India from being a net importer of food grains to a net exporter. It is subsequent model ‘Sonalika’ has also been sold in equal measure.

“CSIR rose to the challenge and delivered,” says Girish Sahni, the director general of CSIR and recalls when “Independent India had to fill its granaries to feed its hungry millions and the fledgling nation needed machines for the agricultural sector, they came from the portals of CSIR.”

Affordable drug development is another rainbow in the arsenal of CSIR, fighting malaria became much easier with the development of anti-malarial drugs by the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow which also pioneered India’s first weekly family planning pill ‘Saheli’. The clot-buster drug ‘Streptokinase’ came from a lab in Chandigarh.

The generics drug industry was pioneered by CSIR and now India has become the ‘low-cost pharmacy of the world’.

The CSIR has a pan-India presence, with a network of 38 national laboratories, 39 outreach centres and is home to some 3,500 scientists and 3,000 technical personnel, with a total strength of 13,500 employees.

In its hay days, it employed some 6,500 scientists but in the last 10 years a bar on fresh recruitments has dwindled its bench strength.

According to CSIR, it is granted 90 per cent of the US patents granted to any Indian publicly funded R&D organisation. On an average, it files about 200 Indian patents and 250 foreign patents per year. About 13.86 per cent of CSIR patents are licensed — a number which is above the global average.

CSIR has pursued cutting-edge science and advanced knowledge frontiers. The scientific staff of CSIR only constitute about 3 to 4 per cent of India’s scientific manpower but they contribute to 10 per cent of the country’s scientific output.

In 2012, CSIR published 5,007 papers in Science Citation Index (SCI) Journals with an average impact factor per paper as 2.673. In 2013, it published 5,086 papers in SCI journals with an average impact factor per paper as 2.868.

CSIR is ranked at 84th among 4,851 institutions worldwide and is the only Indian organisation among the top 100 global institutions, according to the Scimago Institutions Ranking World Report 2014.

It holds 17th rank in Asia and leads the country at the first position.

The going has not been good for CSIR it came worst off in budget increases for the current fiscal with an almost flat budget of Rs 3,600 crore. Even then there was still some reason relief since in 2015 at a meeting in Dehradun of all directors of CSIR, science minister Vardhan had pushed through a proposal that “all CSIR labs to make efforts to be self-financing in next two years”.

This had sent shock waves among the 16,500 staff who felt that CSIR would soon become a low-cost contract research organisation pushing for private good at the cost of public good and the lofty goals of doing ‘blue sky research’ could be given a go by.

Since then Vardhan has clarified that this was an aspirational goal and has been touring all the labs to urge scientists to conduct science that helps people.

In Modi’s vision he would like to see “CSIR oriented towards making the life of the common man better, and providing technological solutions to the problems of the poor and downtrodden sections of society.”

Worthy words but if scientists become social reformers who will do the cutting edge development needed for ‘Made in India’ not just ‘Make in India’.

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