Speech bubble

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Published: January 9, 2015 12:35:53 AM

PM’s address to Indian Science Congress reveals tensions between India’s present needs and future prospects

The first hashtag pinned to the transcript of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Indian Science Congress, on his own website, is #Digital India. Therein, he spoke of putting “science and technology at the forefront of our diplomatic engagement.” But the technological signals that the government is transmitting are rather undiplomatic, and opposed to the core beliefs of the global scientific community. Days before the Congress, the Department of Telecommunications blocked access to 32 websites to limit their use for ‘jihadist activities’ relating to ISIS. As if to reaffirm that government is a zone of confusion, this happened less than a month after India jumped five places ahead in the rankings of internet communications freedom released by the US agency Freedom House—the biggest surge in the listing—and the banned sites included a subdomain of GitHub, which programmers the world over use to collaborate. A fine way for a software superpower in waiting to behave.

The administration of science and technology in India is rich in such contradictions and Narendra Modi, who regards it as an engine of growth, was expected to rationalise policy and give direction to research. The Prime Minister is a gifted communicator and, after a year of magnificent advances in science and technology, crowned by the success of Mangalyaan, his address to the Indian Science Congress could have been a mission statement. It should also have been a course-correction, rejecting absurdly nationalistic readings of scripture in support of the alleged antiquity of Indian scientific prowess. Instead, that reading found its way into the Congress and, instead of a concrete mission statement, the PM’s address turned out to be a vision statement—good intentions laid on thick with a broad brush, rather than with the rigour of a mission statement. The PM is a fine communicator, but perhaps he surrendered the initiative to the soporific powers of the anonymous speechwriter.

The PM’s trademark priorities are sparks scattered amidst banal fillers about the well-established transformative power of science and the widely accepted importance of peer review. They include a commitment to slash red tape in research, which should have an immediate impact. Most significantly, internet access has been elevated to a basic right, on par with the right to education. The proposal of yet another right is welcome though ironic, since the BJP had ridiculed rights-based development when it was in the opposition.

Omnibus regulation for biotechnology, nanotechnology, agricultural and clinical research could help focus attention on the life sciences, which will be the new oil in the future. An insistence on collaboration could advantage interdisciplinary research. Particularly interesting is the proposal to let corporate social responsibility budgets invest in science and technology activities. Companies which invest commercially in research and innovation would welcome this. No more wondering why they should invest in one more schoolgoer, tubewell or other beneficiary which is remote from their interests.

However, these are piecemeal initiatives which do not add up to a mission statement. Besides, the PM was unable to address the countervailing pulls and pressures in policy which define the direction of research. For instance, Modi’s immediate priority seems to be technology and innovation which can accelerate the national goal of development. However, he also speaks of the importance of fundamental research, which is a long-term initiative. The India-based Neutrino Observatory in Tamil Nadu is such a project, which was cleared by the Cabinet this week with an initial outlay of R1,500 crore. Its work will have implications for the Standard Model of particle physics, and nothing else initially. How would such a project in pure science fare, in terms of budgetary allocations, against the claims of research for, say, cheaper photovoltaic cells and LEDs? The PM’s speech does not make it clear if intellectual leadership in pure science scores over the practical benefits of applied science.

Such contradictions are merely loose ends. However, the refusal to curb bizarre nationalist claims about Indian science in antiquity, which violate the spirit of science, is disturbing. On top of that, there is the threat to make science and technology the theme of the Republic Day parade. The most egregiously visible Soviet-era artefact in India’s political culture, it needs to be abandoned rather than modernised, presumably with floats shaped like satellites. Or petri dishes, even.

The Prime Minister’s speech highlights contradictions which must be rationalised in a new, coherent science and technology policy. He clearly sees science and technology as tools for advancing growth and development. At the same time, he proposes a “higher degree of academic freedom and autonomy.” Does that include the freedom to abstain from the national project of national development and pursue larger, wider goals across borders? Clarity is required on tensions between the global and the local, between the short term and the long, between what India wishes to be today and its place in the world tomorrow.


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