Governance deficit in science: Key agencies headless for long

For the Indian space agency, the New Year began on a rather somber note. Instead of rejoicing the fact that its most-talked about mission, Mars Orbiter spacecraft had completed landmark 100 days in the Martian orbit, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) found itself without a leader.

It was known six months back or even earlier that K Radhakrishnan would be completing his extended tenure on December 31, 2014. Yet, the Central government opted for a stop gap arrangement by appointing Shailesh Nayak, secretary of Ministry of Earth Sciences, as acting head of the space agency. Such a situation has arisen for the first time in the history of the space programme since its formal beginning in 1970. The manner in which the Department of Space and ISRO have been handled points to a greater malaise in governance of our scientific departments and institutions, particularly in recent times.

India has a vast science and technology infrastructure which is a result of early interest shown in development of science since Independence. Over decades, this infrastructure has grown a lot encompassing close to a dozen scientific departments and ministries. Every scientific department is headed by a secretary, but this post does not belong to IAS like other ministries and departments but is filled by a scientist.

In premier agencies managing space and atomic energy, the post of secretary has always been held by a scientist who has risen from the ranks in the respective department. Most of the time, there has been a well laid down succession plan in both the departments. The appointment of an ad hoc secretary in space has violated this time-tested and well recognised tradition.

Within the scientific departments, space and atomic energy hold special position as they are considered strategic owing to the nature of scientific projects and programmes they handle. This apart, secretary of Department of Space (DoS) wears multiple hats. Besides being secretary of DoS, this person is also chairman of ISRO and of Space Commission, the highest policy making body in the space sector.

This means that administrative, research as well as policy making functions in the field of space all are vested in one person. Till the spectrum controversy in 2012, DoS secretary was also chairman of Antrix Corporation, commercial wing of ISRO. All the hats that the space secretary wears are important and critical for the functioning of the space agency which is at the cusp of taking its next giant step forward with GSLV project and the proposed manned space flight. At such a time, appointment of a lame duck secretary, even if it is for a month as claimed by the government, is appalling.

The state of affairs across other important scientific departments is equally disturbing. The Department of Science and Technology (DST), in charge of a bulk of science and engineering funding in the country, has been without a full-time secretary since April 2014 when T Ramasamy retired after being given several extensions. DST secretary is ex-officio member or chair of several panels, and also heads the Science and Engineering Research Board.

Another prestigious outfit, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), has been eagerly waiting for a full-time Director General since high-profile scientist Samir K Bramachari retired in December 2013. The post was temporarily held by Parmavir Singh Ahuja for six months and he too has retired now. Like DoS secretary, director general of CSIR also has other responsibilities. He or she is ex-officio secretary of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) which is the administrative ministry for public sector units like the National Research Development Corporation.

Agencies like DST and CSIR are umbrella bodies presiding over dozens of labs and research funding of thousands of crores of rupees. If they are kept without full-time leadership, the trickledown effect is felt across the country. Several of CSIR labs are being run by ‘additional charge’ directors, hampering their day-to-day activities. For instance, director of Lucknow-based Central Drug Research Institute has been given additional charge of Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine located in Jammu. How can one man take care of two institutes located 1,000 km apart?

Conflict of interest
Many national labs are facing similar fate. Besides delays in decision making and policy related actions, adhocism also raises questions of conflict of interest. Take the case of secretary, Department of Biotechnology (DBT) – who is holding additional charge as DST secretary – a capacity in which he may be required to take decisions on grant applications made by labs under his parent department, the DBT.

The governments of the day are always cagey when it comes to top level administrative appointments and transfers. Political, regional and parochial interests are often placed above merit in such appointments. It will be dangerous if the same methods are applied for appointments in our research institutions and funding agencies. Well laid out, transparent procedures and merit should be uppermost. Leadership of scientific agencies like ISRO which work in a mission mode is very crucial to achieve success and set new goals. Without able leaders and directors, national laboratories and top institutions such as Indian Institutes of Technology may fall prey to mediocrity and become directionless.

India faces formidable challenges in the field of scientific research, education and innovation. China is forging ahead with great speed and is projected to even surpass America in key indicators in R&D such as number of research papers in the next 10 years. Though India started much early and had larger science and technology infrastructure compared to China, the country is now in ‘catch up’ mode. In such a situation, governance deficit in running our scientific institutions is the least India can afford.
(The writer is New Delhi-based columnist and author)

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