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On the Organisation of Science Research in India

Gautam Desiraju's tirade against research institutions outside of the conventional universities is hopelessly wrong, both in his facts and in his conclusions.

DISCUSSIONAugust 2, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly70On the Organisation of Science Research in IndiaPushpa M BhargavaPushpa M Bhargava ( is a distinguished scientist based in Hyderabad. Gautam Desiraju’s tirade against research institutions outside of the conventional universities is hopelessly wrong, both in his facts and in his conclusions.Gautam Desiraju’s article ‘Science Education and Research in India’ (June 14, 2008), is essentially a tirade against all research institutions outside of the conventional universities, as is borne out by his following statements: (1) “In every country that has a significant scientific presence, fundamental research takes place in universities that handle undergraduate teaching.” (2) “The newly formed government of independent India was well aware of the problems within our universities, their inflexible bureaucracies and entrenched interests, and rather than try to reform them straightaway (which would have been the only lasting solu-tion), they attempted to sidestep the issue by creating institutes where research could be undertaken independent of the university system. This was the beginning of organisations such as the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). In my view, this was the single big-gest blunder that was committed in the Indian scientific arena.” (3) “We have an organisation (CSIR) that was set up with the most laudable of objectives, namely, to act as a bridge between the academic and industrial worlds.” “Today, the CSIR system is a parody of what it was supposed to be. It has lost sight of its original objective and mission. Inertia, sloth and nonchalance are a hallmark of its laboratories.” He sug-gests thatCSIR labs should be wound up as CSIR “is an organisation that has become redundant in the modern context”.Desiraju is hopelessly wrong, both in his facts and in his conclusions. Let me give examples.Research Saga(a) All around the world today, neither fundamental research nor applied research is the prerogative of either universities or government laboratories under various agencies, or even industries. Let me quote from our book, The Saga of Indian Science since Independence (Universities Press 2002): In the early part of this century, various government institutes and private organi-sations around the world realised the need for the setting up of scientific research insti-tutions outside of the university system. As science and technology developed, their requirements also changed. Certain crucial facilities now required large amounts of money and could, therefore, be set up only as national facilities; this was best done under the aegis of autonomous national research institutions. A need for people who could engage in full-time scientific research work began to be increasingly felt; in a university, one has to fulfil the major obligation of teaching. Moreover, the uni-versity system was compartmentalised into departments. As science progressed, the need for a multidisciplinary approach grew exponentially. It was found much easier to satisfy this need by setting up institutions designed for it, rather than by trying to adapt the existing university system. For reasons such as these, governments all over the world began to set up research agencies to complement the work that the universi-ties were doing. Thus came into existence, in Britain, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in the second quarter of this century, which was subsequentlyclosed down in the third quarter of the century; theMedicalResearch Council in 1920; and the Agricultural Research Council in 1931. Center Nationale de la Recherche Scienti-fique (CNRS) in France, which is today the country’s major government-funded scien-tific research agency, was founded in 1939. In Germany, a very large proportion of scientific research is done today under the auspices of the institutes of the Max Planck Society (Max Planck Gesselschaft, which was earlier known as the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute). In the states of the erstwhile Soviet Union as well, most of the scientific research today is carried out by the insti-tutes of the respective academies of science. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) came into existence in 1887. TheNIH complex in Bethesda, near Wash-ingtonDC, employs close to 13,000 persons as of now; the NIH has produced over 80 Nobel Prize winners, if one also includes those who have receivedmajorfinancial support from it.The quality and quantity of scientific re-search in most of the developed countries would have been seriously and adversely
DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW august 2, 200871affected if there were no government laboratories outside the universities. Such labs have in no way brought down the standards of the universities in these countries. In fact, the public-funded universities, research laboratories outside of the universities, and industry, have complemented each other and made the functioning of each far more productive. Fundamental research is done in all the three sectors; the same would be true of applied research and developmental work. The structure of DNA – perhaps, the most important discovery in biology in the last century – was not made in any university, while the development of the first (injectable) polio vaccine, which is applied science, took place in a univer-sity in the US. Therefore, Desiraju is totally wrong in what he has said in (1) above.(b) Desiraju is clearly not aware of the history of non-university research organi-sations in our country. Contrary to what he has stated in (2) above,CSIR, ICMR and ICAR werenot set up by the newly formed government of India after independence. TheICMR was set up in 1911, the ICAR in 1929, and the CSIR in 1942.Better Performance(c) The performance as judged by the number and quality of scientific research papers, the impact factor of the journals in which they are published, and the cita-tions (excluding self citations) that they have received, of the over 200 govern-ment-funded national laboratories under various scientific agencies such as the CSIR, ICMR, ICAR, Department of Science and Technology (DST), Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Department of Space (DOS), taken together, is far (one order of magnitude if not two) better than that of the over 300 conventional universities we have. Even in the univer-sities set-up, the performance of the deemed universitiessuch as the Indian Institute of Science, has been far better than those of conventional universities. Less than 15 per cent of the Indian fellows of the Royal Society of London have been from the universities. While many from the government-funded national laboratories of various departments of the government have been elected as members of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, there has been none from the universities in the last 50 years.University Problems(d) There are many problems with the universities. I have articulated them in an article in theEPW (July 21, 2007). Unfortu-nately, they are of their own making, with the fault lying largely with the faculty from the vice chancellors downwards, who have exhibited no courage, and very littleimagination and commitment to the country and to academics. When I was a university student in the 1940s, my vice-chancellor at Lucknow was Acharya Narendra Dev. At Aligarh, it was Zakir Husain; at Banaras, S Radhakrishnan; C R Reddy at Andhra; Sir Lakshmanswamy Mudaliar at Madras; and Amarnath Jha was the VC of Allahabad University. Even the British could not touch them, and the universities were truly national. Can one university in India today boast of a vice chancellor of the calibre of any of the above? And how many of the universities outside of the central universities, have appointed academic staff from outside their states? When Osmania University at Hyderabad appointed lecturers – over 160 of them – a year or so ago, not one was from outside Andhra Pradesh. How many of the staff of our universities have protested against this parochialism which is a major enemy of academic ex-cellence? And how many members of the staff of all universities in India, including the central universities, have ever taken a stand on any major social or even aca-demic issue, excepting when it hurts them personally?National Laboratories(e) As regards the CSIR to which Desiraju’s article devotes a whole section, he is com-pletely unaware of the objective with which CSIR was set up – that is, to do both scientific and industrial research, or both basic and applied work. If this were not so, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) at Hyderabad (which is widely regarded as one of the top five lab-oratories of the world in the area of mod-ern biology which covers close to 80 per cent of scientific research today) would not have come into existence in 1977. The primary mandate of CCMB has been, since its inception, frontier-area basic research. May I ask Desiraju if any conventional uni-versity has such facilities, culture, produc-tivity, high public credibility and national and international reputation, that the CCMB (cited only as an example from Desiraju’s own city) has? The CCMB has no departments or divisions, no room or lab of anyone is locked at any time. Is there any university in the country where such a situation exists?Indeed, the country would not have had DNA fingerprinting technology or Hepatitis B vaccine, were it not for the CCMB, and this applied work came out of a laboratory set up primarily to do basic work. Does not it show the intimate relationship between basic and applied research which is the hallmark of today’s science – something which the conventional universities have rarely attempted to recognise?(f) The fact is that if the over 200 national research laboratories under various scienti-fic agencies of the government were not there, our conventional universities would still have been where they are today but the country would not be where it is today. Nothing that has been done in the national laboratories would have been done in these universities and no outstanding scientist working in national laboratories would have ever wanted to work in a uni-versity; they would have simply gone abroad. What the conventional univer-sities need today is to put their own house in order and not complain about other organisations that have done better. One of the hallmarks of the mediocrity is that instead of rising towards excellence, it does everything to pull down excellence to its own level. The fact is that our uni-versities can do well if they are deter-mined to do so. Jawaharlal Nehru Uni-versity at Delhi (with which the CCMB is affiliated for granting PhD degrees) is now listed amongst the world’s top 100 universities and we all are very proud of it. It is noteworthy that neither the University of Hyderabad where Desiraju works, nor the Osmania University, were willing to affiliate theCCMB to grant a PhD degree, something which the JNU readily agreed to do, even though it is 1,500 km away!

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