Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 20 January 2024

The problem with India’s science management

Relevance: GS III (Science and Technology)

  • Mains: Scientific Development and administration;

Why in the News?

The current science administrative ability to simultaneously optimize Indian science’s efficiency and resilience is necessary.


  • Sustained economic progress which can satisfy national ambition is invariably fuelled by scientific advances translated into deployable technologies. This has been the inevitable global experience since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. 
  • Current Administrative Ability: A frank assessment of the administrative ability to simultaneously optimize Indian science’s efficiency and resilience is necessary. 
    • The government is overhauling India’s science establishment, which includes setting up the new National Research Foundation (NRF) and restructuring the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)
    • Even the vaunted space programme is witnessing narrowing leads. In 2022, the Indian Space Research Organization stood a distant eighth on launch numbers, with foreign startups racing ahead on key technologies such as reusable rockets. 
  • Direction and organization of science is inconsistent: The lead in nuclear energy has been frittered away, being latecomers to small modular reactors; thorium ambitions remain unrealized. On critical science and technology themes such as genomics, robotics, and artificial intelligence, the situation is even more alarming. 
    • Public Sector Issue: Generic irritants such as tardiness in approving crucial time-dependent funding, or equitable decision making across different funding levels, are known problems. 
    • The ability to commit the long-term steady funding of critical projects when faced with the inevitable occasional failures. This latter aspect is essential in any robust science management system.

Major Challenge: An outsized role by scientists

1) The feature of India’s science administration: 

  • The centrality of its senior scientists and their activities are bewildering in range. 
  • Some pretend to be top international level academics while some are delighted in micromanaging their institutions’ accounts, and others circumambulate courts to battle frivolous charges from disgruntled colleagues. 
  • Several scientists flit around the country to sit in a variety of institutional committees like Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, Defense Research and Development Organization, Universities, which would fare better without external members. 

2) The outsized role played by scientists in Indian Science Administration:

  • “A good scientist will also be a good science administrator” is the basic assumption behind the outsized role played by scientists in Indian science administration. 
  • Administering an organization as complex as a national lab or a university cannot be relegated to becoming a side-project of a ‘working’ scientist doubling up as a director or vice-chancellor. Administration requires a particular skill set, most importantly, the allocation of money, resources and time. 
  • Attributes associated with good scientists, such as individuality, constructive ego, and erudition, have little congruence with the demands of administration — tact, realism, flexibility and firmness. 
    • The fundamental role of an administrator is to prioritize one undertaking over another in line with policy and to ensure that resources assigned to one project do not starve others. 

3) Need of comprehensive training and individual attribution: 

  • Scientists, by their very training, are not geared to juggle between several approximate solutions to human and financial problems. 
    • Administration is the art of translating policy into outcomes. Scientists are simply not trained to prioritize between time, cost, or precision, and certainly not in what proportions.
  • Scope for conflicts of interest: Being an academic within the same institution in which one wields administrative control is a sure recipe for disaster. Unsavoury examples abound of science administrators engaging in red tapism to mire rivals in unnecessary strictures. 
    • The culture of Indian science has descended into a quagmire of quid pro quos and shoddy quality control. 
    • Thus, scandals such as high plagiarism rates, paid publications in disreputable journals, and under-the-table dealings to garner government funding have become normalized.

Other Challenges of an all-Indian System:

  • There is no system of all-India transfers of both scientists and a science administrator which only magnifies institutional capture and factionalism. There are obvious downsides in allowing system insiders to be chimeric regulators of the same said system. 
    • More maliciously, careers and projects of scientific and strategic importance have been devastated due to reasons that range from competition to egotism.
  • After Independence, poverty forced the country to concentrate high-end equipment in a handful of institutions, primarily the Indian Institutes of Technology in the 1960s. Since only these institutions had exclusive access to certain equipment, a system of gatekeepers emerged. 
    • These scientists slowly began to capture positions, government patronage and institutional power on the back of their monopoly over critical equipment. 
    • Hence, genuine scientific outcomes became the obvious collateral casualties.

How is the system in the U.S?

Separation of administrators and scientists: 

  • The labs are being embedded in the university ecosystem and run by scientists, selecting scientists for an administrative role quite early on in their careers. 
  • Such selected science administrators, by and large, only carry out administrative tasks thereon, and are groomed for the task, with very few of them ever going back to active science.
  • Such a separation has obvious benefits for all stakeholders, except of course the entrenched gatekeepers.

Way Forward w.r.t Indian Scenario:

  • As India reforms its science establishment, it is necessary to question the utility of scientists being given administrative tasks, whether as additional assignments or as full-time vice-chancellors or directors.  
    • For these the solution could be an American middle-way arrangement:
      • Scientists are selected and trained in an all-India pool of a science administration central service. 
      • University vice-chancellors would have greater bargaining power vis-à-vis the bureaucracy within the university as well as that of the ministries if they belong to an all-India service having received the appropriate training.
  • At some point, India has to come to the same conclusion that the world of business did in 1908 when the Master of Business Administration (MBA) course was established at Harvard. 
    • Administration is something which has to be taught and practiced separately from the subject matter being administered. 
    • The administrative setup of any complex is its central nervous system, and the same is true for science establishments. Without addressing these core concerns, India’s science establishment will continue to do injustice to its economic and strategic aspirations.
  • The top scientists are at the helm of India’s science administration. Therefore, they must be held accountable for its failings.


Mains PYQ

Q. Scientific research in Indian universities is declining, because a career in science is not as attractive as are business professions, engineering or administration, and the universities are becoming consumer-oriented. Critically comment. (UPSC 2014)

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