Third rock from the stars
Price of research
Letters to the Editor

Space exploration is awakening to the hunt for extraterrestrial life � or at least the circumstances conducive to such life. The first step in this quest has been to find planets outside the solar system. This is crucial as no other celestial body is even theoretically likely to harbour organic life. For the longest time the only planets anyone could be sure of were those circling the sun. Not any more. A planet�s gravitational pull tends to shake the star that it circles. By measuring stellar wobbling, astronomers calculate the size and distance of its planets. Over 30 extrasolar planets have been found circling sun type stars in the past five years. However, most of these planets have been massive � Jupiter sized or bigger � and too close to their stars to be life friendly.

Scientists recently confirmed the discovery of more extrasolar planets, but ones smaller in size and further from their stars than any previously found. Several days ago, astronomers confirmed the discovery of a Jupiter clone around the star Epsilon Eridani. But this is as far from its star as Mars and the asteroids are from the sun. This would provide enough space for small, rocky planets like the earth also to orbit the star. In March, planet seekers found single planets around the stars 79 Ceti and HD46375. These planets were also remarkable because they were less than third the mass of Jupiter. Still too big, but a sign astronomers are closing in on their ultimate goal of earth lookalikes. What is striking is the sheer plethora of planets. Dozens are being found within the immediate galactic neighbourhood: Epsilon Eridani is only 10 light years away. Far from being rare, planets seem to be commonplace.

Planets are one piece of the jigsaw puzzle of alien life. Another piece is determining if other planets have an essential ingredient to life as we know it � water. Hence the excitement when it was announced in June that the space probe, Mars Global Surveyor, had produced two metre resolution pictures indicated liquid water had flowed on Mars�s surface in the past one or two million years. There has long been evidence of water on Mars some four or five billion years ago. Pictures from the National Aeronautical and Space Administration point to the existence of underground water which may still be finding its way to the Martian surface. In 2003 NASA�s Beagle 2 probe will be off to the red planet to look for water and life. If water, let alone life, is confirmed on two of the solar system�s planets, the likelihood of a universe filled with strange and exotic beings will take a quantum leap forward.

Technology will soon give planet hunting a big boost. It is still impossible to detect the imperceptible wobbling stars experience because of smaller planets. Astronomers are now using large telescope arrays to catch medium sized gas planets. More useful is transit photometry where even a small planet can be tracked by the degree to which it dims a stellar brightness as it passes across the star�s face. Last year this method was used for the first time to detect a planet. NASA wants permission to launch a probe, Kepler, in 2005. Floating in space, Kepler would watch 100,000 stars for such transit glimmers.

Space exploration lost its direction and excitement with the Cold War�s end. Budget cuts have accompanied this listlessness. The total lack of public interest in the $ 20 billion International Space Station is telling. Searching for alien life is beginning to catch the popular imagination. One example is last month�s decision by Microsoft�s co-founder, Mr Paul Allen, to donate $ 11.5 million dollars of his own money to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute. A quest brings out the exploratory best in mankind. And the holy grail of extraterrestrial life is becoming discernible in the heavens.    

When I read the other day that the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta was in danger of being closed down, I couldn�t help the lump that formed in my throat. Some 24 years ago, I was the youngest faculty member of what came to be known as the Centre. It was my first job. My first academic paper and my first book were both written when I was at the Centre. It is impossible to convey the intellectual excitement, the sheer informality and high standards of the intellectual exchanges and the fun of learning that informed the Centre�s ambience. There have been many changes in the Centre but these attributes are its unchanging birthmarks.

The Centre remains also a remarkably simple place. Till the other day, it was cramped into a small residential building (see picture) which was once the home of the historian, Jadunath Sarkar. There were no frills. Most members of the faculty shared rooms; plain living, high thinking is the creed of the Centre. In the Seventies, it was run on a shoestring budget of a little over Rs 10 lakh per annum. In the late Eighties, this had risen to Rs 40 lakh. The supply of funds was never smooth and a large amount of time, as I remember, was spent by the first director, Barun De, and the first registrar, Susanta Ghosh, running to New Delhi and to the Writers� Buildings to facilitate the flow of funds. It is clear now that the flow has become a trickle and that too is about to dry up.

The plight of the Centre is a familiar and tedious story of the incompetence and negligence of successive governments and bureaucrats. Pay commission after pay commission has recommended salary hikes but grants to research institutions have not been increased. This has resulted in the ludicrous situation in which, in the revised budget for 2000-2001, the Centre�s expenditure for currently filled staff positions ( this excludes 14 academic positions and six non-academic ones lying vacant) and essential maintenance amounts to Rs 1.17 crore. But the allocated grant from the Indian Council for Social Science Research, together with a matching grant from the government of West Bengal, will amount to Rs 75 lakh. This leaves a clear deficit of Rs 42 lakh.

The scale of the deficit is now enormous, but the deficit itself is not something new. The Centre�s faculty has in the recent past devised ways to meet part or whole of the deficit. Faculty members of the Centre took up project work and acted as consultants. The money earned from this kind of work went entirely to the Centre�s kitty to help meet the resource crunch. This development has profound implications for the character of the Centre.

The Centre was set up as an institution that would pursue excellence in social science research. Its faculty is supposed to be engaged in full time research. Instead, in the last few years the members have been doing jobs which, by no stretch of the imagination, can be called academic. Professors and fellows have been carrying out surveys, feasibility studies and so forth, work that can be carried out by a postgraduate student. The Centre�s faculty is doing this not out of choice but to keep the institution running, to see to it that salaries get paid in time. The immediate victim of this kind of work is academic research. Faculty members are getting less and less time to pursue their own academic agenda.

If the existing conditions are allowed to prevail, faculty members will be drawn more and more into the quicksand of project work and will spend the rest of their time haggling with the ICSSR and the ministry for human resource development just to keep the Centre afloat. But to keep the Centre afloat to what purpose, since it will no longer remain a centre for excellence in social science research? In other words, academics are being asked to work in a manner which can only destroy the goodwill and the distinction that the Centre has earned over the years.

Behind this lies the much larger issue concerning the funding of research in the social sciences and the liberal arts. The first thing that should be clarified is that the total outlay for this kind of research is peanuts compared to the resources required to fund research in science and technology. For example, the total amount currently spent by all the 27 research institutes under the ICSSR is less than Rs 15 crore. Research in the sciences, for obvious reasons, costs more.

There is another related matter. Research in the sciences has use and utility which apparently justifies the expenditure made on it. Output in the liberal arts and the social sciences has no such immediate exchange value. For the social sciences, there exists, or there used to exist, one kind of customer: the various agencies involved in the planning process. Work on technical economics, history, regional imbalances, social structure could all serve planners and their policy recommendations in different ways. In India, after independence, because of the huge role the state took upon itself and the importance that was given to planning in the making of the new nation and its socio-economic structure, the government became the principal sponsor and customer of social science research.

This has had two consequences. First, the state�s support to social science research did not encourage the culture of private endowments to promote research activities. The government discouraged such donations by not making endowments completely tax free. Second, the dependence on the state has now become a curse as the global trend is towards minimizing the state�s activities and towards privatization of all kinds of higher education and research.

Research institutes like the Centre are thus caught in a double bind. On the one hand, the state is no longer as forthcoming with grants as it used to be in the past and, on the other, there is the absence of private endowments because that culture has never been encouraged. Academics in the Centre � and their plight is shared by others who work in social science research institutes across the country � are forced to demean themselves and do project work which is far removed from academic research.

The issue is significant because it is germane to what we as a society think is knowledge. Can we visualize a field where knowledge or the fruits of research have no uses and have no customers? Can we free academic research from the vocabulary of the marketplace, like utility, customers and so forth? Surely a scholar, privately funded or supported by the state, should be given the freedom to do his work irrespective of whether it is considered useful or not. Surely a scholar should not have to undergo the humiliation of running after some bureaucrat in the ICSSR or Writers� Buildings or the HRD ministry to plead for funds which have already been allocated for research. Dependence on the state should not lead a scholar to sacrifice his dignity.

Excellence in academic research, the original rubric of the Centre and similar institutions, can only have relevance if there is some respect granted and space created for knowledge qua knowledge. But questions like these are getting lost in petty bickerings over who controls the levers of patronage. The government in power is not helping matters by appointing to the board of the ICSSR �social scientists� who have never been heard of before the present dispensation came to power or by opening new research institutes when the existing ones are starved of funds.

There is a need to place the quest for knowledge and scholarship above politics and patronage. A previous generation may have failed the test but to perpetuate the betrayal would only further impoverish Indian society and Indian civilization. The threat over a small research institute in Calcutta has longer shadows than most of us would care to think.    


Like meets like

Sir � Ram Prakash Gupta has a new ambition: that of turning a declining Uttar Pradesh into �milk-and-honey-flowing Udyog Pradesh� (�Gupta rush for gold, glitter, August 11). And he plans to do this by wooing the film world, even before his role in the controversy over the filming of Water has faded in public memory. But Gupta�s breed of Indian politicians can be expected to behave in this manner as much as the current crop of Bollywood bigwigs can be expected to play up to them. The total absence of a principled stand in the film industry will certainly make the wooing easier for Gupta. But with his phenomenally short memory, he might find it difficult to handle the temperamental Bollywood stars.

Yours faithfully,
S.K. Hazra, Calcutta

Unfree to judge

Sir � It is ironic that although the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government has introduced a bill on freedom of information in Parliament, it is denying Ram Jethmalani, the former law minister, the freedom to disclose the contents of certain files. Apparently, these have got a direct bearing on the issues that forced Jethmalani�s resignation from the cabinet.

Matters directly related to the conduct of government officials, be it the chief justice, the prime minister or the attorney-general, cannot be kept secret from the people of the country, especially since the high placed are often responsible for the rot in public life. Notes on files and the rationale behind crucial decisions, except when directly concerning national security, should be made accessible to the public on demand. Classifying these as secret is undemocratic. Jethmalani is doing us a great service by his outspokenness.

Yours faithfully,
S. Srinivas Yadav, Hyderabad

Sir � Kudos to Ram Jethmalani for his bold statements even after his resignation. Our judicial system is biased to suit judges and lawyers and the rich and famous. Even the attorney-general, Soli Sorabjee, in connection with the law of contempt of court is said to have once expressed his reservations about a system which gave unlimited powers to judges with regard to contempt proceedings. As the infamous V. Ramaswamy case proved, the removal of judges through impeachment is an inadequate procedure. The judiciary must be made more accountable to the people. The press and the public should be given full freedom to criticize important judgments.

There should be a national judicial commission headed by the chief justice of India which should entertain complaints against high court and Supreme Court judges. The commission should have the power to confirm all judicial appointments.

Yours faithfully,
Subhash C. Agrawal, Dariba

Sir � Responsible public men who govern the country have to forfeit their personal identity. Ram Jethmalani�s statement that he would not continue to be minister if he had to sacrifice his self-respect shows his personal ego has overtaken him (�Jethmalani fury scalds Atal�, July 28).

It is regrettable that Jethmalani, being an eminent lawyer himself, should show a lack of confidence in the judicial process. His ire against the attorney-general and chief justice was because their �attack� was directed �against me�, as Jethmalani put it. The chief justice seems to have been right in noting that the idea of a collective cabinet responsibility is totally missing.

Yours faithfully,
K.R. Venkatasubramanian, Calcutta

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