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Scepticism on science push

Thiruvananthapuram, Jan. 3: The Prime Minister today cited political meddling and red tape as key hurdles to the progress of science in India, echoing Nobel winner Venkatraman Ramakrishnan.

At the inauguration of the 97th Indian Science Congress at the University of Kerala here, Manmohan Singh stressed the need to free science from “the shackles and dead weight of bureaucratism and in-house favouritism”.

“It is unfortunately true that red tape, political interference and lack of proper recognition of good work have also contributed to a regression in Indian science in some sectors,” he told 2,500 scientists and students who had packed into a makeshift auditorium ignoring the muggy heat.

Not everybody was ready to start celebrating.

“It is not that I disagree with what he has said, but I seriously doubt anything will come out of the deliberations,” said Virander Chauhan, director of the Delhi-based International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.

“As a Prime Minister, he has been saying this for the last six years, but could he get anything (done) so far?”

A senior scientist from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, who didn’t want to be named, said: “Our top scientific leadership is so hierarchical in nature…. All this talk of a change of mindset will be like lines drawn in water.”

Singh said he wanted India’s scientists to tell the government what it should do to raise standards: “I urge our scientific institutions to introspect and to propose mechanisms for greater autonomy, including autonomy from the government, which could help improve standards.”

He said he had noted Ramakrishnan’s recent comment that Indian science needed greater autonomy from red tape and local politics. He added that incentives should be offered to attract scientists of Indian origin from abroad, even if for short periods.

The advice comes two months after US scientist Shiva Ayyadurai, who had joined the Council of Industrial and Scientific Research (CSIR) to set up a tech arm, went back following a bitter fight with the council management. While Ayyadurai complained of a suffocating environment, the CSIR said he had been removed for demanding a ridiculous sum as compensation.

The government plans to raise the stipend for doctoral and postdoctoral fellows, Singh said.

Doctoral fellows under the UGC/CSIR scheme now get Rs 12,000 a month for the first two years and Rs 14,000 for the next two.

The new Indian Institute of Space Technology, set up by Isro, however, pays Rs 35,000 to PhD seekers with the caveat that they must work with the space organisation for three years.

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