Science and Technology: Policy and Capacity Building

Download pdf

India has a huge ground to cover in science and technology. I discuss this in detail in my book “Leading Science and Technology: India Next?”. India’s relatively poor performance in S&T research is largely due to the policy and institutional structures in India. Given that research is majorly funded by the government across the world, these structures are defined, developed and controlled by the government. Many of these have been formulated many years ago with little or no reform after that (like India’s university system). There are others that are intertwined with the policies in other areas (like procurement laws).

Despite the large gap in India’s S&T performance and the huge scope for policy improvement, there are almost non-existent efforts in S&T policy advocacy. We have organizations that work actively with the government on issues such as health, education, environment and defence. However, there is a wide-open space in pursuing matters of S&T with the government, help them formulate policy based on deep understanding of the gaps in the Indian system and the best practices across the world. Organizations such as CSTEP[1] and Takshila[2] have done some efforts in developing a policy for better downstream implementation of technology, such as on genetically modified crops and data ethics. However, a lot needs to be done to develop policy on how India can do better at creating new knowledge, to make its industry more competitive and to solve its myriad human development problems.

We also require capacity building in S&T. There are various actors in the S&T ecosystem – grant-making agencies, research institutions, universities, industry, faculty, PhD students, and support systems. Little work has been done in creating incentives for these actors to deliver their best. We need to support them, help them incorporate best practices, get connected among themselves and connect to the society. Private individuals and organizations can play a catalytic role here.
In this short note, I discuss the the kind of work policy-making and capacity-building organizations may undertake in S&T. One may naturally see some overlaps or the blurring of the line between the activities of these two institutions. Of course, as such organizations come up, there could be a variety of hybrids that may be formed.

Policy Building in S&T

A policy organization in S&T would do exactly what most policy organizations do – study problems in the ecosystem, study best practices, and draw out solutions. Other than writing briefs, such an organization need to closely engage with the government to become their partners to implement reforms. In terms timelines and level of impact, there are three broad areas of work.

Long-term structural issues

The S&T actors are mostly government institutions and employees. Hence, the general government policies apply to them. These policies govern salaries, rules for use of funds and procurement. While some of these rules are sub-optimal in general, they are particularly misaligned to how research and researchers work. Researchers are global citizens and one needs to provide globally competitive facilities, environment and benefits to attract them.  They need to be provided with resources, without bureaucratic hassles, yet competitively. There are structural changes required in the policy for this. The policies need to be emancipated from the general policy framework that governs all governmental institutions and employees alike. A new policy framework specifically for the institutions and the actors in the research ecosystem needs to defined and implemented. It will take more time to do something like this but will have a massive impact on the ecosystem. Here are a couple of specific examples.

Procurement of Resources:
The faculty’s research is mostly sponsored through government grants and project awards. The funds go into hiring students, staff, setup a lab and procure equipment. Currently, the procurement of the resources is governed by the Public Procurement Bill. This mandates that for any purchase costing more than $1000, a purchase committee must be formed, and a tender process must be followed. This process is lengthy and bureaucratic and greatly impedes the work of the researcher.[3] Infact, researchers cite the bureaucratic hurdles in the procurement of equipment as their biggest challenge[4]. Interestingly, even as some institutions have got autonomy (as in the Institute of Eminence), they are still bound by the public procurement rules for most of the research expenditure (provided by government agencies).
Policy needs to be framed to make the procurement process efficient and fast. This needs to be tied in with new processes for audit and financial integrity.[5] Various government institutions affiliated to different ministries make research grants. A holistic framework needs to be developed across the board to provide guidelines to use the grant money.
Some of this has been achieved to an extent with PSUs and new Public-Private Partnerships. It is an arduous policy task to figure out how to implement this in the current system of various grant making organizations and public institutions that use the money. It requires proper long-term policy formulation and a strong will from the government to implement such changes.

Faculty Salaries:
An element that doesn’t get easily called out in the S&T policy debate is the low salaries offered to research faculty. The premier institutions in the country offer around Rs. 10 lacs per annum to a starting Assistant Professor. This is less than the starting salary offered at Google/Microsoft to an engineer in India.[6] Nowhere in the world do academic institutions match industry salaries, but the salaries are relatively much lower in India[7]. They are low enough to deter people to choose academic jobs – they rather pursue research careers outside India or in the industry.
The faculty salaries are governed by the Pay Commission as for any other government official. The premier institutions (IITs, IIScs, IISERs) do get some leeway of foregoing certain criteria required for a qualifying a salary band, but it stops there.[8] Some institutions at times provide salary top-ups, but there is no consistent policy in place. The government may thwart it any time claiming that it violates rules. This is in contrast to institutions in the West, where public institutions are empowered to decide the salaries of their own faculty. While the salaries are publicly disclosed, open for public or governmental criticism, the institutions have full autonomy to decide for themselves.

There is a need to decouple the researcher salary decision from the levels determined by the Pay Commission for other government officials. There are many open questions on how an alternate policy for governing salaries may look. Is there a need for a general policy across institutions? Or should it be left to the wisdom of the institution’s board or the director? How should the government make sure that the taxpayers’ money is spent properly if our institutions are provided with autonomy?
Our institutions that have run on a fixed-salary model for decades may not be ready for such a change. How do they handle change management? If they plan to move to a higher scale, how do they manage the salary of the existing faculty vs. the new faculty? Who is empowered to decide salaries and how are budgets managed? How do they prevent or deal with a judicial backlash? These questions need to be addressed at an institutional level. The idea is not to influence or control them through a government policy. However, these issues need to be discussed in detail and a framework for change needs to be developed. This will provide the government with the confidence to adopt change.[9]

These are just a couple of examples of the long-term policy shifts that are required. There are many more to do with institutional autonomy and other aspects. The government needs to create new governance mechanisms for the research ecosystem that is different from those meant for the other public institutions. This will need strong intent, lots of courage and time. Most importantly, the government will need partners who can guide them through this policy change, introduce best practices, run pilots and finally help implement with multiple stakeholders. Private policy organizations can fill the gap.

Short-term policy impact

There are areas where a quick impact on the ecosystem can be made. These are areas where the government already has plans to draft a new policy and is hungry for ideas. There have been several such examples recently: The Institutes of Eminence (IoE), PM Research Fellowship (PMRF) for PhD students and the Artificial Intelligence Strategy for India.
These initiatives are in the right direction and well-intended. The draft of these policy has been written from scratch. It provided an opportunity to put together best practices, without having to deal with any legacy issues. However, some of these policy drafts indicate an opportunity lost. For instance, the PMRF is not open for undergraduates of all institutes (in fact, I wouldn’t have been eligible for it!), which is a big lacuna. The IoE doesn’t have a transparent process of evaluating institutions and, there is no process of continuous evaluation and competitive distribution of funds.[10]

I believe the government would be open to take suggestions from S&T policy organizations. Unfortunately, there aren’t such organizations, that engage with the MoHRD or MST. For instance, I submitted a white paper on AI in India to NITI Aayog[11]. I believe some key points from the white paper made it to the National Strategy on AI report.[12] I was also invited to a NITI Aayog-NASSCOM meeting on skill development in AI. This shows interest and hunger from the government, but the gap is on the side of policy institutions.

The opportunity with the AI policy is still wide open. The NITI Aayog report provides a larger framework but doesn’t detail how the suggestions will be implemented.  Will execution be done by an independent new unit or how tasks will percolate to different ministries needs to be worked out. Another big question is how the AI policies will interact with existing policy structures in S&T. It shall be hard to pick one area, AI, reform it, while others continue to languish.  The devil (or God, as Yunus says) indeed is in this detail. There is opportunity to deeply engage with the NITI Aayog to set up the execution structure, the engagement of actors and the methods of fund allocation for success.
These are some examples where the policy direction is already in place and the government is hungry. Some changes here could also help steadily chip off the larger policy and influence it. It can be a big win. Till then, there is a meaningful opportunity to make important and impactful nudges now.

Implementation Advise and Partnership

There is another way to make quick impact. It is to help run the current systems better by efficient execution and making interventions within the bounds of the current policy framework. For these, no written policy change is required. One just efficiently executes the steps in the current policy, but exploit the flexibility provided by the policy to implement newer and better methods. Examples in other areas include the work MSDF (xx) and CSF (xx) in reforming the public school education system by measuring and analysing learning outcomes and introducing a variety of interventions in the school administration and teaching pedagogy.

There is a horde of opportunities in the science and technology area for such interventions. For instance, using global best practices for university evaluation and benchmarking for the IoEs. Similarly, better methods could be adopted to evaluate research universities at large and provide annual funding through competitive mechanisms. This could create an immediate impact on the functioning of the IITs, for instance.

There is an opportunity to help institutions like the Department of Science and Technology (DST) to execute its work better. Researchers cite the inefficiency around procuring project funds as one of their biggest problems.[13] Issues include delays in project evaluation, lack of proper feedback and delays in disbursement of funds. These can be addressed without any written policy change. It just requires efficient protocols, processes and execution. An external agency can work closely with DST to develop such mechanisms and execute them efficiently. Similarly, there is an opportunity to implement the AI strategy properly right from the start with close monitoring, iteration and improvement.

Today, hardly any specialist organization engages in these matters with the government. This is a big opportunity for fast change.

Capacity Building

Research is primarily funded and driven by government employees (direct and indirect). Thus, it is believed that private individuals and organizations do not have much role to play. At best, they can advocate a policy. Actually, they can do more by supporting various stakeholders, helping them do their jobs better and creating incentives for them. They could make successful businesses if their solution approach has commercial viability. Alternatively, they could build a not-for-profit organization or even a community initiative in or across universities and colleges. The possibilities of the problems addressed, the solution approaches and organization structuring are endless, only limited by the creativity of an individual. Different stakeholders such as students, faculty, entrepreneurs and industrialists may have unique advantages, to take up different kinds of initiatives.
In this section, I list some of examples of capacity building initiatives. They address problems that I identified in my book. These include top-down approaches to create the right incentives and bottom-up measures to invigorate the ecosystem to deliver. The list here is in no way comprehensive, but more of a starting point.

Benchmarking and Annual Report

The research ecosystem can greatly benefit from an independent report on the status of research in India. Such a report will provide a wholesome picture of where India stands in research, what has improved, where the gaps are and what further intervention is required. It will provide feedback to the government, institutions, funding agencies and the industry. It will also help create competition. It can also play a big role in creating a public opinion on this issue and create greater public interest in addressing the gaps. Such reports have been published by Pratham on the status of school education[14] and by Aspiring Minds on employability[15]. The report may include some of the following measures and comparison groups:

·       Output Measurement:
o   Research productivity: Total and disruptive
§  Paper counts: Highly cited, in top conferences
§  Peer and industry review of research output
o   Patents
o   Technology Transfer/Consulting
o   Media coverage
·       Input Measurement
o   Funding: Public and Private
o   Resources
o   Ease of doing research
o   Research personnel
o   Research awareness
·       Comparisons
o   Over years
o   By country
o   By institution
o   By field
o   By geography

Research Institution Consulting

Our top research institutions need help to become world-class. The private institutions need support to start and build decent research programs. They both can benefit from an external organization consulting for them. This is not to necessarily say, that there is a knowledge gap, but also a need for a dedicated organization focussed to help improve research output.

The good research institutions can use help in benchmarking their current performance and processes[16], developing a plan for change and implementing it. Some universities abroad use consulting/private organizations to help with these aspects. However, these could well be a collective effort of the faculty and students inside or across institutions. Our private institutions need help figuring out the whole research plan- what research agenda to build, how to attract good personnel (advisors, faculty and students), how to procure resources, how to promote excellence, and finally, measure and track performance. Many private colleges today have the hunger to do more than teaching, to differentiate themselves and build a competitive edge. Unfortunately, they are clueless about developing research programs. If the Indian private colleges establish even small serious research programs, a network of them can make a major National impact. This is a big opportunity, as the private colleges transform over the next decade.

Science Awareness

We need a much greater awareness of science. At one end, the general public must know the importance of science, how it happens and how they can apply it to their lives. At the other end, student in colleges must be educated about the research career, research opportunities in India[17] and benefits they offer. A better awareness of science will create a public opinion to promote the scientific agenda, help attract better talent and funding to the area. Here are different ideas to enhance the reputation of science in the country:
  • Science Magazines: There are many media outlets for news on industry, entrepreneurship and impact. Many of them have come up recently, are online and quickly become popular. There isn’t much in the S&T space in India. There is an opportunity to create magazines/media websites that cater to various facets of science and technology. Outlets could cover current Indian (and global) S&T in universities, industry and start-ups. There are several other possibilities including a scientific perspective on daily news and happening, covering specific scientific verticals (nature, energy, AI, etc.) and science policy.
  • Science Books: Science books could offer a more comprehensive treatment of science topics. Books covering science start-ups, history of Indian science and, how science impacts everyday life, are just a few potential topics. The bookshelves on the airport, the railway station and the Crosswords of the world must have more science books – for all the different kinds of audience.
  • Events/Talk series: There is the Jaipur Literature Festival for books, TiECon for Entrepreneurs, and Sankalp Forum for Impact, but not much for science – neither for the specialists nor the non-specialists. There is opportunity to produce great content with accomplished speakers in the form of events, festivals, conferences and TV shows. We need to also cater to folks who may take up a scientific career, and those in the scientific career. The former needs to be inspired to take up the scientific career. The latter must be informed about the latest in their/allied fields. This must manifest in ways of talks and events at colleges where people present their research and discuss latest scientific developments. One way to make it happen is a SPICMACAY of research talks!
  • Science News Distribution: We also need to fix the backend supply-chain. All the research happening at our research institutions need to find their way into the mainstream media. Institutions have not done a great job at this. A public relations function or agency that specializes in S&T news distribution is one solution. Students/faculty at institutions may also put an effort to do interviews, develop stories, films and distribute them. One needs to worry about the sustainability of such initiatives.
  • Recruitment: We must forward-integrate awareness to recruitment – recruiting people into the scientific career, recruiting people into science policy and science capacity-building. Today, the PhD students’ recruitment process is passive, and institutions seldom reach out, market their programs or actively pursue star students. One needs to figure how a private initiative can help in this. There can be many creative ways in the continuum we have already discussed – community efforts inside institutions to not-for-profit and for-profit organizations.

Industry Research and Support

There are two problems here. Firstly, the industry in India doesn’t do much research or use the latest research findings in their work. Second, industry and academia do not engage or collaborate enough. There is a budding opportunity as the Indian industry realizes that they need to move up the value chain and go beyond low-cost services. Also, the ambition of the top Indian institutes is on the rise and they understand that industry is a much-needed partner. Here are a few activities that may help foster industry-academia partnership:
  • Industry-Academia Activities: Currently, most conferences or workshops involve either the industry or academia. Instead, we require joint events where both the industry and academia can participate, engage and work towards joint problem-solving. Events could have themes based on problem areas such as health, sanitation, transport or solution provider specialization such as IT, banking, mechanical engineering, etc. It shall help the industry to get insight into the latest in S&T tools to solve their problems, while it is a way to source funding and collaborations for the academia. Various industry bodies have a key role to play here.
  • S&T consulting: Management consulting and KPO services have existed for long and delivered value to businesses. In current times, we require consulting on how to use latest S&T to make business services, products and processes more efficient. Today, a lot of techniques in S&T have become mature and can impact businesses directly. Companies require help to keep in touch with the latest, but also need access to the tacit knowledge to implement new technology. S&T consulting businesses can take up this role. They could have professors on board as consultants and advisors, other than their own staff. They can audit technologies ready for deployment, those that can create business impact and maintain pools of specialists to help deploy the technology. This will help the industry tap into S&T to remain competitive and world-class. Also, it will provide academicians with an easy way to interface with the industry. Most importantly, it can help accelerate innovation and be a big booster to our economic growth.
  • Funding: Money can be an important seed and binder to encourage collaborations between the industry and the academia. The industry, industry associations and foundation can make pots of money available for joint research/technology deployment between academia and industry.[18] Another available source of funds is CSR money – that can be used for certain kinds of research initiatives.[19] There are organizations that help carve out and monitor programs for spending CSR money. These or newer organizations can develop programs to channel CSR money specifically in S&T initiatives.

Engaging PhD students

PhD students are one of the least engaged community. They are ignored by all –universities, government initiatives, media, industry, start-ups and probably themselves- as a community! This needs to change dramatically and is essential for S&T progress. Many of the initiatives discussed above can and must have PhD students as a major stakeholder. Here are some more specific initiatives for and/or by PhD students:
  • Online forum for PhD students: A forum for PhD students to engage with each other, share resources, experiences and help everyone learn and grow.
  • PhD student Network: A network for PhD students across the country to have a voice to influence their institute, government bodies and policy.
  • Awards for PhD students/thesis: Have National/State Level Awards for best PhD theses annually to encourage PhD students and make their work visible.
  • Industry Interaction: Forums for PhD students to engage with the industry and start-ups – online and offline. Entrepreneurship and start-up events specifically for PhD students.

Conclusion

There is a vast open space in S&T policy and capacity building. India needs many and varied initiatives in this area. There is opportunity for both short term and long term impact. Entrepreneurs, students, faculty, companies and philanthropists must take note and put efforts towards this. Their partnership is necessary for S&T progress in India.



[1] www.cstep.in
[2] www.takshashila.org
[3] Another example is that government agencies like DST cannot provide travel money in the research grants they make. Travel is an important component for the researcher to progress her research and this disconnect creates complications. The hosting institute for the researchers provides money, but that is no longer connected to the grants won.
[4] Chapter 6, Pages 156-157, “Leading Science and Technology: India Next?”, Sage Publications, 2018
[5] Chapter 10, Pages 246-248, “Leading Science and Technology: India Next?”, Sage Publications, 2018
[6] Chapter 4, Page 106, “Leading Science and Technology: India Next?”, Sage Publications, 2018
[7] Chapter 4, Page 106, “Leading Science and Technology: India Next?”, Sage Publications, 2018
[8] The IIM autonomy bill did not provide independence to the institutions to set faculty salaries. They got autonomy only to determine the salary of the director. The IoE document is silent on whether autonomy to determine faculty salaries shall be provided.
[9] Some of these have been managed in new PPP models. The larger challenges are around the structuring of a unified policy across higher education institutions and change management in existing institutions.
[10] Varun Aggarwal, “Improving science and technology ecosystem in India: Short term measures”, http://www.sciencesatyagraha.org/p/improving-science-and-technology.html
[11] Varun Aggarwal, “Artificial Intelligence: India Next?”, http://www.sciencesatyagraha.org/p/artificial-intelligence-india-next.html
[12] “National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence”, NITI Aayog, 2018, http://niti.gov.in/writereaddata/files/document_publication/NationalStrategy-for-AI-Discussion-Paper.pdf
[13] Chapter 6, Pages 156-157, “Leading Science and Technology: India Next?”, Sage Publications, 2018
[14] “Annual Status of Education Report”, Pratham, http://www.pratham.org/programmes/aser
[15] “National Employability Report”, Aspiring Minds, https://www.aspiringminds.com/research-reports
[16] This is similar to our discussion in the last section. One can envision an institution level report on the same parameters as an Annual National Report.
[17] Chapter 4, “Leading Science and Technology: India Next?”, Sage Publications, 2018

[18] There are some programs which provide funds for collaboration between industry/institutions in US and India.
[19] There is a need to show that the money is used for charitable purposes.

Comments