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Indian Science Is Over-Managed, Over-Awarded and Underperforming

Indian Science Is Over-Managed, Over-Awarded and Underperforming

Representative photo: Jimmy Chang/Unsplash

  • The Union government has decided to do away with the hundreds of awards granted by the country’s science and other ministry departments.
  • It’s possible the government perceives Indian science to be currently over-rewarded for its modest achievements on the world stage. And it would be a fair perception.
  • In a new analysis, Indian scientists were found to make up only 1.16% of all scientists at the top of their subfields by citation count.
  • A secretary-level officer ranks with a four-star general. While the Indian army is helmed by one four-star general, Indian science has at least 10 managers of the same rank.

The Union government has decided to do away with the hundreds of awards granted by the country’s science and other ministry departments. The Shanti Swarup Shanti Bhatnagar Prizes for Science and Technology may continue but they were not announced on September 26 as is customarily done, and have not been announced till date. There is instead the prospect that the government may now introduce new  national awards of “very high stature”, to use the words from a September 16 meeting.

Nearly 20 years ago, in 2003, the Government of India instituted the ‘India Science Award’ as one of the country’s highest national recognitions for outstanding contribution to science, including medicine, engineering and agriculture. Seven awards were handed out from 2004 to 2010. It was discontinued after 2010 and merged with the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology. It is possible that what we are seeing now is the reintroduction of such an award, in the image of the Nobel Prizes and called the ‘Vigyan Ratna’.

Then again, that the government is seeking to do away with hundreds of awards that may be indiscriminately going to researchers who are not perceived to be “deserving candidates” seems to suggest that Indian science is currently over-rewarded for its modest achievements on the world stage. This is as it should be.

In fact, there is another curious aspect to the way research is managed in the country. The meeting on September 16, chaired by Union home secretary Ajay Bhalla, where the decisions were announced, also had the attendance of secretaries and officials of the Departments of Science and Technology and of Biotechnology, the Ministry of Earth Sciences, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Departments of Space and of Atomic Energy, and representatives from the Department of Health Research and the office of the principal scientific advisor. To this, we can add the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the Defence Research and Development Organisation.

There is a tradition for India’s scientific departments to be headed by scientist-secretaries and not IAS officers, with the office of the principal scientific advisor coordinating the various scientific departments and autonomous agencies.  That is, there are at least 10 secretary-level managers of science in the country.

Note that a secretary-level officer ranks with a four-star general. The Indian army is helmed by a single four-star general. Indian science needs 10 – and counting?

That Indian science has been under-performing has frequently been the subject of comment. Also, by now, research in India has become stratified and the bulk of it is restricted today in a few areas like engineering, materials science and information technologies.

In September this year, John Ioannidis, a scientist well-known for his analysis and commentary on the outcomes of research work worldwide, recently updated and published a useful database in which scientists are classified into 22 fields and 176 sub-fields, together with the scientometric details of the papers they have authored or coauthored. The data is up to date until 2021.

The database only includes those scientists who ranked in the ‘top’ 100,000 on a number called the c-score, which Ioannidis put together (but whose specifics are not relevant here), or those who have received enough citations to put them among the top 2% in their subfield. When scientist A cites the work of scientist B in their paper, it is called a citation; and scientist B can increase their citation count by 1.

The table below restricts its attention to addresses in India, arranged field-wise. The columns show the major fields, the number of authors from India in the top 2% list, the number in the list worldwide and the fraction from India.

India contributes 9.4% of the global GDP (PPP) and 3.4% of the nominal GDP. Yet we see that in every major field, India’s share of scientists is lower than these numbers. Overall, in fact, Indian scientists make up only 1.16% of the table. In demographic terms India houses 17.7% of the global population. So Indian science is noticeably underperforming.

It is also clear from the same table that ‘enabling and strategic technologies’, clinical medicine, chemistry, engineering, physics and astronomy, and information and communication technologies dominate the list. Some 87% of scientists from India working in these areas made it to the ‘career list’, which is the list of scientists who have had a consistently high level of impact throughout their careers.

But in clinical medicine and biomedical research, India’s fractional share is much lower – below 1%. So when the Indian government introduces the new “very high stature” awards, one hopes it will remain mindful of the country’s lopsided scientific performance.

Gangan Prathap is an aeronautical engineer and former scientist at the National Aeronautical Laboratory, Bangalore and former VC of Cochin University of Science and Technology. He is currently a professor at the A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Technological University, Thiruvananthapuram.

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