Indian science is over-managed, over-awarded and under-performing

Representative photo: Jimmy Chang/Unsplash

  • The Union government has decided to abolish the hundreds of awards granted by the country’s science and other government departments.
  • It is possible that the government perceives Indian science as currently being over-rewarded for its modest achievements on the world stage. And that would be a fair perception.
  • In a new analysis, Indian scientists accounted for just 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 led by a four-star general, Indian science has at least 10 cadres of the same rank.

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

Almost 20 years ago, in 2003, the Government of India instituted the “India Science Award” as one of the country’s highest national honors for outstanding contribution to science, including medicine, engineering and farming. Seven prizes were awarded from 2004 to 2010. It was discontinued after 2010 and merged into the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology. It is possible that we will now see the reintroduction of such a prize, like the Nobel Prizes and called the “Vigyan Ratna”.

Again, the fact that the government is seeking to remove hundreds of awards that may be given indiscriminately to researchers who are not seen as “deserving candidates” seems to suggest that Indian science is currently being over-rewarded for its modest achievements. in the world. arrange. It is as it should be.

In fact, there is another curious aspect in the way research is managed in the country. The September 16 meeting, chaired by Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla, where the decisions were announced, also brought together secretaries and officials from the departments of science and technology and Biotechnology, the Ministry of Earth Sciences, the Council for Science and Industrial Research, the Departments of Space and Atomic Energy, and representatives from the Department of Health Research and the Office of the Chief Science Advisor. To this can be added the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the Defense Research and Development Organization.

There is a tradition that India’s science departments are headed by science secretaries and not IAS officers, with the office of the chief science adviser coordinating the various science departments and autonomous agencies. That is, there are at least 10 secretary-level science managers in the country.

Note that a secretary-level officer ranks with a four-star general. The Indian army is led by a single four-star general. Indian science needs 10 – does it count?

The fact that Indian science has been underperforming has often been commented upon. Moreover, at present, research in India has become stratified and most of it today is confined to a few fields like engineering, materials science and information technology.

In September this year, John Ioannidis, a scientist well known for his analyzes and comments on the results of research work around the world, recently updated and published a useful database in which scientists are classified into 22 domains and 176 sub-domains, as well as Scientometric details of articles they have authored or co-authored. Data is current to 2021.

The database only includes scientists who ranked in the “top” 100,000 on a number called the vs-score, which Ioannidis put together (but the details of which are irrelevant here), or those who received enough citations to place them in the top 2% in their subfield. When scientist A cites the work of scientist B in his paper, it is called a citation; and Scientist B can increase his citation count by 1.

The table below limits its focus to addresses in India, organized by domain. The columns show the main fields, the number of Indian authors in the top 2% list, the number in the global list and the Indian fraction.

India contributes 9.4% of world GDP (PPP) and 3.4% of nominal GDP. Yet we find that in all major fields, the share of Indian scientists is below these figures. Overall, in fact, Indian scientists make up only 1.16% of the picture. In demographic terms, India is home to 17.7% of the world’s population. Indian science is therefore clearly underperforming.

It is also evident 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 Indian scientists working in these fields have been placed on 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 – less than 1%. So, when the Indian government introduces the new ‘Very High Stature’ awards, it is hoped that it will remain aware of the country’s unbalanced scientific performance.

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

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