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5 things science, tech & earth sciences minister must do

October 29, 2012 18:25 IST

The new Science, Technology and Earth Sciences Minister Sudini Jaipal Reddy can contribute to undo India's pathetic scientific reputation in terms of invention and innovation, says Gopal Krishna

Outstanding Parliamentarian Sudini Jaipal Reddy, the new minister of science, technology and earth sciences deserves salute for his role as a minister of petroleum and natural gas from where he has been shifted in a stark controversial move. Some external forces who believe in getting the law changed if the law is not favourable and getting the minister and officers changed if they are honest, have prevailed once again in the way it did earlier in the case Mani Shankar Aiyar.

First, reminding our romnesiac prime minister of his inaugural speech at the 99th Indian Science Congress in January 2012, the new minister should seek enhanced budgetary allocation for his ministry. Although the prime minister emphasised the need for a major increase in investment in research and development, the allocation of funds for the science and technology sector in the Union Budget for 2012-13 was highly unsatisfactory. Admittedly, the current spending on R&D in the country was "too low and stagnant" at about one per cent of GDP. The current allocations for the science ministries and departments reveal the prime minister's insincerity.

Second, the imminent launch of the Rs 450 crore Mars Orbiter Mission to study martian atmosphere from the spaceport in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, making India the sixth country to launch after United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and China in November next year merits his attention. The first thing he should is to set up a high-level scientific team to study why the mars mission by China and Japan was abandoned midway. The spacecraft is expected to take nearly 300 days to reach the martian orbit. The spacecraft will be placed in an orbit of 500x80,000 km around mars and has a tentative scientific objective for studying the climate, geology, origin, evolution and sustainability of life on the planet.

The Union Cabinet approved the mission at a meeting on August 4, which was announced by the prime minister in his 66th Independence Day address.

Third, at a time when exploitation of unfathomable global commons like the deep sea bed, Antarctica and space is imminent and the UN even has a committee to discuss resource exploitation on the moon his role in turning the current reductionist approach of the ministry into a holistic approach towards the life-bearing planet will be path breaking. He must undo the current well entrenched inequality by ensuring that most scientific findings become available in vernacular languages in real time instead of letting it trickle down after decades. The access to most fruits of modern science and technology is getting cornered by 1 per cent private interests at the cost of commons. Industries displace more earth per annum than is lost through natural erosion.

The annual runoff from aquifer mining nearly matches the sea level rise from the "melt" of polar glaciers; and there is 3 to 6 times more water dammed than in natural rivers. Its adverse impact will be unprecedented. Knowledge of the carrying capacity of earth's space occupied by India is extremely limited this must be ascertained before replumbing of planet unfolds and before it is too late.

Fourth, while the international nature of scientific inquiry is admitted what appears forgotten is that science exists in a local/national social setting. If that setting is molded decisively the conceptual growth of science will determine the depth of its influence. The ministry must overhaul its institutional structure to reach every local setting, every village of the country.  

Fifth, technological transformation at least since 1992 through information technologies, biotechnologies and engineering has unfolded amidst lack of trusted and transparent mechanisms for technology evaluation at global, regional and national levels. India is not an exception to such unhealthy trend. It may be recollected that Agenda 21's Chapter 34 had called for regional capacity-building for technology assessment but in 1993, the UN all but eliminated its Center for Science and Technology for Development, moved the remnants from New York to UNCTAD in Geneva, and, simultaneously, eradicated its Centre on Transnational Corporations, thus terminating the minimal global capacity that had existed to monitor and advice on new technologies and on private sector technology transfer..

There is a surveillance regime emerging for people but not technologies. The speed and cost of mapping the human genome has dropped from 13 years and $1.3 billion to 14 days and $5,000 en route to 15 minutes and a few hundred dollars soon after 2012. Governments have spent more than $50 billion on nanotech research & development; the cost of carbon nanotubes has dropped by a factor of 20 since 2001. It is frightening that there are thousands of consumer products that rely on it but there is no agreed nanotech definition or regulation.

As to synthetic biology, undergraduates with $400 gene synthesisers can download templates to build DNA while scientists can create self-replicating artificial microbes and six letter DNA. The world is moving towards a convergence era. Governments and scientific institutions are predicting the unification of "Bits, Atoms, Neurons and Genes" as the next Industrial Revolution transforming trade, economies and industrial production unfortunately without evaluation.

Failure of new technologies and innovations without evaluation since the 1992 Earth Summit proved socially, ecologically and financially costly in Europe and globally. The greatest technological transformation in history has occurred over the last 20 years while governments systematically downsized or eliminated their capacity to comprehend science and monitor technologies. The minister must create an institutional architecture that can make technology companies and their unverified and experimental technologies subservient to legislative will and institutional regulation.    

Ministers come and go at the whims and fancies of ungovernable business enterprises in all the parliamentary democracies but the positive impact the minister can leave behind on country's science, technology and India's share of earth can contribute to undo India's pathetic scientific reputation in terms of invention and innovation. 

Gopal Krishna