Three Science Academies Are Two Too Many

Three Science Academies Are Two Too Many

by Gautam Desiraju - Wednesday, May 30, 2018 02:55 PM IST
Three Science Academies Are Two Too ManyThe National Academy of Sciences. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • The government should step in and announce a unilateral merger of the three academies.

    This is possible if we keep personalities, past and present, in the background and bring expediency and pragmatism into the foreground.

Not many lay people know that there are three science academies in India. In many scientifically advanced countries, they have just one. Is there a case for a united science academy in the country? This question has been asked before and I too have written about this matter in Current Science in 2010. Several things have progressed or otherwise in Indian science since then and so I would now like to come back to the issue. In this article, I will refer to the Indian National Science Academy, the National Academy of Sciences India and the Indian Academy of Sciences as the Delhi, Allahabad and Bangalore academies respectively, purely for convenience.

The Allahabad academy, founded in 1930, is the oldest of our science academies. A clash of wills between C V Raman and M N Saha, led to the subsequent founding of the Bangalore and Delhi academies in 1934 and 1935. All three academies retained strong individual identities until the 1970s, especially as to their regional character, acquiring latterly a more holistic composition. Today, at least half of the fellows of any one of the three academies are also fellows of the two other academies.

In 1947, a committee under the chairmanship of C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) was constituted, to find ways and means of uniting the three academies. All three academies were in favour of a merger, but the proposal collapsed over the fine print. The Delhi academy insisted that all the academies transfer their properties legally to the new united academy. Raman, representing Bangalore, and Saha, who represented Allahabad, disagreed. Saha also desired that Allahabad nominees be allotted a certain proportion of seats in the executive and the fellowship of the united academy, a quota system. Raman and Saha’s refusal to transfer the land was unacceptable to S S Bhatnagar, who represented the Delhi academy. Saha’s demand for quotas was acceptable to neither Raman nor Bhatnagar. Rajaji was helpless and the matter fell through.

Most activities in our academies, whether in publishing, instituting lectures, endowing prizes or publicising science, can be done by others. But only an academy can give dispassionate, unbiased advice to the government on scientific matters, acting thereby as a credible nodal agency for academic authority. The authority of any scientific academy is moral, not executive or legal. It is this moral standing of an academy that would compel the government of the day to pay heed to any advice and opinion tendered by it.

One must distinguish here between the giving of advice, the decision as to whether this advice is worth taking and finally the implementation of decisions on scientific matters. It is only the first of these three activities that is the preserve of scientists and academies. The second activity is properly the concern of the politicians while the last activity is the responsibility of bureaucrats. At the present time, there is a great mingling of all these domains.

Our governments have increasingly tended to consult ad hoc bodies and individual scientists for advice. There is an intrinsic conflict of interest when government approaches its department secretaries or its Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA) for scientific advice. In the first case, the scientist-bureaucrat is directly responsible for implementing broad government decisions. How can such a person be expected to give completely unbiased and technically superior advice to the government on topics as contentious, diverse, and technical as climate change, water, genetically modified crops, traditional medicine or the China challenge in drug intermediate synthesis?

In the second case, the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) is seemingly appointed by the government only to give advice back to the same government. Who is to say, whether or not the PSA would try to ingratiate himself by pontificating on what he feels the government wants to hear, is politically expedient at the given time, or is likely to find favour with the all-powerful bureaucracy? Ramaseshan opined that scientific advice to government must be given through an academy and not by individuals for the latter procedure would be equivalent to showering patronage on a favoured few and this would encourage sycophancy. Advice given by an independent science academy would have far greater impact with any sensible government, simply due to the fact that there is no formal connection between academy fellows and the government.

The group that parts with scientific advice should have no concern or interest on whether or not this advice is accepted by the government, thus ensuring that the advice given is scientifically accurate and trustworthy. Politicians and bureaucrats are not scientists, but need to take decisions on scientific subjects. Is it not fair for them to demand from scientists that the advice we give them is the best possible? If scientists are to maintain their credibility, the advice they tender has to be of the maximum moral and scientific stature. This can only happen if the body in whose name the advice is given is a science academy of powerful academic credentials.

Would a unification of the three science academies render a united science academy more powerful and influential in scientific terms? Let us take up the feature of size. The fellowship of a united academy will necessarily be larger than that of any of the three presently existing science academies. Any plan to unify the academies must begin with the premise that all fellows of any of the three academies will be fellows of the united academy. This would mean that the united academy would have a total fellowship of around 1,500. This is a respectable total for a major country that is aspiring for a higher profile in the world of science and compares well with the 2,100 fellows of the US National Academy and the 1,400 fellows of the Royal Society, UK.

A larger fellowship means a greater range of scientific opinion and this is of utmost importance in the formulation of dispassionate advice to be given to government. A larger fellowship such as what we would have for a united academy would also necessarily mean a more diverse fellowship in terms of age, regional origin and subject affiliation. Decisions taken by such a larger and more diverse fellowship (including the all-important question of new fellow elections) will necessarily be less susceptible to charges of parochialism or to charges of domination by an individual, a clique, or an institution. Democracy always works better in a larger group.

The academic standings of our three academies do not compare too well with many foreign academies. For a start, the h-index of most newly elected fellows of the US National Academy is around 40. For the three Indian science academies, similar indices range between 10 and 25. It is extraordinarily difficult for a scientist to be elected to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and I know Chinese scientists who could have sailed into the academies of the US and UK on the basis of their credentials but still not elected to their own academy.

India still has a long way to go. These differences between academies translate into the differences in perception in which they are held by the respective government, the lay public, by the fellows and also by aspiring non-fellows. Our scientific academies are largely unknown to the general public. Their coming together will enable the united academy to draw on individual strengths synergistically, and improve the image.

The perception with which Indian science is held in international circles is also likely to increase if our academies are unified. I have been asked many times by foreigners as to why we have three science academies. All I am able to say is that it was something personal between Raman and Saha. This does not cast any of us, Raman and Saha included, in a particularly good light.

The crucial role for any science academy is to tender advice to the government. Owing to its location in Delhi and its role as an affiliating body, it is the Delhi academy that primarily exists in the consciousness of the government. When an academy is not in the consciousness of government, it rapidly acquires the character of a scientific society. This is what has happened to the Bangalore and Allahabad academies. Mergers take place in industry because they benefit all the parties. A unified science academy can become the nodal point for government for its scientific enquiries and information. Huge corporations have merged, with all sorts of important financial consequences. East and West Germany unified into one nation. North and South Korea are talking today. The European countries merged their currencies and even abolished border controls. If three small science academies with modest budgets and even more modest agendas are unable to merge, it will only be because of immodest egos and the Indian tendency to hide behind rules, twisting them illogically to justify why something cannot be done.

It only remains for me to suggest the modalities of merger. The first step would be for the government to announce the unilateral merger of the three academies with the only non-negotiable item being that fellows of any of the three academies would be fellows of the united academy. Asking the academies whether they want a merger or not is only likely to cause delays and roadblocks; this would not be a workable proposition and I believe the government is fully entitled to merge the academies because it funds all of them, practically in toto, through the Department of Science and Technology (DST). Once the government announces the merger, there would be no chance of the representatives of any of the three academies stymying further progress citing matters of detail.

In the end, the three science academies are not that different, and they have actually worked together. Very recently, they have issued a joint statement supporting research on neutrinos. This is exactly the sort of thing they should be doing, and it is such matters that need not concern department secretaries or the PSA. The summer fellowship programme for young students sponsored jointly by the three academies is an unqualified success. This gives me the confidence to say that once the academies are informed by the government that they have been merged into a single entity, they will soon find ways of making the merger a practical reality. This could be as simple as declaring the Bangalore and Allahabad premises as branches of a united academy headquartered in Delhi.

A working template for the united academy would be to simply use the procedures of the Delhi academy unless there are good reasons to overlay them with some really worthwhile innovations as they are being practiced in Bangalore and Allahabad. I don’t believe for a moment that these are serious problems.

I write this as an open invitation to the government to consider academy merger, to fellows of the three science academies to discuss this matter once again, and to DST to facilitate, so that we may quickly achieve a united academy of sciences of India. If we keep personalities, past and present, in the background and bring expediency and pragmatism into the foreground, this matter of academy unification becomes a no-brainer.

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