When Mars choked up Indian science

When Mars choked up Indian science
The contrast between India’s two recent science and technology (S&T) projects couldn’t have been starker. One, by delivering accurate early warnings about Cyclone Hudhud, saved thousands of human lives, and prevented destruction of property on a monstrous scale. The other put India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) Mangalyaan spacecraft successfully into a distant orbit around the planet- a technological achievement, but without much scientific, leave alone social, consequence.

Yet, the Indian media exulted over the second event, a monopoly venture of the Department of Space-Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), as if it was a world-historical feat that put India in the top league of the globe’s science powers. It was like a spectacular laser show, but only visible in graphics and artists’ drawings, besides pictures of a rocket blast-off from last November. The rest was left to imagination and nationalist hype.

But the media ignored the first project although it was the result of unglamorous, low-key, painstaking cooperation between different agencies including the India Metereological Department, National Institute of Ocean Technology, National Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting, Disaster Management Institute, the Indian Air Force and the Navy, and two Indian Institutes of Technology, besides the Orissa and Andhra Pradesh governments.

The effort involved creation of new infrastructure with more cyclone shelters, coastal roads, bridges and embankments, better weather observation stations including buoys, advanced computers, faster communication lines, and better preparations for rescue and relief operations. It meant raising the country’s disaster preparedness budget fivefold to $1.6 billion since 2006.

All this brought about a huge improvement in cyclone warning time. This was only 24 hours in 1999, when the Orissa ‘super-cyclone’ resulted in 3,958 deaths (officially, and 10,000 deaths by unofficial estimates).

But it improved to five days, and reduced the annual death-toll from cyclones to under 100 over the past five years. In Hudhud, it enabled the evacuation of more than 2 lakh people, stockpiling of food
and other aid in shelters, and a relatively well-coordinated relief effort.

Seen in perspective, the cyclone warning-and-preparedness project is a feat of greater social relevance, as well as more innovative use of technology, than MOM, which has not had any civilian spin-offs. Of course, this is not to deny that ever since ISRO launched the indigenous satellite ‘Aryabhata’ in 1975, it has developed a range of technologies, including rocketry, engine design, electronic fabrication, remote tracking and control, and data processing.

One shouldn’t also underrate ISRO’s first-attempt success in putting MOM in a Martian orbit, built on past experience, both its own and others’. But in contrast to these technological achievements stands MOM’s very modest scientific agenda: not landing on Mars, but of observing it from a design distance of 366 km (since increased to 423 km) at the nearest point and 80,000 km from the farthest point.

This cannot deliver even a fraction of the information recently generated by the US and European ‘Mars Global Surveyor’ and ‘Mars Express’ missions.

Mangalyaan weighs 1,350 kg, but only carries a small scientific payload weighing 13 kg, compared to the ‘Mars Express’s’ 116 kg. This paucity of instrumentation severely limits the extent and quality of Mangalyaan’s observations. It’s cannot add significantly to what’s already known about Martian topography or atmosphere, including the presence of methane. The ‘Global Surveyor’ took over 600 million readings of surface elevations. MOM can at best take a minuscule number of readings.

According to former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair, a critic of the present project, MOM was originally meant to carry 12 instruments, weighing 24 kg. But only five of these could be tested in time for the launch. The rest couldn’t be carried, making the mission a ‘useless’, ‘showpiece event’—’spending money on nothing’.

Mangalyaan’s limitations basically arise from ISRO’s failure to complete the development of a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which can place heavy (2,000 kg-plus) satellites into high orbit. Despite working on the GSLV for 15 years, ISRO hasn’t succeeded in operationalising it. Its test-flights have repeatedly failed. The last one was aborted in August 2013.

Instead of completing the GSLV’s development, ISRO hurriedly used the much less powerful Polar SLV to launch Mangalyaan. But the PSLV is only designed to put (small) satellites into a low-earth orbit. This greatly limited the speed Mangalyaan could acquire and constricted its abilities.

The MOM mission may have served as a steroid shot for ISRO. But it will do little to advance the cause of S&T in India. For decades, India was the Third World’s unquestioned ‘science superpower’. In 1980, it globally held the 8th position in the number of papers published in peer-reviewed journals, while China was a distant No 15. By 2010, China moved up to No 2, but India moved down to No 9.

India not only lags behind the developed countries in the number and quality of R&D (research and development) personnel, and in scientific output and its impact (measured in the number of citations of papers by other researchers). Other emerging economies are also catching up with India. Not just China, but even Russia and South Korea, now have more people engaged in R&D than does India. Even Brazil isn’t far behind.

Although India accounts for 3.5 percent of all scientific papers published worldwide, its share in the top one percent of impact-making global journals is a low 0.54 percent. As many as 52 percent and 45 percent of Indian publications remained uncited in 2001-2005 and 20006-2010.

Put simply, India’s S&T establishment is in crisis. Its priorities are warped: two-thirds of its R&D expenditure is consumed by just three ‘security’-related organisations: Department of Atomic Energy, Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) and Department of Space, the first two of which have performed appallingly.

The rest of the S&T establishment including the four big chains of laboratories under the Councils of Agricultural Research, Scientific and Industrial Research, Medical Research, and Department of Biotechnology, have to make do with the remaining one-third share.

Their funds were cut by 25 to 30 percent in last United Progressive Alliance budget. The Modi government has not yet restored them despite rhetoric about promoting S&T vigorously. Worse, even the allotted funds are not disbursed on time, starving projects of equipment and staff. All manner of cuts are imposed arbitrarily. Important institutions like the Department of Science and Technology and Council of Scientific and Industrial Research remain headless, further delaying decision-making and funds allocation.

India committed a great blunder early on in severing the link between research and teaching at the undergraduate/postgraduate level which exists in the university system, and instead set up specialised laboratories with no connection with teaching or infusion of student talent. Most of these laboratories are extremely bureaucratised and run as fiefdoms, with no peer review, leave alone public accountability. Promotions to high positions are often decided on the basis of years in service, or nepotism, not on quality of work, talent or performance.

I interviewed four active researchers from disciplines like biology, theoretical physics, chemistry and astronomy, who corroborate this view. They all complain that the bureaucratisation of S&T institutions has created in them ‘a pervasive culture of mediocrity’, in which people with outstanding talent cannot function optimally. Financial instability, and irregular releases of funds, compound the problem further, demoralising good-quality researchers.

There is very little collaborative research across Indian institutions, although many scientists do joint work with foreign, especially Western, institutions. There is a proliferation of me-too projects, many of them fragmented, sub-critically funded, and unproductive. The result is growing aridity, low performance and lack of enterprise. The whole experience of adventure or discovery is lost.

On a larger compass, the S&T establishment has betrayed the promise of delivering useful inventions and innovations to the people, with a few notable (partial) exceptions such as agricultural research (which soon plateaued and wasn’t extended to dryland farming) and information technology. It has failed to provide reliable power and clean drinking water to the public. IPA
Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai

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