Friday, February 27, 2009

Established: SERB

R. Ramachandran has a great Frontline story on the politics behind the recent establishment of the Science and Engineering Research Board.

First, the good news:

For the SERB’s 2009-10 budget, Ramasami proposes to double the amount that was disbursed by the SERC for projects during 2008-09, which means the Board will have an initial budget of about Rs.600 crore for 2009-10.

Now, the politics. SERB will be managed by a committee whose composition speaks for itself:

The approved SERB structure will have up to a maximum of 16 members and will include the Secretaries of the DST (who will also be the Board chairperson), the DBT, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), the Department of Health Research (DHR) and the Department of Expenditure in the Ministry of Finance (or his/her nominee), the Member-Secretary of the Planning Commission, and up to three members each to be appointed by the government from academic institutions, government research laboratories and other socio-economic sectors including industry. The Board, in consultation with the government, will also appoint an eminent scientist as its Secretary.

The Board will have an Oversight Committee of Experts (OCE), with quite a few scientists in it. But Ramachandran points out that while the OCE has the scientists, "it is only the Board [SERB] that has the powers to take decisions."

Here's another piece of the politics:

“The scientific community is not homogeneous,” pointed out a DST official. “There are camps and lobby groups and even sycophancy. After all, the Secretaries of the scientific departments are also scientists of calibre in their own right,” he added. Apparently, some scientists have pointed out that at least in the SERC there was a level playing field but in the SERB, funding might become vulnerable to the pressures from the Oversight Committee. “It would have been even worse if it had been left entirely to the scientists,” the official, who did not wish to be named, remarked.

There's a lot more in there for students of politics and sociology of science. Go read all of it.