Insight from Civil Society Engaging
with Science and Technology
Democracy at the core: Reflections on Science
by Shambu Prasad
This paper is provoked by a recent book by Ashok Parthasarthy, one of our
eminent science policy analysts, called 'Technology at the core'and draws on
discussion in the KICS forum, which seeks to ask, whether there is a chance of
democracy playing a role in S&T policy making. Can democracy instead of
technology be at the core of policy?
There seems to be an unwritten
code which keeps Science and Technology as the privy of a small group of
politicians and scientists. Historically the Prime Minister has always held the
Science & Technology portfolio, and the big three Departments of Atomic Energy,
Space, Defence Research (DRDO), are generally protected from public scrutiny,
and their budgets are passed even without much debate in the Parliament.
What is more worrying is that
there is very little internal democracy within these scientific institutions. So
the question is why is science in India not open to democratic control?
S&T Planning in India
SACC since 1956 -policy and mgmt of S&T, no
full time staff, contribution and impact minimal
- COST in 1968 -18 members including outside
govt., had clout of PC, full time Secretary, annual reports on S&T
- NCST in 1971 following COST conf of 2000
- Integrated planning for science and
- 1973 India's first (and last) 'Approach to
S&T Plan'(1% of GNP on R&D)
- 24 sectors, systems view, 233 working groups
We started of with the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SACC),
which had no full time staff and minimal impact on the S & T policy. The SACC
was replaced by the Committee on Science and Technology (COST) in 1968. A
National Committee on Science and Technology (NCST) was established in 1971. The
attempt was to have an integrated plan for S & T and link it to the five year
plan. The approach papers divided the 24 sectors. They had 233 working groups
and a phenomenal 2000 scientists actually got involved in the making of this
document. It was also open for public discussions. This kind of an exercise
never happened in science policy in India again. There were some tensions
between the NCST and the Planning Commission and that was one of the reasons why
the recommendations of the NCST never really got implemented. And when the term
of NCST got over, there was probably the feeling whether there was the need for
the NCST at all, and it was allowed to lapse. And then The Science Advisory
Committee to the Cabinet (SACC) was restored in 1981. In addition, there is a
Cabinet Committee on Science and Technology.
So, was the NCST effort (to have a large consultative process for deciding S & T
plans) an aberration in Science Policy in India? Perhaps; we get some insight
from Ashok Parthasarathy’s book. For example there is a lot of debate on nuclear
power in the book and in NCST as well. He says the atomic energy establishment
was clear that NCST can't decide nuclear power. The nuclear lobby insisted that
it had the sole claim to competence on its own claims, something, that the NCST
was not willing to accept. Mind you, this is the nature of dialogue among the
scientists. There was no civil society at all involved there.
The debate never really played up and this
tension between the scientific elite on one hand and the Planning Commission was
never really resolved. If these tensions had been played out, probably we would
have had a resolution in five years or ten years. But that never happened
because since then the scientific elite have become more and more powerful.
There is no attempt to discuss issues on science even internally.
Was NCST an aberration?
- Two years to complete, 600 pages.
- Participation of 2000 scientists and technologists, who
reflected on science and society in approach paper.
- Available for public discussion.
- Tensions between NCST and PC on financial allocation, but also
at another level on conception of S&T and its role in society.
- NCST never implemented, Sethna -NCST can’t decide nuclear
power (75% of DAE budget!).
- A debate that never really played up -failure of technology
as 4th factor or structural issues of science and democracy?
- Scientific elite more powerful since, no attempts to discuss
even internally, (greater debates on science before independence or
- Technocrats more powerful, S&T functioning not open for
scrutiny nor considered necessary
This is the broad context and we tried this
very small exercise to look at the 11th Plan and examine how the S &
T component fits within it. Is it out of sync with the other sectors? If yes
why is this so? Basically we have tried to see what the civil society’s role in
the 11th Plan is. We did an analysis of steering committee, the constitutions of
all the committees and compared it with the S and T policy. The exercise is not
complete, but we are testing the assumption of whether there is an unwritten
code in policy-making circles as far as S&T policy is concerned namely that
civil society involvement may be good for health, agriculture, empowerment of
SC/STs and those kinds of issues. But leave the domain of S & T to the experts.
Civil Society better not come here. In this context then, can democracy ever be
at the core of science policy making in India
The XIth plan has working groups, steering committees, sub groups, task forces,
etc. What is interesting is that out of 106
working groups, (these groups usually have the advantage of having expertise
from outside the ministry and broader society), Science and Technology had none.
Science and technology had some sub groups and task forces but it does not
appear that there was much representation from outside the scientific
Basically the S & T policy appears to be out of
sync with the rest of the planning process.
We are able to get a very broad conclusion from
this figure- so we did an analysis -I will not go into details. Most of these
groups are full of secretaries of various ministries. We tried to look closely
at the non-official members and with regard to S&T we realized that one of them
was the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, a rather big NGO set up by an
established scientist. There is no space for views of other civil society
organizations involved in science. We also tried looking at the Terms of
Reference of the Xth and XIth plans under S&T. The Xth plan had Abdul Kalam as
the Chairman and reflects a high technical mindset. The trend continues except
that the SAC (Scientific Advisory Council) has now been replaced by TIFAC
(Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council.
Finally, I would like to pose this question. If the NCST is reconstituted and if
we were to attempt even this as a minimum requirement of democratisation or
transparency of Science and Technology Policy, what would such a body look like
today? How would civil society fit into it? Will it deal with the issues
differently from Abdul Kalam? Trends seem to suggest that it will take a long
time for the S & T policy to become democratic or even address issues relating
I am hopeful however of a social science fiction. If someone like Shiv (why not
Shiv himself!) could write the next “House of Bamboo” (an excellent social
science fiction) on how civil society can relate to issues in science and
technology in the future, it probably will inspire some groups. May be that’s