Increasing the Impact of Science on Public Policy: The Indian Experience
Indian society benefits from an age-old respect for science, and science-related issues have had a significant impact on public policy. Translating policy into action, however, has often proved difficult, and Dr. Indira Nath explores the reasons why scientific considerations too often take second place. Dr. Nath is currently Director of the Blue Peter Research Center-Lepra Society in Hyderabad, India.
Respect for Science
Science and technology are major drivers of socio-economic development and growth, a truism that developing countries are realizing rather slowly. Even when this fact is formally acknowledged, as it is in India, public policies to ensure that the impact of science is felt by the common man are yet to be implemented. Fortunately, in India, the common man has faith in science even if he does not fully grasp the details. This faith in science represents a tradition that goes back millennia and this tradition was strengthened when the country became independent by the philosophy of Nehru, the nation’s first Prime Minister. Thus, the cynicism regarding scientific developments so often seen in some of the more advanced countries is less prevalent in India. Activists who voice global concerns regarding the unintended consequences of science and technology are a more recent phenomenon and are less strident than elsewhere.
Indian faith in science is such that, since the country’s independence, the Prime Minister has traditionally been the Head of the Science and Technology Ministry as well. At one time he or she personally chaired the important meetings held by this body. The impact of science on public policy is also buttressed by the fact that the Heads (Secretaries) of Government Science Agencies are eminent scientists selected by an independent search committee on the basis of their science contributions. Thus, the governance of science in the form of funding, policies to be adopted and areas to be developed are drafted by scientist secretaries and not career civil servants. Another important and effective mechanism is the Scientific Advisory Committee, an institution that counsels the nation’s most senior politicians. Depending on the practices of the government in power, this committee reports either directly to the Prime Minister or to his Cabinet. The group includes experts in various fields of science, entrepreneurs from leading corporations, as well as the Science Secretaries and career civil servants. They form a think tank that keeps watch on future developments and the on perceived needs of the country. The committee also helps translate such developments into practical action by industry or by government. India has even had a physicist as a Minister of Science and Technology. Our current president is an aeronautical engineer and was a national figure in this capacity before he assumed office. Given this scenario, it might appear that science does indeed have maximum impact on public policy in India. Alas, this is not the case. The question of how to increase the impact of science on policy making is still being grappled with today.
Why Science Takes Second Place
So where does the system fail? Can we identify the lacunae and learn from them? Firstly, there is a wide gap between actual governance and the advice given by scientists. This is particularly evident in policies emanating from the non-science ministries. The players involved-federal ministers, state ministers and civil servants-are not all necessarily conversant with the implications of science and may have different perceptions. Other hindrances are the rival claims of immediate subsidies for the impoverished as well as a lack of political will to embark on the long-term measures often required for science and technology projects. In democratic countries such societal pressures and the pressure of always-impending elections unfailingly trump science related issues. This is particularly true of issues relating to healthcare, science education, and technologies for rural areas, among others. Climate change and the impact of urbanization on human health are also examples of science-based issues that most of the world’s decision-makers resist dealing with.
These above-mentioned factors make it imperative for all nations to increase the impact of science on policy, especially in countries that are otherwise poorly governed. Better communication channels need to be established between scientists and decision makers. The communications gap is often due to the fact that, although scientists come from an educated background and possess analytical skills, they may be lacking in the ability to cross borders and address societal issues. Compounding this problem is the fact that politicians, regardless of their often admirable capacity for understanding the aspirations of their constituents, may come from less educated backgrounds and have less time and patience for understanding the “mumbo jumbo” of science. Generalist bureaucrats, essential to policy implementation, are even more impatient than politicians. In their eyes, every issue is reduced to general management principles, yet scientific issues are difficult if not impossible to reduce to the simplifications of administrative practice. Such bureaucrats, for example, may find it unnecessary to have a scientist on board when discussing the foreign policy aspects of commerce in genetically engineered products. Situations like these are all the more common in developing countries where there is little interaction between decision makers and “lowly” scientists. Agreements get signed between countries with no awareness of how understanding the science involved can benefit the host nation or improve the relationship between the partner nations. So much of today’s commerce and so many international laws regarding key issues such as healthcare and drugs revolve around scientific issues, and policy makers are weakened in their negotiations due to lack of awareness.
Therefore, science needs leaders who can voice the excitement of scientific progress with simplicity and clarity. And they must also be able to point out the societal and financial benefits that would accrue from knowledge-based policies. In a democracy this needs to be voiced both to the government in power as well as to opposition parties who may stall such policies. The procedure needs to be transparent, rooted in on-the-ground realities and devoid of the arrogance which high achievers sometimes abrogate to themselves.
That said, not all benefits of science and technology can be planned or predicted by governments. Science has its own momentum which works in mysterious ways. A case in point is the development of biotechnology versus the development of information technology (IT) in India. Whereas biotechnology was envisaged by government planners and public funds poured to develop this sector, IT growth occurred unseen by the government with a momentum driven by industry. Biotechnology was funded by tax payers and focused on societal issues, such as cheaper vaccines, diagnostics for “orphan” diseases, etc. In contrast, industry-driven IT led to employment creation and increased the nation’s wealth. Science can benefit societies in diverse ways, and governments cannot always control its implications.
Influencing Policy Makers, Empowering the People
The benefits and importance of science has to be felt by the people for the simple reason that they will not support science-related policies whose advantages they do not comprehend. Thus improving the interaction of scientists with the people is as important as increasing their influence on governments. Genetically transformed seeds and plants in agriculture is a case in point. Misguided activism has led to the interruption of policy implementation in various parts of the democratic world. Greater access to knowledge would have alleviated this problem. Unfortunately, due to political or economic factors, lack of free access leaves room for rumors and uninformed opposition. It is not necessary to have a 100% literate population for such understanding. Old civilizations have always thrived on oral traditions and have a functional literacy which can be harnessed for their empowerment. Computer literacy does not require alphabets and can be obtained by pattern recognition of motifs and the use of touch screens. Experiments conducted in India with a “hole in the wall” type computer screens have shown how illiterate children were able to grasp information easily and naturally. This kind of empowerment is very appealing to me, as India cannot afford to wait to make all its one billion people literate. She needs to leap frog decades and provide functional literacy. (So-called illiterate people can do mental arithmetic faster than many educated people whose capacities in this area have been weakened by the use of calculators and dependence on computers.) To empower this segment of the population with scientific knowledge requires unconventional approaches.
To overcome the inequities of access to knowledge and truly increase the impact of science on public policy requires a united, transnational approach. Scientists from both the privileged and less privileged nations need to unite and plan. They then need to take the time to convince both decision-makers and the common people by providing easily understood information that empowers them to enact and support innovative policies. The different segments of society need to be made aware of the concerns of the other players in order to achieve workable solutions.
It is important to point out that sustainable change only occurs when women are involved. It is they who influence future generations and who have the determination to undertake the action required for change. Environmental and social issues appear to be naturally understood by women who, even in tribal and less privileged areas, seem to act as the protectors of the planet.