CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 88, NO. 11, 10 JUNE 2005
Thoughts for India’s scientific renaissance
As India embarks on a daring and ambitious programme to revolutionize her science activities, science in the USA, once a premiere activity, continues its decline towards a second-rate status. India might wish to consider America’s mistakes, so that she will not repeat them and ultimately suffer the same consequences.
The necessities of World War II brought the first major US government funding to American science. Government funding for science continued after the war with the establishment of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1951 and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. The administrative procedures employed today have been in place for about five decades with little substantive change. However, these procedures are seriously flawed, thus slowing, eroding and corrupting American science.
Someone nearly half a century ago had the idea that, if peer reviewers were anonymous, given a shield of secrecy and freedom from accountability, they would be candid and honest in evaluating proposals from their peers, some of whom might also be their competitors. This is the way the system has worked at NSF, NASA, and elsewhere for almost five decades.
Secrecy is certainly necessary in matters of national security and defense. But, in science does secrecy and freedom from accountability really encourage the truth? If secrecy did in fact lead to truth, it would be put to great advantage in the courts. In fact, courts have employed secrecy – during the Spanish Inquisition and in virtually every totalitarian dictatorship – and the result is always the same: people falsely denounce others, for a wide variety of reasons, and corruption becomes endemic.
The application of anonymity and freedom from accountability in the peer review system gives unfair advantage to those who would unjustly berate a competitor’s proposal for obtaining funding for research. The perception – real or imagined – that some individuals would do just that has had a chilling effect, forcing scientists to become defensive, adopting only the consensus-approved viewpoint and refraining from discussing anything that might be considered as a challenge to another’s work or to the funding agency’s programmes. And that is not what science is about at all. Science is about challenging present perceptions and discovering what is wrong with current thinking. Science is about discovery and debate, not about consensus conformity.
I have described above the most serious failings of the US government peer review, as applied at NSF, NASA, and elsewhere, in evaluating scientific support proposals. These failings, I submit, are the principal cause for the decline of American science. There are other elements of maladministration, however, which are contributory.
As India moves forward with her ambitious programmes to revolutionize science, she might well reflect on the failings of the American system and construct her own system in better ways. Perhaps first and foremost, I suggest that India need not put all her eggs into one basket as America did. Rather than one NSF-like funding organization, India should have at least three or more, each with its own way of supporting research. And, unlike America’s one-size-fits-all approach, I suggest that India’s funding agencies should be amenable to different types of support, e.g. funding projects, funding people and funding laboratories. From an administrative standpoint, I suggest the following: (i) secret reviews should never be used; (ii) reviewers with conflicts of interest should never be allowed, and (iii) an independent ombudsman agency should handle disputes between proposal-submitters and funding agencies.
As India proceeds forward with her plans, there will be an initial sense of enthusiasm and euphoria. Much will be new and without entrenched bureaucracy. Success will seem inevitable. New ideas and new approaches will be welcomed. As India develops her own science infrastructure, she would do well to avoid repeating America’s mistakes.
J. MARVIN HERNDON
11044 Red Rock Drive,
San Diego, CA 92131, USA