India’s top research agency headless for five months

By K.S. Jayaraman


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Bangalore : The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), India's oldest and largest scientific agency, is without a permanent head for almost five months prompting many to question the government's professed claim that science and technology are high on its agenda.

The post of director general (DG) for CSIR fell vacant in December 2006 with the departure of Ragunath Anant Mashelkar. The vacancy is yet to be filled Renowned physicist M.G.K. Menon and former CSIR DG says he is "disappointed and sad" that an important organisation has been left headless for so long.

"Something is really amiss," Menon, who was also science advisor to then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, told IANS.

Sri Krishna Joshi, who headed the CSIR during 1991-1995, said he was surprised at the treatment to the country's major scientific organisation given the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself is president of the CSIR society. "This had never happened before," he said.

Founded in 1942, the New Delhi headquartered CSIR today has 37 laboratories staffed with over 18,000 scientists. The DG's post that has the rank of secretary had been held by illustrious men of science like Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, Atma Ram and Husain Zaheer.

But the hunt for a new DG appears to have been jinxed from the start. A week after designating Visveswaraiah Prakash, director of CSIR's Central Food Technological Research Institute, as the new DG, the government withdrew the offer for reasons not known.

Maharaj Kishan Bhan, secretary to the department of biotechnology, who was asked to take "additional charge" of CSIR, left after eight weeks — passing on the job to Thirumalachari Ramasamy, secretary to the department of science and technology.

Senior CSIR scientists joke that the post has become sort of a "musical chair" reduced to the level of a part-time job. "They are treating the whole thing lightly …they do not seem to value CSIR the way they should," Joshi lamented.

Scientists within and outside CSIR attribute different reasons for the unprecedented delay in filling what used to be a coveted job.

One reason they say is the erosion of the power and influence that the post once commanded due to interference by politicians and bureaucrats. The other reason is that truly competent scientists now have opportunities outside the government system without having to worry about the administration.

Some CSIR scientists say that the seat vacated by Mashelkar is too hot for anyone to sit on it without getting scorched.

They say a new DG should be ready to handle as many as 19,000 staff complaints and at least a hundred cases pending in the courts against the CSIR. (The CSIR information officer D.S. Bedi was not available for comment).

The complaints had piled up during the last 10 years of Mashelkar's rule as unions and scientists' associations were banned, scientists said.

One of them, Kumkum Rani, now at the Washington State University in the US said she quit CSIR in disgust in 2003 after 14 years of service. She added that a case she and a dozen of her colleagues filed is still in court.

Some scientists blame the succession problem in CSIR on the selection process that relies on the opinion of just a few big names in the search committee.

"We need a more democratic system — a scientists' selection board with five-year tenure — like we have for hiring heads of our public sector undertakings," said a CSIR director, who did not want to be named.

"I have been a director for over five years. Nobody in the search committee asked me what kind of person I would like to have as CSIR chief. I do not think the opinion of any CSIR director was sought," he said.

Some of those involved in the headhunt say the delay is partly due to Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal's own views about who should head CSIR. Sibal was not available to comment and did not reply to emails from IANS.

But CSIR scientists, many of whom will retire in five years – average age of CSIR scientists is 55 – do not seem to really care who becomes their boss.

"Our general morale is low, very low and it would need a Hercules to lift CSIR to its original position," said a deputy director in CSIR headquarters.

He pointed out that the vacuum was not only at the top — as many as 15 labs under the CSIR have no directors.

Tracing the root of the problem, Joshi said high quality talent pool available to CSIR from outside has shrunk because of increased opportunities in private sector. Real talent from within the CSIR system is scarce because, "except one or two, most of the CSIR labs failed to create a second line of scientists who will take care of CSIR once the older scientists retire".