By Jyotiraj Patra
The role science and scientific institutes can play by providing timely research-based information and support policy making is prominent in the current COVID-19 pandemic context. Through proactive and inclusive leadership and commitment the Indian scientific institutions, like the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser, the Ministry of Science & Technology and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare have been convening the much needed spaces for dialogue, collaboration and innovation involving multiple research and development (R&D) agencies, including private sector, think tanks and public policy institutes. For India, it was also an unique opportunity to simultaneously reflect on the unforeseen challenges of a health epidemic of this scale and identify policy measures to better address them as part of the draft Science Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy 2020. The policy consultation and design has been very participatory, inclusive and comprehensive, including a recent consultation with the Indian diaspora.
All these processes and the insights generated through formulation of the country’s STI Policy amidst a global pandemic, also provide opportunities for further stregtheing the existing institutional opportunities to deepen science-policy-society interface in the country. Institutional practices and systems that support and promote such science-policy-society interface are found to lead to policy measures and practices which can help us effectively address the unforeseen challenges and uncertain scenarios which have become the new normal. Such interface at home also contributes to India’s foreign relations and diplomatic leadership at regional and global scales. The proactive initiative of prime minister Modi in convening the SAARC Heads of States meeting in early March and spearheading the establishment of the SAARC Covid 19 Fund demonstrates ways the political leadership and the scientific establishment worked together to launch a regional response and recovery strategy amidst so much uncertainties. Ensuring science and scientific information and inputs are credible, reliable, usable and are used in such decision making processes are the need of the hour.
This year’s Science Day theme on Science for and with Society aptly captures the growing momentum to make science and scientific information more open, accessible and usable at various levels of decision-making. As the required enabling environment for science-policy-society interfaces in India is improving, there are few areas which needs further attention and support to unlock the potential and enrich these interface at various levels.
Institutionalizing science advice
India is one of the first few developing countries which formally recognized the role of science advice in decisions-making and established the Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India in November 1999. Science advice is gaining more traction in policy circles in India. Some of the notable initiatives include the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Advisory Council (PM-STIAC) and the Empowered Technology Group. While the science advisory systems is well established at the central level, there is need to initiate and support more such processes at the state, city and district levels to ensure decision-makers are able to access and use the best available scientific evidence. Such state-centric approach of science advice is critical given the vast diversity India has and the context-specific development and health, environmental challenges each state has. Such systems could build on existing institutional practices of development planning and research infrastructure at the state level.
Promoting more cross-sector partnership
Cross-sector partnership is critical to analyze and address development challenges which are multi-dimensional and complex in nature. Examples include pandemic such as COVID-19; climate change related impacts on agriculture, water and food security; and technological innovation for tackling air pollution in our cities. While India has been witnessing the much needed surge in industry-academia partnerships on research and development, but as the PHDCCI Report on Industry-University Linkage (2019) highlights there are critical institutional gaps in terms of research support and capacity building that needs to be addressed. Empirical evidence shows cross-sector partnerships which consider a longer-term horizon to innovation rather than focusing only on a single product design are more effective in building a partnership culture and shared values (KPMG, 2016). Partnership brokering skills are essential to facilitate, mentor and help grow such cross-sector partnerships by navigating the diverse institutional cultures and ways of working that exist in our science and research institutes. These cross-sector partnerships involving science and research institutes will help strengthen the innovation system which is adaptive, inclusive and radical and in the process help achieve the vision of atmanirbhar (self-reliant) India.
Bolstering science diplomacy
India has been strategically leveraging science in diplomacy to further deepen and enrich its engagement at bilateral, regional and multi-lateral fronts and collaborating with countries and regional associations to address common social, environmental and development challenges. One such example is Research and Information System For Developing Countries (RIS) convened Blue Economy Forum which works closely with the Indian Ocean Rim Association to collectively work on the sustainable use of the ocean resources for economic growth of the region. The International Solar Alliance (ISA), which was jointly launched by India and France on the side-lines of the COP 21 climate conference in Paris in 2015, is another example of India’s science diplomacy endeavor to mobilize political commitments on renewable energy and decarbonize our economy. The recent initiative of the Ministry of External Affairs to establish India’s first, New and Emerging Strategic Technologies (NEST) division is a forward looking and pragmatic step. Many such initiatives could further bolster India’s science diplomacy efforts and establish it as a leading science and innovation driven economy in the global south.
The imperative to further improve and strengthen science-policy-society interface in India is now. The political will and support to improve these is unprecedented. In his inaugural speech at the 107th Indian Science Congress early this year, prime minister Modi reiterated ‘the growth story of India depends on its achievement in the science and technology sector’. The moment is here for the Indian science and research community and the political leadership to capitalize on this opportunity by further enriching science-policy-society interface.
(The author works for an international development organization. He specializes on science-policy-practice interface on issues of water governance, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction at national and regional levels. Views expressed are personal)