Subsidies and Science

Two strange pieces of news left me wondering recently. The first was with regard to IIT. I always found the success of the IITs a little warped and too superlative– most times I dismissed my suspicions on the basis that they seemed baseless. Perhaps, IIT was as wonderful an institution as India’s erudite educationists made it out to be. Apparently not. Science education in India is not all that hot.

An ill east wind originating in China has blown over the Indian subcontinent, shattering the self-esteem and comfortable assumptions of Indian academics who pride themselves upon having developed the world’s second largest pool of scientists and technologists.

” In the Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s (SJTU) Academic Ranking of World Universities 2003 released recently, none of India’s 317 mainstream varsities made it into the ranking of the global top 500 tertiary level institutions of higher education. The only institutions which figure in the list – headed by Harvard and Stanford universities and the California Institute of Technology – are the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), ranked in the 251-300 slot, and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) of Delhi and Kharagpur in the 451-500 slot. ”

No surprise though. These indigenous groves of self declared-genius (a.k.a the academia) have definitely failed to make mainstream Indian universities (with decades of interference and intervention by populist politicians and pliant bureaucrats) – into Shanghai Jiao Tong’s list of the world’s top 500.

Unfortunately for Indian science educators and researchers, other surveys tend to support the broad conclusions of SJTU’s survey, which indicates that India’s once highly-rated science and technology capability is caught in a downward spiral.

” Three years ago the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2001, which pioneered a Technology Achievement Index (TAI), ranking some 150 nations according to their proven ability to absorb new and old technologies, offered hard evidence that India’s much vaunted pool of trained scientists and technical personnel is shrinking. According to the TAI, the gross tertiary science enrollment ratio (i.e percentage of school leavers entering the science stream) in India during the period 1995-97 was a mere 1.7 — cf. 23 percent in South Korea, 27.4 percent in Finland (ranked No.1 in TAI), 13.9 percent in the US, 5.9 percent in China and 3.3 percent in Malaysia.”

If science education across India is in the doldrums, policy failures in government – which has a monopolistic stranglehold over the higher education system – is the cause, rather than falling student interest Is anyone listening?

The second surprise was more global. According to the European Union’s plans for agricultural reforms, subsidies received by farmers will now become their entitlement until 2013. That basically means that free goods are now a right in the European Union. Interestingly, the benefits are bound to be unequal; for small farmers this will translate into greater negative earnings, while big businesses will be happy ’cause the move will fuel the battle for food supremacy. This is how the richest agri-business owner is going to benefit:

The Duke of Westminster, who “owns about 55,000 hectares of farm estates, receives an average subsidy of 300,000 pound sterlings as direct payments, and in addition gets 350,000 pounds a year for the 1,200 dairy cows” he owns. Under the CAP (Common Agricultural Programme) reforms, his subsidy entitlement will remain intact except that the subsidy he receives for the cows will now be shifted to the grasslands that he owns anyway!

So much for helping small-fry.