A House for the Social Sciences
By Pulapre Balakrishnan
There have been five reviews of the ICSSR (henceforth Council) in the past four decades. The Committee to Review the Functioning of ICSSR though the latest one is, however, the first to be constituted by the Government of India. The ones preceding were all constituted by the Council itself. The provenance of the present initiative is significant, as the ICSSR is funded by the government. And as we will see, as we proceed here, funding is a significant element in determining the future of the ICSSR and thus of the social science research in the country. Also, the government has credited itself by appointing Deepak Nayyar, Kirit Parikh and Bakul Dholakia. They bring high stature apart from a diversity of professional experience to the membership of this committee. However, in the choice of the disciplines represented by them the Government has shown itself to be less than imaginative. “Are there no social scientists in this country other than the economists?” would be a reasonable query! So, despite the superbe credentials of the membership, its composition is likely to have raised eyebrows at the very start. It is of course altogether a different matter that the members have shown themselves to be catholic in their approach as judged by the report that they have produced, which is what matters.
The Committee has at the outset stated clearly the objective of the enquiry. It is “to evaluate the role of the Council in fostering social science research and to suggest ways to improve its functioning.” (p. 6) The core of the Report is a skeletal but highly effective analysis of the state of the ICSSR. It’s distinctive character is a quantitative approach, graphs, pie charts and all, usually unexpected in a report submitted to the Government of India. Six aspects are investigated, being: a comparative study of the grants to the ICSSR in relation to those to the scientific establishment of India, key features of ICSSR grants to its institutes, the performance of the ICSSR institutes in terms of some accepted yardsticks, disbursal of ICSSR fellowships, disbursal of ICSSR research projects, and the record of completion of the ICSSR projects.
The overriding message of the Report is of the poor state of funding of the ICSSR and its institutes, and the data presented is compelling. It is demonstrated, for instance, that over the period 2005-06 to 2009-10, the total grant to ICSSR was only about 2.3 percent of that received by Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. That averaging leaves out trends is apparent from the graph (p. 12) in the Report which shows that over this period the funding to ICSSR has remained almost constant while that to the CSIR has increased quite sharply, and that to the UGC very sharply indeed. It is now possible to anticipate the point made in the Report that the grants to ICSSR have also declined in real terms over this period. No further evidence of the blatant bias in the funding of research between the sciences and the humanities is needed. But the Report makes another point that is interesting. This relates to the record of the ICSSR itself on the funding issue. It is that, over the very period being considered, an increasing share of the government’s grant to the ICSSR is being spent by the ICSSR on itself rather than on the institutes under its umbrella. By 2010 the relative spending on the ICSSR secretariat and the institutes had come close to the ‘fifty-fifty mark’. While short-term spikes may be needed to fund capital expenditure at headquarters, this trend would be difficult to justify into an indefinite future, as the institutes is where the research actually takes place. We find then that the institutes have subjected to something akin to a pincer movement with the government reducing grants to the ICSSR and the institutes finding their share of this shrinking fund shrinking further. In a sense, drawing attention to the parlous state of social science research in the country is the signal contribution of the Report.
The other important information contained in the Report is the performance of the ICSSR supported-institutes in terms of publications. First, the output at an average of one article per faculty per year is low considering that these are mainly research bodies with very little teaching to be done. This evaluation must stand even after taking into account that the ICSSR institutes do a certain amount of report writing and training for the state governments which diverts faculty time away from academic research. The second aspect is that there is not much of a variation between the institutes in terms of the publications per faculty member. This suggests that at least some of the underpinnings of the low observed published research are common to the ICSSR system. It implies a possible role for the Council in attempting a generic rectification, though, as I shall suggest below, its capacity may be limited. The Report then considers the disbursal of fellowships (doctoral, general, senior and national) by region and disciplines. The Committee concludes that while there does not appear to be any geographical bias in the distribution of doctoral fellowships by discipline there is a bias towards Delhi when the distribution of the research fellowships is considered. Elsewhere, the Committee speaks of a “collective view” (p. 9) in southern India that the Council favours the Delhi region on this score. While I can see that the Committee has shown an admirable transparency in airing the view of a section of the stakeholders, I believe that they may have been somewhat lax in presenting this view uncritically. It is after all the case that there is a much greater interest in the social science research in northern India and that a significant portion of the country’s social science researchers are located in Delhi. A statistical exercise that can contribute to a somewhat better understanding of this issue would be an analysis of the proportion of successful applications by region. However, even this exercise would have to be corrected for the quality of the application. But when everything has been said and done, the Report’s reference to a perceived “patronage” (p. 9) in the disbursal of senior and national fellowships is a matter that the ICSSR must address urgently. For a start, announcing on its website the procedure for selection would help.
Beyond the quantitative analysis in two concluding chapters the Committee presents its views on ‘Problems and Issues of the ICSSR System’ and ‘Recommendations’. In keeping with the overall texture of the Report the writing here is spare, illuminating and sure about what is proposed. In the first of these chapters, the issues studied are ‘Resources and Finance’, ‘Research Projects and Fellowships’, ‘Governance’, ‘Autonomy and Accountability’, ‘Quality of Research’ and, tantalisingly enough, ‘Missed Opportunities’. It would be agreed that this is a relevant and imaginative set of topics. In my review, however, I must confine myself to the main observations made by the Committee. On the question of the resources made available by the government via the ICSSR, here the Report only reiterates what has already been revealed in the preceding quantitative analysis, namely, that the “… social science research remains underfunded in India (italics as in the original), in comparison with research in Science and Technology.” (p. 37) On governance, the Committee speaks of “glaring lacunae in the existing ….. recruitment practices.” (p. 39) The focus, however, is not solely on the ICSSR. It is pointed out that the institutes under its umbrella too pay less attention to this issue than they should. On autonomy and accountability, it is correctly argued that a precarious financial situation threatens the autonomy of the Council and the institutes under its wing. In particular, the threat due to a heavy dependence of the institutes on project finance is flagged. However, egregiously, the question of the accountability of the ICSSR and the institutes is overlooked. In fact, accountability does not get much attention in the Report as a whole. Surely this will not do? After all, public funding of any activity has to be justified in terms of the public good. Neither the nomenklatura of the Former Soviet Union nor the clerics of ancient India can serve as model for a contemporary democracy. There can be no unaccountable superstrata living at the expense of a general population poorer than them. Very likely, the public occasionally see public-sector academics in this very light. Similar to the skirting of the issue of accountability, when it comes to the quality of the research output too the Report pulls its punches, preferring to rest content with referring to “a high degree of variation” across the ICSSR institutes and to a “general perception that … there has been a steady decline.” (pp. 41-42) A frontal assessment of research quality ought to have been attempted, or at least the need for it acknowledged. Finally we come to missed opportunities. The Committee sets itself a high bar in addressing this aspect, but its analysis of it is not too impressive. The only noteworthy points are “ICSSR presence has largely been missing in the policy space” and also “in emerging areas of inter-disciplinary research, within and beyond the social sciences, involving topical issues like climate change, public health ….”. (p. 42) This last observation is valuable and constructive in its implications. I am reminded of the observation by Pierre Bourdieu (2003, p. 21) that the ideas of the extreme right in Europe came quickly to fill “the vacuum” left in the wake of the collapse of Soviet Communism. Western social thinkers such as Anthony Giddens may have managed only weak concoctions such as “the third Way”, but they did rise to the challenge. Within the Indian social sciences there has not been very much more than lamentation at the arrival of “neo-liberalism”. It is still not too late to offer a coherent critique of the economic policy that had reigned till 1991 and the reforms that have replaced it. The blame for this cannot be laid at the doors of the Council but must be shared by the social science community.
The final chapter of the Report is titled ‘Restructuring and redefining of the ICSSR’, and contains 32 recommendations. These have been gathered under the rubrics ‘Architechture’, ‘Research, ‘Finances’ and ‘Institutes’. As I cannot hope to cover even a small part of the recommendations I shall cherry pick from among the thirty two. Under architechture, one recommendation is that the Chairman of the Council should be a “distinguished academic with leadership qualities”. (p. 44) One can only cheer at this, for in the past it has at times also been a sinecure held by grandees who rarely ventured out of Lutyens’ Delhi. Perhaps we may henceforth imagine a Chairperson who travels the length and breadth of this country, spreading her enthusiasm for the social sciences and breathing encouragement to young researchers! However, the recommendation of an 18-member Council itself leaves me cold. Large committees of course serve a certain representational mandate but are ineffective when it comes to managing change, the need of the hour at the ICSSR. Size could contribute to dysfunctionality. This is perhaps the understanding which underlies the procedure whereby a bill in the Lok Sabha is first referred to a standing committee for whetting and less cumbersome formulation before it is allowed to be debated by the house itself. On research the recommendations are more procedural than substantive, focusing on the steps to be taken in the selection of fellows and the award of grants. This is useful detail of course, including the additional suggestion that the institutes must network among themselves. On finances, the Report really comes into its own. The recommendations may of course have been anticipated from the quantitative analysis with which it commences. There is assertion of the need for parity with the scientific research establishment, assured funding for salaries in the institutes, performance-based rewards for the better performing among the latter and the establishment of a very substantial corpus for the ICSSR, with initial contribution from the government. For those with a yen for numbers, the recommendations are that the grant be increased ten fold over the next two years and the corpus amount to Rs. 1, 000 crores. Finally, to the institutes, which are the sites of research. Here the Report is less than definitive. Of course the point that credible social science research requires untied funding, which is repeated here, is well taken. However, the Committee could have been more assertive by asserting that the institutes need to take destiny in their own hands. Overall, there is little by way of such a suggestion. The institutes, by default, are turned into passive recipients of largesse. It needs to be recognised that there is not much the ICSSR itself can do to raise the quality of research in the institutes as the latter have independent governing bodies. This is where the possibility of an explicit mandate issued by the Council to the institutes comes in. What should the institutes be doing? The Report misses a trick when it remains silent on this. It treads on somewhat conventional ground by citing the poor presence of publications in the list of “top shot” journals. This is of course an important indicator and it is appropriate to draw attention to it. However, what about the question of whether the ICSSR institutes are expanding our knowledge and understanding of India? After all, there are worthwhile engagements that may not aspire to publication in international journals. Think of the mapping of ground water resources or, again, of the impact on our lives of the gradual disappearance of the precious fauna and flora of this country. More importantly, at a necessary intellectual level, we would like to know if is there an autonomous social-science discourse in this country or is the research merely derivative. Recently Claude Alvares (2011) has written of the debilitating bondage that ties the Indian social scientist to the European paradigm. This is a serious charge, and the claim needs to be dispassionately assessed. It can only come out of a more holistic approach to evaluation. Only the ICSSR, or a committee investigating it, can ascertain the value of publicly-funded research. But this is only a passing thought. The Committee to Review the Functioning of the ICSSR have produced a fine study. They have kept an eye on the quality and resisted the temptation of playing to the gallery by stressing the scaling up of faculty or research fellowships. Instead, Deepak Nayyar, Kirit Parikh and Bakul Dholakia have conceived of a house fit for the social sciences in India. It is now left to government to give birth to this vision and to the social scientists to keep it alive and kicking.
Alvares, C. (2011) “A Critique of Eurocentric Social Science and the Question of Alternatives”,
‘Economic and Political Weekly’, May 28.
Bourdieu, P. (2003) “For a Scholarship with Commitment”, in ‘Firing Back’, London: Verso.