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Tue, 08 Apr 2003

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On the importance of Academic Freedom

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When Homi Bhabha convinced Jawaharlal Nehru to create the department of atomic energy (DAE) he also persuaded the then Prime Minister that it was important for that department to fund research in the basic sciences. At the same time, he felt that basic science research could only grow in an atmosphere of academic freedom. Thus it was that the aided institutes were created as ``autonomous'' bodies while the nuclear research centres were created as government services. Over the years the leadership of the DAE seems to have slowly lost sight of this important principle--the DAE has a mandate to fund research in the basic sciences while allowing the aided institutes to function as freely as a university anywhere in the world.

An important component of this academic freedom is the exchange of ideas within the international scientific community. While the laws of the land must be obeyed by any organisation, it is a gross violation of academic freedom if visits of academics to and from other countries are subjected to ``vetting'' by funding authorities--especially when such visits are supported from external sources. To mention only one statute that governs this scientific exchange we need look no further than the charter of the UNESCO to which India is a signatory. Let us not forget how greatly Indian science (especially in the areas of Theoretical Physics and Mathematics) has benefitted through its interaction with the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste (a UNESCO funded organisation); which moreover, is an institute of which the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai is a federated member.

The DAE has every right to ask the IMSc to be accountable for the funds it provides for the latter. In fact the IMSc provides annual reports and has more recently produced a detailed ``internal review''. All expenditures are authorised through properly delegated committees and finances are audited as required by the funding authority. However, if the DAE were to now insist on closer control over the academic and research programmes of the IMSc, this would be a direct violation of the principle on which the aided institutes such as IMSc have been founded.

Very specifically, I believe that the IMSc has the wherewithal to decide on which scientists are worth inviting for scientific interaction. If the law of the land permits these individuals to visit (by granting an appropriate visa) I do not see why the DAE should interfere. Similarly, I believe the IMSc is capable of deciding whether its research activities would be benefitted by the visit of some of its scientists to other institutes or even whether one of its scientists can take leave of absence. If upon examination of the annual report of the IMSc, the DAE comes to the conclusion that the IMSc is making erroneous decisions or indeed is incapable of making such decisions then it (the DAE) could threaten the withdrawal of its funds--and that would be the proper approach. The kind of micro-management that the DAE now wishes to insist on is the wrong approach.

Finally, I believe that academic freedom is an important enough principle that an Institute (especially one in the theoretical sciences) could insist on even if it becomes necessary to look for alternate sources of funds. The Director of IMSc is one of the notable academics of the country and not an officer of the DAE. He should note that faculty of the IMSc will fully support him if he wishes to evolve a mechanism to attain academic freedom at the same level as envisaged by the founding fathers of Indian science.

Kapil Hari Paranjape 2003-04-08


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