The massive dissatisfaction over development outcomes will eventually force us to adopt at least some part of the development agenda. It is better that we do this on our own terms and preserve our autonomy and our notion of rigour.
Institutions such as IISc, IITs or IISERs are some of the most eminent institutions in India and are currently headed by very eminent and distinguished academicians, scientists and able administrators. The conduct of Science and Technology (S&T) in the country is directly and indirectly influenced by the conduct, the methods, the topics of research and the notions of rigour and soundness that these institutions practice[1,2].
The shadow under the lamp
Yet all is not well in Indian S&T. The JEE, GATE and other competitive exams now define the teaching of Science at the school level and the meaning of engineering in this country. However, the students selected by such a process have undergone extensive and expensive coaching and have little interest in working in core sectors with Indian companies or agencies. This has seriously hampered our research and the fulfillment of our mandate. Sadly, we have conducted very little research on these exams, their curricula and their formats, the demographics and their overall impact on society.
We also see a dropping quality of PhD applicants, a narrow focus on academic research with little relevance, an over-supply of post-graduates and few openings other than in academics. We also see the newly started IITs and IISERs groping for definition and fighting for the same pool of central funding. The so-called placement problem is acute for these new institutions, esp. the IISERs where there are few pathways for gainful employment for students who do not want to pursue a Ph.D. In fact, the defining feature of Indian elite S&T is the absorption of a small fraction of our graduates into global science or the global economy. The harm done by this is evident across all sectors of the Indian economy .
Then, there is a great disconnect between the state universities and the centrally funded institutions. This has a serious bearing on our post-graduate programs and on the general employability of the college graduate. Moreover, our inability or unwillingness to find regional institutions as partners has severely limited our ability to undertake research in many key areas, e.g., groundwater or sustainable technologies for small enterprises.
The development deficit and its connect with S&T
On the other hand, we also have the development agenda of sadak, bijli, paani, and other material needs of a young and impatient population. We see age-old practices of delivery based on outdated knowledge and a governance which is failing. We also have small, household and rural enterprises, who are our largest employers, struggling in the market place.
An important cause is the absence of the above agenda in our curricula, our research agenda and our modes of engagement. We have not recognized these sectors as essentially engineering and scientific services, but which require an inter-disciplinary and field-oriented methodology within a regional context. We have also failed to formalize these sectors so as to bring out the key processes and problems, ways of measurements, agents and their protocols, in other words, opening them up for analysis and ultimately improving outcomes. If we had done this, perhaps today we would have the necessary empirics to have innovated on new gadgets and processes, and created new job definitions and professions, which bring efficiency and deliver value and actually pay for themselves. Examples of such positions are District Drinking Water Analyst, or District Public Transport Manager, or Cooking Energy Auditor, the City Economist, or even the Scientific Advisor to the District Collector!
I must add that engagement with the development agenda has always been part of the research and training within universities in the West. It was only in 1958 that MIT dismantled the Department of Sanitation Engineering. Or see, for example, the Transportation Center at the University of Toronto or the inter-disciplinary Twente Water Center. Today, various top universities are redefining engineering education, e.g., “Engineering+X” at University of Southern California, Development Engineering at UC Berkeley or the Tata Center at MIT. There is a new focus on engagement, i.e., identifying key stakeholders and establishing direct dialogue with them. Even in colonial times, the Thomson Institute (now IIT Rourkee) was to supply knowledge and engagement to what the colonial administration perceived as its development agenda. It is after independence that we have (i) failed to incorporate the study of basic engineering needs of the common people, and (ii) failed to remain engaged with the state’s programs and processes.
My proposal is to initiate the formalization of the development agenda and reclaim it as an area of interest for our broader science and technology establishment. It is to assert that these areas are indeed amenable to scientific rigour, soundness and rational argument in broader society.
This is to be achieved by our network of centrally funded institutions adopting certain key measures. Perhaps, we can begin with the IITs, IISc and the IISERs. The key steps are:
(i) Each department is to identify 2-3 development sectors for deeper engagement and study. For example, Civil Engg. at IIT Bombay may choose Low-Cost Housing, Mechanical Engg. at IIT Mandi may choose pedestrian bridges for the hills and Chemistry at IISER-Pune may choose regional water quality assessment and analysis.
(ii) In these areas, the departments will develop expertise through field-work, inter-disciplinary training, student-based projects and case-studies and engagement with local and regional agencies. This will be supported by laboratories and testing facilities, technical and coordination staff and faculty leadership. This should eventually lead to key reports and publications which contribute to better practices in the sector.
(iii) Upon maturing, these development sectors should lead to elective courses and course material. These should be extended to regional colleges. This will enable them to participate and contribute into this broader and more effective Science and Technology. 
(iv) The collection of institutions will together evolve common frameworks for coordination, liaison and accounting, leadership, academic and institutional mechanisms of working in inter-disciplinary areas. They will also evolve a common reporting framework such as a new journal or a dedicated stream in Current Science providing an outlet for both national institutions and regional colleges to report progress.
We may also design a common funding scheme, say from DST, faculty incentives and possibly chair positions to give prestige to the program. A more detailed proposal is available herewith .
And its possible impact
In my opinion, such a program will be widely appreciated both outside and inside higher education, in political, social and intellectual circles and also by our alumni. It will be seen as a positive step to broaden and deepen science and technology and strengthen our role in it, and also to provide jobs in the form of new professions. It will also be welcomed by regional institutions for they will see a role for themselves and an outlet for their creative energies. The vehicle of case-studies will allow them to engage with their immediate community and train their students in both social comprehension and scientific temper . Finally, if the IIT Council or IISER Council were to make such a proposal to DST, they would most likely welcome it with open arms.
Perhaps, this may even go upstream and redefine school-level science as broad enough to incorporate the immediate environment such as bus routes and time-tables, as worthy of study, documentation and analysis. This will cause a deepening of scientific temper which will help our common people negotiate for themselves a better deal in the market and in society. Finally, it will show that Science has a method and outcomes not only limited to passing entrance exams or publishing papers.
I think the IISc, IITs and IISERs are well poised for a leadership role in this exciting and challenging mission. Firstly, their own leadership in Indian Science and Engineering will enable the mission to create the institutional space required for others to follow. Moreover, in the form of entities such as CTARA and ASTRA, they have the experience and the intellectual capacity to design this mission and to take it to conclusion.
Finally, I must add that the massive dissatisfaction over development outcomes will eventually force us to adopt at least some part of the development agenda. It is better that we do this on our own terms and preserve our autonomy and our notion of rigour.
I will end with a quote from the concluding paragraph of the mission statement of The March For Science movement: https://www.marchforscience.com/mission/ (accessed on 16th July, 2017).
“The best way to ensure science will influence policy is to encourage people to appreciate and engage with science. That can only happen through education, communication, and ties of mutual respect between scientists and their communities — the paths of communication must go both ways. There has too long been a divide between the scientific community and the public. We encourage scientists to reach out to their communities, sharing their research and its impact on people’s everyday lives. We encourage them, in turn, to listen to communities and consider their research and future plans from the perspective of the people they serve. We must take science out of the labs and journals and share it with the world.”
The world of Science too is groping for ideas and mechanisms to re-engage with the community and re-establish its credentials as a pillar of freedom, prosperity and sustainability. In fact, this is the new frontier that Science must cross. And it would only be befitting that an innovative response should come from the largest democracy of this world.
 An older version of this letter was sent on 15th April, 2017 to Prof. Khakhar and Prof. Anurag Kumar as a personal communication. The reply of Prof. Anurag Kumar informing the author on the activities of IISc on the development agenda is gratefully acknowledged.
 Some of these arguments have appeared in an Op-ed article in the Indian Express on 5th August, 2017.
 The AICTE Review: An opportunity for engineering education reform. Milind Sohoni. In CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 110, NO. 2, 25 JANUARY 2016, pp159-156.
 This approach has been implemented at CTARA. See for example our course on water and development and the case-studies there. (http://www.cse.iitb.ac.in/~sohoni/TD603)
 The Regional Knowledge and Practice. Milind Sohoni. Manuscript, https://www.cse.iitb.ac.in/~sohoni/RE.pdf
 See Scientific temper and education: a framework for discussion Natarajan Panchapakesan, CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 113, NO. 9, 10 NOVEMBER 2017 pp 1655-56, and also an Op-ed by this author in Indian Express on 22nd December, 2017.
Milind Sohoni is a Professor of Computer Science at IIT-Bombay and is also deeply interested in development theories, especially in the areas of education and drinking water.
Update: This piece was slightly edited on 12-Jan-2018 to incorporate the section headings.