Embarrassment of the riches

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Embarrassment of the riches

Dipankar Chatterji

One of the inevitable outcomes of a           as a duly signed certificate of utilization.   were originally designed for much smaller
growing economy is the unequal distri-        Despite all these hurdles, readers of this     sums over the same period. The utiliza-
bution of wealth which makes a group of       column will agree that this is still a good    tion of the first year’s allocation is a tre-
people or organization very rich, as well     way of spending money. Because the             mendous task, which snowballs into the
as susceptible to jealousy from less en-      person who asks for a grant, called the        next and subsequent years’ fund release.
dowed peers. At times such envy can be        principal investigator (PI), takes full res-   It is expected from the institutions to
focused into healthy competition, which       ponsibility with clarity in thought and ac-    produce utilization certificates at the end
culminates into further development           tion.                                          of each financial year and money is not
beneficial for the society as a whole. Re-       The situation gets complicated when         used if the bills are not paid for.
sponsibility of the state is to ensure that   the institutional head asks for a large           The matter becomes a grave concern
such unequal distribution ultimately re-      sum of money with no proper aim and            because the demand for money increases
sults in productivity, which trickles down    objective. Many a time institutions do         in the subsequent years. Thus, spending
to one and all and everyone prospers.         receive a large compensation as a good-        becomes the rate-determining step in a
However, availability of funds or for that    will gesture or during the financial year-     cascade of events and the efficiency of a
matter any consumable material with           end, when the funding agencies are in a        head is measured against how much he
limited lifetime is not always beneficial;    hurry to spend. Most interestingly, many       can spend in a short period of time! Here
smartness of the administration and ada-      a times institutions request money with-       the story takes an interesting turn. Multi-
ptability to procedural changes to envis-     out knowing how to spend it. This is a         ple instruments are purchased without
age newer ways to utilize excess money        social cooperative phenomenon; another         clarity of usage. The equipment to start
or material is at a premium in such cases.    institute has asked for it!                    with, are not need-based; rather a keen
The first example which comes to our             In biology, particularly that of lower      competition among a few rich institu-
mind is the case of starvation in the         organism or bacteria, an exciting field of     tions. Each wants to spend more or out-
country at times, in spite of bumper          study is emerging called ‘Quorum sens-         smart others on the basis of some ad hoc
crops in a given year.                        ing’ or cell–cell communication. During        idea of future need. Equipment are
   Educationists and scientists are not out   the early phase of growth, a bacterium         ordered, because they are the safest way
of this circle and as time passes, we will    exhibits independent behaviour, but adapts     to spend money and are also the quick-
be drawn into this circle more and more.      to a sedentary lifestyle at a very late        est. Construction of a new laboratory or a
Growing economy demands trained man-          stage (a sure sign of aging), when each        new campus is time-consuming and has
power. Consequently, budgetary alloca-        cell knows what the other does and be-         more restrictions to start with.
tion for training, education and research     haves accordingly. The chemistry behind           Machines are purchased without nego-
is growing, which is indeed a welcome         quorum sensing is interesting. A small         tiation and at times kept in crates un-
sign. However, the procedure for spend-       organic molecule appears to control this       opened for months together slowly
ing the money has not changed irrespec-       behaviour, the level of which is main-         loosing their utility, purpose and even
tive of the unusually generous funds          tained by the product of two genes and in      warranty period. It is interesting that
made available.                               some bacteria there are too many copies        some senior bureaucrats are not unaware
   When an individual scientist writes for    of these genes. We do not know yet, why        of this.
governmental support, he has a specific       there are multiple copies, and in a recent        Let there be more centres and generous
plan and clear objectives, and the demand     review (Römling, V. et al., Mol. Micro-        funds, but let the financial brains of the
for money has proper justification. No        biol., 2005, 57, 629), the phrase ‘embar-      country change the rule of yearly sub-
individual asks for few crores of rupees      rassment of the riches’ is used to explain     mission of the utilization certificate. Let
to buy equipment and then decides what        quorum sensing. The title of this column       the money be given to an institution for
to work on! Even then to spend a large        is borrowed from the same, keeping in          an overall period of 3–5 years, at the end
sum of money is not easy. One need to         mind the similarity, no matter how slen-       of which excess money can be returned.
invite tenders, proprietary item claim, no    der it is.                                     Secondly, if someone cannot spend the
objection certificate, comparative state-        Several new institutions of learning        money given to him in the first year, let
ments, etc. and the procedure may take        are being planned in our country with a        him not be penalized for the same. Let
several months in the best of places.         large budget, and this poses a tremen-         the excess money be returned to the gov-
What is still tougher is to submit a utili-   dous challenge to the heads of these in-       ernment, with a clear understanding that
zation certificate at the end of the year,    stitutions. This is the problem of plenty!     when needed this money will be released
to claim release of funds for the next        The money must be spent in a short             in subsequent years. Let the release of
year. A delay here could actually block       period of time, where each process of          funds in the second year be not con-
the release of grant for the subsequent       spending, be it development of the cam-        nected with utilization in the previous
year. Proof of commitment of funds or         pus, recruitment of new faculty or pur-        year. Let uncontrolled spending be not
installation of an equipment will not suf-    chase of equipment, has to go through the      the only measure of success for an indi-
fice; rather bill payment is a must as well   same archaic rules and controls which          vidual or an institution.

130                                                                                 CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 93, NO. 2, 25 JULY 2007
   I have not seen the development of       international level go hand in hand over      ance from the faculty during frequent
science in the West or Japan. I have        a period of 2–3 years. Scientists are         visits or from a distance.
worked and visited institutions which       given enough time to relocate. During            It appears to me that we are in a hurry
had been established much before. How-      the interim period their job from a dis-      to spend. Are we embarrassed of our
ever, I have seen intimately the develop-   tance is to hire students, assistants, plan   riches?
ment of the Institute of Biomedical         and purchase of equipment and design
Sciences, Academica Sinica in Taiwan        of the laboratory space. The end-point of
(ROC) and the development of institu-       the whole process is the actual joining       Dipankar Chatterji is in the Molecular
tions in South Korea. They follow a pat-    of the faculty in person, by which time       Biophysics Unit, Indian Institute of Sci-
tern. Construction of campus, a modern      work in the laboratory is already started     ence, Bangalore 560 012, India
one, and recruitment of scientists at the   by the students and post-docs with guid-      e-mail:

CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 93, NO. 2, 25 JULY 2007                                                                                   131

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