Indian Physicist Gets Top Science Post

NEW DELHI, INDIA--India's new prime minister has named a former physics professor and senior party official to oversee the twin posts of science and technology and human resources, which includes higher education. The appointment of Murli Manohar Joshi as a Cabinet-ranked minister is seen as a hopeful sign that the new government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was sworn in yesterday, is prepared to boost the sagging fortunes of academic research.

"For once, a person who understands science and higher education will be at the helm of affairs," says Laxman Singh Kothari, a theoretical physicist and former head of the physics department at the University of Delhi. Indian universities have suffered steep budget cuts over the past several years, along with diminishing enrollment in the sciences as students seek more lucrative fields.

Joshi, 64, is an atomic spectroscopist who taught at the University of Allahabad for more than 30 years before retiring in 1994. He is considered one of the hard-liners in Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist party that captured a plurality of seats in this month's general election.

The new minister says that India's elite university-based research centers should receive enough funding "to compete with any international institution." In a bid to raise educational achievement for women, whose literacy rate is half that of men, he has promised an "all-out effort to make education free for girls [through the] college level, including professional courses of study." Joshi is also likely to oppose global agreements on product patents and intellectual property rights, such as those spelled out by the World Trade Organization, explaining that "we will assert more robustly India's national interests and hope to create a world order which is more equitable, humane, and free of exploitation."

As a scientist and political heavyweight within his party, Joshi is also expected to be an influential voice in the government's nuclear weapons policy. Vajpayee has already announced his intention to review that policy with the option of making nuclear weapons an integral part of the country's national defense.