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India’s newly elected government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has appointed a first-time parliamentarian to be science minister.

Jitendra Singh, 57, a physician — as well as an author and newspaper columnist — was a professor of diabetes and endocrinology at the Government Medical College and Hospital Jammu until 2012, when he became a politician. He ran for the first time as a BJP candidate in the recent parliamentary elections in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and won. On 26 May Prime Minister Narendra Modi inducted Singh into his government as a junior minister, unlike his predecessor, Jaipal Reddy, who held cabinet rank.

Singh has been given independent charge of the departments of science and technology and Earth sciences. The departments of space and atomic energy will continue to be directly under the prime minister as before, but Singh will oversee their activities.

Few in the science community had heard of Singh until he took the oath. “We were expecting a senior figure and veteran politician to head this very important ministry, with cabinet rank, ” says Dipankar Chatterji, a biologist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and president of Bangalore-based Indian Academy of Sciences. “But we have to give the new man a chance, ” he adds. “Being a newcomer does have an advantage as, given his excellent credentials as a physician, he may be a much-needed breath of fresh air.”

C.N.R. Rao, who was science adviser to the previous government, says that the rank of junior minister given to Singh shows that science is not regarded as important by Modi’s government.

Observers say that although it may take some time for the new minister to settle down, he cannot delay the important appointments to top science posts that have been vacant for months. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), with 40 laboratories under its control, has been headless for five months, and since the secretary to the department of science and technology — India’s main agency for funding basic research and promoting science and technology activities — retired in April, his position has not been filled.

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