On the one hand, there is the vision of India emerging as a major scientific and technological power in the world. On the other, there is the fear that the strains and limitations that are all too visible in the country’s education and science system could cause it to stumble badly. At a time when rich nations and fast-growing developing countries alike are looking to ensure that science and its associated technological benefits become the bedrock for future competitiveness, India cannot afford to fall behind in this race. In the seven years up to 2007, research publications from India rose by about 80 per cent, noted a recent report from Thomson Reuters; it added that if this trajectory continued, India’s productivity would be “on a par with most G8 nations within 7-8 years and overtake them between 2015-2020.” Inevitably, comparisons are made with neighbouring China. China’s spending on science has risen so rapidly that it is now just behind the United States and Japan in terms of gross expenditure on R&D. It has increased its share of the world’s researchers from 14 per cent in 2002 to about 20 per cent in 2007, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. China has over 1,000 researchers per million inhabitants while India has only one-seventh of that.
“We have worked hard to do what is good for science,” observed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he inaugurated the Indian Science Congress at Thiruvananthapuram recently. “We also know that we need to do much more because scientific capability is what will determine our ability to overcome the challenges which lie ahead.” The Eleventh Five Year Plan, which started in 2007, has quadrupled the outlay on education and trebled governmental investments in science and technology in comparison with the Tenth Plan. But it must not be a matter of simply churning out more science graduates and Ph.Ds. Encouragement and support for young scientists and enthusiastic students to engage in frontline research that interests them is vitally important. Good teachers, fellow students, and facilities are the necessary ingredients for producing good scientists, observed Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan when he addressed a large gathering in Chennai recently. Quoting Dr. Ramakrishnan, the Prime Minister spoke of the need to “liberate Indian science from the shackles and deadweight of bureaucratism and in-house favouritism.” The Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet and the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister are reported to have made a number of recommendations for reducing the red tape. India needs to move quickly on a number of fronts if it is to take its rightful place in the firmament of global science. It is certainly time for action and measurable outcomes.