Releasing the "Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013" at the centenary session of the Indian Science Congress in Kolkata last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that it was intended to "position India among the top five global scientific powers by the year 2020."

India has a new science policy. Releasing the “Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013” at the centenary session of the Indian Science Congress in Kolkata last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that it was intended to “position India among the top five global scientific powers by the year 2020.” It bears recalling that in 1958 both Houses of Parliament adopted a “Scientific Policy Resolution” which, in elegant prose, underscored the importance of science and technology for a developing nation. The government would, the resolution said, “foster, promote, and sustain, by all appropriate means, the cultivation of science and scientific research in all its aspects — pure, applied, and educational.” Subsequent science policies announced by later governments have essentially tweaked the 1958 resolution. Indira Gandhi’s 1983 policy emphasised self-reliance while the 2003 policy announced by Atal Bihari Vajpayee sought to meet the challenges posed by globalisation.

There has been a growing sense of India falling behind in the race to use its scientific capabilities and of China powering ahead. “We produce more science than before, but several more ambitious countries like China and South Korea have outpaced us,” lamented the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister in a 2010 report titled “India as a global leader in science.” China’s investment in research and development has been shooting up at 20 per cent annually over the past 10 years. As a result, that country is currently spending about 1.7 per cent of its GDP on R&D and, in absolute terms, is being outspent only by the U.S. India’s R&D spending, on the other hand, has yet to rise above one per cent of its GDP. As in the 2003 policy, the new science policy too wants to boost the country’s research spending to two per cent of GDP with greater private sector R&D investment. With greater R&D inputs, the country’s share of global trade in high technology products is to be doubled from the current level of around eight per cent. Having a new policy makes sense only if it spurs change; otherwise it is just an exercise in mouthing platitudes. Well-focused government initiatives are needed in a number of areas, rather than just some piecemeal measures, to flesh out the laudable objectives laid out in the science policy. The domestic market must, for instance, be leveraged, such as through appropriate government procurement policies, to allow indigenous technology to flourish and compete internationally. That’s something China has done with remarkable success. Will the Indian government be able to match its words with action?

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