Few Indians are willing to pursue a career in research in their own country as the enabling environment for it is missing

At the 100th annual session of the Indian Science Congress held in Kolkata earlier this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged scientists to give top priority to research that would address pressing problems in the country, such as energy security, agricultural productivity, safe drinking water and sanitation. He asked scientists across disciplines to collaborate with one another, and with private research labs to foster innovation that would improve living conditions in India.

Last in retaining talent

But if that is to happen, the country would first need an environment for research. A recent survey by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States (http://spectrum.ieee.org/at-work/tech-careers/the-global-brain-trade) contains some revealing numbers. Switzerland has the highest rate of immigrant scientists and the United States, unsurprisingly, is the most popular academic destination around the world. But shockingly for India, 40 per cent of its researchers are emigrating to pursue their research abroad; the aspiring economic powerhouse is at the bottom of the list for retaining research talent. So why does a country with a trillion dollar economy not attract its own researchers? A peek into the state of research in India can give some answers.

In 2011, of the 14,617,000 people who graduated from the colleges in India, 12 per cent pursued post graduate degrees and an abysmal one per cent pursued research in the country. The low interest in research is due to sub standard facilities, which in turn is due to a lack of funding in most research institutes. Indians are willing to pursue research but not in India. In 2011, the number of students from India pursuing higher education (masters and PhD) in the U.S. was 103,895 and they formed 14 per cent of the higher education population in the U.S. alone.

In terms of research productivity, India has 7.8 scientists per 1,000 population compared to 180.66 in Canada, 53.13 in Korea and 21.15 in the U.S. The scarcity in research was vindicated by the number of patents filed in 2010. There were a total of 36,812 patents filed in India, of which only 7,044 were domestic applications and the remaining, foreign patent applications. Of these 7,044 applications, only 1,725 applications were granted patents. While quantity is not necessarily a prescriptive of the quality, it does provide a perspective on emphasis on research in the system.

One of the pillars of higher educational institutes, leave alone research, is the amount of capital that is invested in educational activities. Even in the 12th Five Year Plan proposed by the Planning Commission, the educational expenditure is not anywhere near the proposed target of six per cent of GDP. The investment in higher education as of 2009-10 according to a recent report released by the University Grants Commission (“Higher Education at a glance”) was a paltry 1.25 per cent of GDP. The U.S. on the other hand has a public expenditure at 3.1 per cent (2007) of its almost $15 trillion GDP. Harvard University’s endowment stands at $32 billion whereas the total extramural grants provided to Indian universities put together is about Rs.12 billion! As a first step up, there should be an increase in spending in higher education research to at least two per cent of the GDP in order to try infusing capital into academic research.

The policy document released at the Science Congress in the first week of January was titled “Science, Technology and Innovation.” It contained no details, no road map for research, and was more aspirational than visionary. Besides everything else, India does not enable scientists and corporates to make more revenues from their intellectual property rights. Not only does India suffer from the lack of a culture of research or shortage of funds, but there is also a lack of clarity in matters such as Intellectual Property regulations that could help researchers earn greater revenues.

The Protection and Utilisation of Public Funded Intellectual Property Bill, (PUPFIP), the Indian equivalent of the Bayh-Dohle Act, has been pending in Parliament since 2008. If passed, it could help to leverage the best out of the intellectual properties of patents. A recent report from the Indian School Business (“India R&D 2011 — Industry & Academia Linkages”) estimates that the total R&D spending of the top 100 companies is Rs.11,500 crore. Only 13 per cent of it goes into partnerships with universities. Intellectual property regulation and awareness could assist in increasing this share of spending by corporates in building university research centres.

Alumni involvement

The top 19 out of the 20 universities in the U.S. News rankings have a common dominating denominator. All of them are run predominately by alumni of the institutions. Even in public universities such as Purdue, there is a significant alumni involvement in the boards. In India, this is an idea nonexistent in government institutes and very rare in private institutes.

Alumni involvement ensures that the universities’ interest is the most supreme (especially in an era where education is non profit) and everything else becomes secondary. As such, it would be an interesting idea for the state to impose a minimum 50 per cent involvement of the alumni in the functioning of university boards. This would democratise the process more, and help to nurture talented alumni who could contribute back to the universities.

President Pranab Mukherjee observed at the Science Congress that a Nobel Prize in Indian science was “long overdue,” as if every country has a predetermined right to be given the Nobel. Let’s get the research going first.

(Sriram Balasubramanian is a journalist and writer. Email: sriram2424@yahoo.com and Twitter @Sriram316)