Securing India’s science future

India produces fewer than 1,000 Ph.Ds in engineering stream each year. This trend is partly because of the widespread notion that remuneration in a research career is below par.  

In 2004, while reviewing the science and technology policy of the Government of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam said: “In a world where the powers are determined by the share of the world’s knowledge, reflected by patents, papers and so on…it is important for India to put all her acts together to become a continuous innovator and creator of science and technology intensive products.” The importance of scientific and technological advancement in today’s highly globalised environment cannot be overstated.

If we are to go by an observation in a report by India’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that “the health of a nation depends, among other factors, on the health of the state of its science and technology,” we have cause to be concerned about the health of our nation. In an increasingly competitive global economy, knowledge-driven growth powered by innovation is a critical imperative. While India is uniquely positioned to use technology for progress, it has in the recent past lagged behind considerably in the quality and spread of science research. This is a critical lacuna that could well determine the fate not just of our scientific and developmental future but, more importantly, of our progress as a nation.

Status and challenges

A recent study by Thomson Reuters titled Global Research Report: India concluded that, given ideal conditions, India’s research productivity would be on a par with that of most G8 nations within seven to eight years and that it could probably overtake them in 2015-2020. In the last decade, India has seen its annual output of scientific publications grow from roughly 16,500 in 1998 to nearly 30,000 in 2007. Before we pat ourselves on the back, it would be good to consider things in perspective. Although India produces about 400,000 engineering graduates and about 300,000 computer science graduates every year, just about 20,000 master’s degree holders and fewer than 1,000 Ph.Ds in engineering graduate each year.

In 2007-08, India had about 156 researchers per million in the population, compared with 4,700 per million in the United States. In terms of sheer numbers, in 2007 China had 1,423,000 researchers, second internationally to the United States, which had almost 1,571,000. India by comparison had 154,800. India’s spend on R&D in 2007-08 was about US$ 24 billion compared with China’s investment of about US$ 104 billion back in 2006 and the United States’ US$ 368 billion. These comparative allocations, which have not changed much since then, reveal the gross inadequacy in India’s commitment to research, considering our scientists’ potential and our aspirations as a nation.

A survey of 47 universities conducted by the University Grants Commission in 2007-08 revealed vacancy levels as high as 51 per cent. It is evident that the majority of India’s graduating engineers, particularly the cream, are going directly into the job market – affecting the number and quality of those available for research. This trend is partly because of the widespread notion that remuneration in a research career is below par and partly because of the lack of adequate encouragement and direction for young potential researchers.

Not enough Ph.Ds graduate in India — be it in number or excellence — to meet the growing staff requirements of its universities. As a result, even the quality of faculty has shown a declining trend and this is bound to have serious repercussions on the country’s intellectual edge. Add to this the issues of politicisation of the Indian scientific establishment, particularly in according due recognition, the lack of adequate funding and infrastructure, and the disparity in research funds and facilities available to universities. Further, the long-time policy of target-oriented research in selected thrust areas, as against open-ended research, has often come at the cost of the basic sciences. It is common knowledge that research in basic sciences is a critical pre-requisite for the success of applied sciences and the bedrock of all technological advancement.

Way forward

The key to continued success for India in a globalised knowledge-driven economy is building a higher education system that is superior in quality and committed encouragement of relevant research in science and technology. What is needed is an environment where the government, universities, companies, venture capitalists, and other stakeholders come together for the enablement of the entire science eco-system with an eye on future sustainability.

A manifold increase in the country’s investment in scientific research is only the beginning. The government must play a key role by enhancing the number, quality, and management of science schools focussed on science research. Given the present government’s direction, this is something that could come to pass over the next few years. The IIT model of success needs to be replicated on a far larger scale. Providing the requisite autonomy to research institutions is an important necessity. Professors, scientists, and institution heads are often the people best informed on the necessary conditions required for the advancement of research goals. They must be enabled with the autonomy to create those conditions.

With industry often being the downstream beneficiary of several research efforts, increased interaction between industry and research establishments is important. There needs to be a sound incentive system for the corporate sector involved in scientific R&D as well, with infrastructure and financial benefits, as is the case with the IT industry. This includes viable incentives such as tax breaks for corporate R&D efforts and special economic zones and technology parks for R&D establishments.

In an age where issues of research interest are often global in nature, we must encourage active interaction and exchange with international research institutions. Cross-continental research cooperation and knowledge sharing was at the base of the story of the three winners of the Chemistry Nobel for 2009, among who was Dr Venkataraman Ramakrishnan, of Indian origin. Creating partnerships with relevant peer institutions in India and abroad, hosting events and conferences and getting eminent researchers and scientists to shed light on progress in key research areas and supporting related publications — these measures will go a long way not only in enriching India’s research eco-system but also in enticing potential young researchers to the cause.

For instance, it should be a practice to invite Nobel Prize winners or similar eminent international scientists for seminars with selected young research minds and students in India at least annually. This could prove a valuable source of insight and inspiration to young potentials. In this regard, I would suggest the creation of an institution like the National Science Foundation, endowed with a suitable corpus from key public and private stakeholders, conferred with the responsibility of regularly undertaking such initiatives.

The importance of rewards and recognition for scientific research cannot be understated as a measure to encourage talented youngsters to consider careers in research. There is a need to recognise and applaud the accomplishments of our researchers and scientists, just as we applaud the achievements of our sportspersons. This must include measures such as financial support to encourage students to adopt research careers, suitable incentives, and awards for scientific achievement. For example, the best and brightest top 1000 students across India with the potential and inclination for research could be provided guaranteed funding for their further education and early careers in research. And the private sector could play the role of a patron here.

The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has avowed goals to reduce poverty and stimulate development. One among the many facilitators for this is a focussed investment in science and technology, which the Prime Minister has acknowledged by announcing a doubling of related spend in terms of percentage of GDP over the next couple of years. Parliament’s approval for the creation of a National Science and Engineering Research Board, responsible for funding and furthering scientific research, is laudable and a significant step in the right direction. The Human Resource Development Ministry’s efforts to improve the higher education system and the establishment of five new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research in the past three years will provide a vital boost to the cause of scientific research in India.

The need for a strong science eco-system based on a sound research foundation has an integral connect with India’s development as a world power. India needs the best intellect available for government, business, military, or any aspect of society to strive for global excellence. Their accomplishments need to be lauded and brought to the forefront. Globally, there are several prestigious awards that ensure due recognition, visibility, and reward for outstanding achievements in research. There is a need to emulate this in India to encourage higher levels of research work with an impact on India’s development. One such initiative is the Infosys Prize, which has been instituted to honour outstanding researchers who make a difference to India’s scientific future and to motivate youngsters to consider careers in research. Overall, there is a need for many more integrated, multi-pronged, and multi-institutional interventions to encourage greater participation and strengthening of scientific research in India. Our success in ensuring this over the next few years will determine how best we will be able to secure India’s scientific and developmental future.

(N.R. Narayana Murthy is President of the Board of Trustees, Infosys Science Foundation. He is Chairman and Chief Mentor, Infosys Technologies Limited. Through the Infosys Prize, the foundation seeks to recognise outstanding contributions and achievements of research in India, to elevate the prestige of scientific research, and to inspire young Indians to choose a vocation in the same.)

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 6:12:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Securing-Indiarsquos-science-future/article16891724.ece

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