Paralysis in science policies

Neglect of research in higher education has led to very low research intensity. Ninety per cent of our universities end up as teaching institutes where research is given a low priority for lack of funds

Updated - November 17, 2021 01:02 am IST

Published - February 07, 2014 12:44 am IST

In the last few years, the government has announced a number of policies in science and technology which include bills on patents, specialised innovation universities and regulatory measures. These are supposed to power India’s growth engine via science and technology and, at the same time, enable the country to keep pace with the comity of nations. Unfortunately, the Manmohan Singh government’s policy paralysis is not just confined to the social and economic sectors, but also manifests itself quite prominently across various segments of science and technology institutions including research in universities. The failure of the government in this area stems from poor governance mechanisms, as from low priority accorded to science and technology in the overall budget.

Falling behind R&D

Ever since the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power, Dr. Singh has promised to increase the gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD). He committed two per cent of GDP and reiterated it every year since 2007 at the annual session of the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA). In the last nine years, Indian GERD to GDP either stagnated at 0.9 per cent or even relatively declined adjusted to inflation; 58 per cent of GERD is consumed by the strategic sectors (atomic energy, defence and space research) and about 29 per cent is met by the private sector. So, what is left for civilian R&D, spanning a dozen or so science agencies, is rather pathetic. Look at what is happening in Asia! The Chinese GERD witnessed a dramatic increase from one per cent to 1.84 per cent of GDP in the last decade. In 2012, Japan spent 3.26 per cent, South Korea 3.74 per cent, and Singapore 2.8 per cent. After a decade, the government announced a new Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013 or STIP 2013. The scientific community and the nation were left disappointed as the government had failed to fulfil its earlier commitment. There has been no commitment to increase public R&D. The government will only match the private R&D investment to bring it to the level of two per cent of GDP. When is this going to happen?

Realistic goals?

The new policy envisages “positioning India among the top five global scientific powers by 2020,” increasing the number of full-time research and development personnel by two-thirds within five years, and increasing publications from the current 3.5 per cent of global share to around seven per cent by 2020. Not only this, the policy aims at increasing the publication record in the world’s top one per cent of journals fourfold. India has already fallen behind China and emerging economies on these indicators. For instance, India produced three times the science output of China in the 1990s with a comparable GERD. Today, China has overtaken India by more than three times. It is the same in the case of patents. Why have we fallen behind so much? This is not unrelated to massive R&D investments by China in the last decade. The continuing policy paralysis in science and technology is visible across various segments of S&T. Even after the Fukushima disaster, Dr. Singh has been relentlessly batting for new nuclear plants costing several billions of dollars in the coming decade. The newly inaugurated plant complex at Gorakhpur, Haryana, is estimated at Rs.23,502 crore. According to research studies, just 25 per cent of the future nuclear budget for renewable energy sources (wind, solar, biomass etc) will generate almost double the energy planned in a more sustainable manner. Ninety per cent of water in India is consumed by agriculture, yet we have no inclusive energy-water policy. The list runs across several sub-sectors. Let us look at two of them.

R&D in higher education has been the prime victim of policy paralysis. There are over 600 universities and 30,000 colleges with a GERD of around 18. Though universities contributed 52 per cent of the total national research publication output in the last decade, they were allocated a dismal 4.1 per cent of GERD. In fact, this has been the case for six decades since independence. Universities in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 25 countries accounted for 20 per cent and Japanese universities accounted for around 15 per cent of GERD in the last decade. Even Chinese universities increased their share of GERD from five per cent in the 1990s to 12 per cent currently. The neglect of research in higher education has led to very low research intensity; 90 per cent of our universities end up as teaching institutes where research is given a low priority for lack of funds. Policy measures to increase research intensity in universities and nurture them to attain world-class standards in China, South Korea, Singapore and Japan were a part of their respective national innovation strategies since the 1990s. Such policies enabled two to six universities in these countries to be listed in the World’s Top 100 University Rankings in recent years. India could not register even one. Just four to five universities figure in the list of 400 or 500. STIP 2013 is silent on strengthening research in higher education. Ninety per cent of the National Knowledge Commission’s recommendations remain unimplemented as much as the proposal to create 14 innovation universities. Until the higher education sector is given its due importance in the national innovation system and allocated at least 10 per cent of GERD, it will continue to remain sub-critical at the national level and we will fall behind our Asian neighbours.


After the President of India declared 2010–2020 the “Decade of Innovation,” STIP 2013 proposed new schemes such as the “Risky Idea Fund” and “Small Idea Small Money.” The government launched the India Inclusive Innovation Fund (IIIF) under the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model, with the government chipping in with just two per cent of the budget. But private partners have hardly evinced any enthusiasm to invest in this scheme. Is the government serious? The policy paralysis in science and technology innovation can be seen from the dismal amount of money allocated to a dozen innovation schemes under the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). Out of the total budget of Rs.2,998 crore given to the DSIR in 2011, only Rs.155 crore went to innovation schemes. And, of the Rs.2,349 crore given to the DST in 2012, only Rs.57 crore went to innovation schemes.

With 90 per cent of Indian labour in the informal sector and faced with dwindling fortunes of rural agricultural activity, millions will migrate from the rural to urban areas in the coming decade. The UPA government launched a number of schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme; Bharat Nirman; Indira Awaas Yojna; Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission; Health Mission, among others. Besides problems underlying their governance and implementation, which are well known, they lack an institutional framework to infuse employment potential with skills, training and grass-root innovation. There is hardly any serious policy perspective or thinking to create institutional avenues for vocational training to infuse skills to labour in the informal sector. There are about 7,500 Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) with the overall intake capacity of 75,000. With the growing demand for technicians and an expanding informal sector, one can imagine the task ahead. Long-term solutions to problems here are so complex and are becoming even more interconnected. We have so far failed to evolve any strategy to connect with these schemes at the “bottom of the pyramid.” IIIF is a good scheme if it gets off the ground with a full budget. In any case, such schemes managed by corporate fund managers are relevant more at the “middle of the pyramid” and not the “bottom.” We urgently need to build and strengthen intermediary institutions to forge linkages between formal and informal institutional structures. It is time the government wakes up to addressing the impending S&T policy paralysis before it is too late.

(V.V. Krishna is professor in science policy, Centre for Studies in Science Policy, School of Social Sciences, JNU, Delhi.)

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