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First, the basic sciences

India needs to invest more widely and deeply in scientific enterprise

Last month, theoretical physicist and futurist Michio Kaku tweeted: “The economics of space travel have changed. It cost about $100 million to produce The Martian with Matt [Damon]. But the Indians sent their probe to Mars for $70 million… They should give an Oscar for the best supporting rocket!” The tweet attracted about 123 comments that ranged from outrage that Indians should spend this much on space probes rather than on education or hospitals to “I am proud to be an Indian.” These reactions alert us to a deeper question: are Indians investing enough in science, and how should this investment be apportioned?

As per data provided by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, India invests about 0.8% of its GDP on research and development, and supports 156 researchers per million of population. The figures for China are 2%, and 1,113, respectively. China’s investment is now comparable to any developed country, with Germany standing at 2.9% and 4,363 researchers and the U.S. at 2.8% and 4,231. In 2000, China had invested only about 0.9% of its GDP on research and development, but this was steadily ramped up and in 2010 stood at 1.71%. India invested 0.74% in 2000, and increased this to 0.82% in 2010. While China took it up to 2.1% in 2016, in India it came down to 0.63% in 2015. These figures ignore the reality of what science has become in the last two decades.

The Raman effect, discovered by C.V. Raman, the only Indian Nobel Laureate in Physics, is a widely used tool of analysis in chemistry and physics. It was discovered on February 28, 1928 with relatively meagre resources available in the labs set up by Raman. The discovery’s frugal spirit is very much part of the mental makeup of Indian scientists today, as evinced by Michio Kaku’s Tweet.

However, today, while there is theoretical and even experimental work that can be done by small groups with a low budget, many pressing problems in science demand larger investments, including resources, funding and human capital. The Indian Space Research Organisation has quietly and efficiently carried out large projects, but such projects have not been exactly welcomed in basic sciences. Bigger projects involve coordination of the work of several hundred people and international collaborations; they need physical space and funding. They challenge the mindset of doing science in isolation, within labs, and as unnoticed by society as possible. Canada made this transition in the late 1980s with its first big investment in science — the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. Since then, it has not looked back.

Even to tackle climate change and its anticipated fallout, manage food, energy and growth requirements of a rising population and cope with health hazards, we need critical and creative thinking that can only evolve parallel to investment in basic sciences research.

Nobel prizes and international acclaim are just one, largely secondary, aspect. To develop a meaningful and scientific handle over impending crises, India needs to invest more widely and deeply in scientific enterprise.

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Printable version | Jul 12, 2020 3:51:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/first-the-basic-sciences/article23229395.ece

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