Imparting direction to science in India

While it is a mixed bag as far as the metrics on scientific research are concerned, the draft policy seeks a new path

February 27, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 01:09 am IST

National Science Day, on February 28 , is a moment to celebrate the progress that India has made in science and technology research, thanks to its science policies. It is also an opportunity to ponder about the problems that we face in research. As for the metrics on scientific research in India, there is the good news, the not-so-good news, and some hope.

Publications and patents

The good news: from the report published by the National Science Foundation of the U.S. in December 2019, India was the third largest publisher of peer-reviewed science and engineering journal articles and conference papers , with 135,788 articles in 2018. This milestone was achieved through an average yearly growth rate of 10.73% from 2008, which was greater than China’s 7.81%. However, China and the United States had about thrice and twice the number, respectively, of India’s publications.

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The not-so-good news is that publications from India are not impactful. From the report, in the top 1% of the most cited publications from 2016 (called HCA, or Highly Cited Articles), India’s index score of 0.7 is lower than that of the U.S., China and the European Union. An index score of 1 or more is considered good. The inference for India is that the impact, and hence the citation of publications from India, should improve.

The other relevant report is on patents filed by India. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) through their Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) is the primary channel of filing international patent applications. In its report for 2019, WIPO says India filed a modest number of 2,053 patent applications . Compared to the 58,990 applications filed by China and 57,840 by the U.S., India has a long way to go. This was the first time that China filed more patent applications than the U.S.

The Indian Government put in place the National Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Policy in 2016 to “stimulate a dynamic, vibrant and balanced intellectual property rights system”. One of the objectives is human capital development. The mission to foster innovation, replicate it at scale and commercialise it is a work in progress consequent to the policy. However, we need hawk-eye’s focus à la China which filed just 276 patent applications in 1999 but rose to become an innovation titan in 2019.

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Science policies over time

India realised early as a republic the need to use science to become a welfare state. As Robert Browning said in “Apollo and the Fates”, ‘Tis Man’s to explore..., ... Up and down, inch by inch, with the taper his reason’, it behoved us to chart new frontiers in science that would suit our priorities.

There have been four science policies till now, after 1947, with the draft of the fifth policy having been released recently. India’s first science policy adopted in 1958, Scientific Policy Resolution, aimed to develop scientific enterprise and lay the foundation for scientific temper. It led to the establishment of many research institutes and national laboratories, and by 1980, India had developed advanced scientific infrastructure with sufficient scientific personnel. The focus in the second science policy, Technology Policy Statement, in 1983, was technological self-reliance and to use technology to benefit all sections of the society, while strengthening research in fields such as electronics and biotechnology.

The Science and Technology Policy 2003, the first science policy after the economic liberalisation of 1991, aimed to increase investment in research and development and brought it to 0.7%. The Scientific and Engineering Research Board (SERB) was established to promote research.

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In 2013, India’s science policy included Innovation in its scope and was called Science, Technology and Innovation Policy. The focus was to be one of the top five global scientific leaders, which India achieved through building partnerships with States, establishing more research and development centres and collaborating in international projects such as the Large Hadron Collider in the European Union.

The draft of the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 (STIP2020) , the fifth science policy that was released in January 2021 offers hope to research in India: it has an ambitious vision to “double the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) researchers, Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D (GERD) and private sector contribution to the GERD every 5 years” and to “position India among the top three scientific superpowers in the next decade”. STIP2020 defines an Open Science Framework which will create a “one nation, one subscription” solution that will give all individuals and institutions in India access to all top journals through a central subscription. This scheme will provide fillip to improving access to knowledge. It also defines strategies to improve funding for and participation in research. India’s Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D (GERD) is currently around 0.6% of GDP. This is quite low when compared to the investments by the U.S. and China which are greater than 2%. Israel’s GERD is more than 4%.

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A key reason for India’s low funding in R&D is the low private sector contribution. STIP2020 defines solutions to improve funding thus: all States to fund research, multinational corporations to participate in research, fiscal incentives and support for innovation in medium and small scale enterprises. These are good ideas. The new measures should not become a pretext to absolve the Union and State governments of their primacy in funding research; the government should invest more into research.

Key areas and focus

Other critical focal areas are inclusion of under-represented groups of people in research, support for indigenous knowledge systems, using artificial intelligence, reaching out to the Indian scientific diaspora for collaboration, science diplomacy with partner countries, and setting up a strategic technology development fund to give impetus to research.

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Science diplomacy is at the fore now with India offering COVID-19 vaccines to many countries; formulating a policy around it will yield dividends. Support for indigenous knowledge systems should enable them to improve upon their limitations in subscribing to transparency and verifiability.

The policy seeks to define strategies that are “decentralized, evidence-informed, bottom-up, experts-driven, and inclusive”. It is in draft stage and will have to be finalised and placed before the cabinet for approval. It makes the right moves and strikes the right notes to make India future-ready. More specific directives and implementation with a scientific temper without engaging in hyperbole will be key to the policy’s success; and its success is important to us because, as Carl Sagan said, “we can do science, and with it we can improve our lives”.

S. Varahasimhan is a history of science enthusiast based in Chennai

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