As India celebrates 75 years of Independence, it is apt to imagine what the next 75 years will look like. Can our nation, obsessed with politics, Bollywood, and cricket, aspire to make the next 75 years an enviable era with a higher standard of living for every citizen? Yes, India can, and will, provided there is a shift in focus to science and technology. But how will India make this happen, given that it spends a meagre 0.7% of its GDP on research and development (R&D)? It needs to make some fundamental policy changes to facilitate the transition. These include increasing the R&D budget to 4% of the nation’s GDP, ensuring that individual institutions implement processes to accommodate the large budget, encouraging individual entrepreneurs and linking science with society.
First, spending 4% of the national GDP on R&D is required to drive science and innovation. Israel and South Korea are prime examples that drive their respective economies by spending nearly 5% of their GDP on R&D. However, an increase in the science budget to innovate must precede appropriate macro-level policy changes on how and where the money needs to be spent. A part of this increase needs to be earmarked for building physical and intellectual infrastructure across the country, especially in the universities. A first-class infrastructure must be accompanied by well-trained, globally competitive institutional administrators and processes. India cannot compete on a global stage unless the dwindling infrastructure of its universities is upgraded.
Second, before any policy changes take effect, individual institutions must implement processes to accommodate the large budget. This requires standardising procedures across institutions and borrowing the best practices from some global counterparts. For example, when the government encourages public-private partnerships, each grant-receiving institution must have internal procedures to handle their scientists’ requests to facilitate effective academia-industry collaboration. Although there is a well-defined system to disburse research grants to scientists through their institutions, it is mired in inefficiencies. Inadequate staffing at funding agencies, lack of transparency in fund disbursal, lack of a rigorous international standard review and feedback process, excessive delay in fund disbursal, and an outdated appraisal system are holding our scientists back. Everyone knows about the lacking, but what is the way out? Part of the solution is to bring and implement best practices from the industry and some of the best-run science grant administrations abroad. The involvement of the IT major, Tata Consulting Services, and technology use in transforming passport services across the globe gives us hope. This is not to hand over the crucial decision-making process of science grant administration to the industry, but to facilitate the process of paper submission and to make the decision-making process easier, faster, and with complete transparency.
Science for the masses
Third, it is time to bring the fruits of science and technology closer to the masses. There is no better way to do this than by promoting and facilitating individual entrepreneurs. This has received increased attention from the government with many positive policy changes. However, without proper nutrition, the plants cannot produce greener leaves. There are no better cradles for creative ideas than our university labs. A robust system to link the labs with the entrepreneurs to funnel innovative ideas, products, and solutions to our society needs to be in place. To make this happen, the universities must encourage scientists to innovate and place standardised procedures to take ideas out of labs. Entrepreneurship will only succeed in India if it is backed by a funnel of ideas and a liberal process of taking those ideas out of our university labs.
Where does India find $125 billion or nearly ₹10 lakh crore to fund science? India cannot do that by taking money away from social infrastructure, rural development or important welfare schemes. This is only possible if India cuts the defence budget. No nation can claim to win wars in the 21st century with increased defence spending. Even the mighty U.S., with an excess of $750 billion dollars in the defence budget, could not defeat the Taliban. We must realise that the next generation of war is economic, not military, and only a science and technology-driven economy can prepare us for that.
Binay Panda is a Professor at JNU, New Delhi