What ails science in India?

Most universities have poor-quality teaching labs let alone research labs.

Updated - November 16, 2021 05:05 pm IST

Published - May 13, 2015 10:16 pm IST

Unlike other countries, India successfully sent a spacecraft (Mangalyaan) to Mars in its first attempt. But the country has failed to produce any path-breaking research or Nobel Laureates for the last several decades. And in all likelihood, India may not produce one in the near future unless some dramatic changes are brought about.

What stares Indian science in the face is the government’s shocking decision to dissolve the scientific advisory council to the Prime Minister, thereby cutting a crucial link that has served science and the scientific community well. Another jolt has been the cut in research budget, which has been static for about a decade at a paltry 0.9 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Compare this with that of China’s — almost 2 per cent; it was about 0.8 per cent in 2000.

Science is the engine of growth of a country and is crucial to revitalise the economy. So any squeeze on research and development funding will be at the country’s own peril.

Nodal agencies like the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) have been headless for over a year. The same is the case in several national laboratories and central universities. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) got its secretary only in January this year, eight long months after the earlier incumbent retired.

“Indian science suffers, today more than ever, from government apathy,” writes Raghavendra Gadagkar, Professor of ecology at IISc, Bengaluru in Nature ’s special issue published today (May 14). The special issue paints a sorry picture of the state of science in India.

India has only 200,000 full time researchers — four researchers per 10,000 labour force. That is way too low compared with China (18 researchers per 10,000 labour force) and Brazil (seven researchers per 10,000 labour force). With six researchers per 10,000 labour force, even Kenya has a higher proportion than India.

The number of research papers published by researchers based in the country has nearly quadrupled since 2000 but it is way too low compared with China. If there were around 25,000 papers published from India in 2000, it was nearly 90,000 in 2013. In the case of China, the numbers have risen phenomenally from about 50,000 in 2000 to over 310,000 papers in 2013.

Besides the 40 CSIR laboratories, a few premier research institutions like the IISc, Bengaluru, TIFR, Mumbai, 16 IITs and five Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), there are over 600 universities in the country. But hardly any of the international-level research is done in the universities.

“Facilities and teaching at the universities that serve more than 29 million students are alarming. Most are ‘chalk and talk’ classrooms with poor-quality teaching laboratories, let alone research laboratories,” writes Hiriyakkanavar Ila, Professor of chemistry at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru in a Comment piece.

There are several critical issues that need to be immediately addressed for universities to become centres of excellence. The first and foremost change that necessarily has to be undertaken is a complete “overhauling” of the University Grants Commission (UGC). “Archaic ordinances and rules set by the University Grants Commission have stifled the spirit of academic excellence and hampered institutions’ flexibility,” writes Prof. Vinod Singh, Director of IISER, Bhopal.

Though India produces 9,000 PhD graduates a year in science and technology, the number pales in comparison with the country’s population. The U.S. produces four times more number of PhDs despite having one-fourth of India’s population. Number is just one of the indicators. “The variation in quality of Indian PhD graduates and faculty members is a prime concern,” says Prof. Singh. “Quality-control mechanisms must be established for the national accreditation and assessment of Indian PhDs and to improve research and educational training.”

“I have noticed a fundamental difference in the attitude of young U.S. scientists from that of their Indian counterparts: their appetite for big problems. ‘Going for great’ is a skill acquired very early on in the West,” writes Yamuna Krishnan, professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, Illinois. She was earlier with the Bengaluru-based National Centre for Biological Sciences before moving over to the U.S.

Unlike in the West where talent is spotted at the graduate level and nurtured, researchers in India are mentored way too late.

“Is there a dearth of talent in India? Certainly not. Is there a dearth of unstoppable achievers and innovators? Yes: because making talent shine takes a culture that is proud of its scientists and a charged intellectual environment that nurtures, mentors and drives them.,” writes Prof. Umesh Varshney of the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology, IISc.

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