india: S&T sector: India must improve science

Indian science is a sleeping giant that desperately needs to be awakened. It can repeat the magic of the economic reforms of the early 1990s if it can fundamentally reform the science and technology (S&T) sector. There are several reasons why India is selected:

India spends only 0.64% of its GDP on S&T, the lowest among the Brics countries. The United States, China and South Korea spend 2.73%, 2.4% and 4% of their GDP respectively on S&T.

As science and technology research in India mostly takes place in government institutions, it is no surprise that cutting-edge scientific inventions continue to elude us.

Despite being the 6th largest economy, India ranks 50th on Bloomberg’s Global Innovation Index 2021 and 48th according to the World Intellectual Property Organization. Only IISc Bengaluru, IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi are in the top 200 of the QS World University Rankings.

India ranks 9th in terms of search impact through citations, while the United States and China top the rankings.

In contrast, the CEOs of many global tech giants are of Indian descent. Indian professionals make up between a quarter and a third of most tech giants’ workforces. One in 7 and 10 doctors in the US and Britain is of Indian descent. 12% of American scientists have their roots in India. So what is missing in India that many languish here but shine abroad?

Not easy to do research: Indian scientists complain that most of their time is spent on administrative drudgery. Plagued by bureaucratic processes, the adoption of global best practices is insufficient. Institutions provide inadequate incentives and lack a merit-based competitive environment for research to thrive.

Outdated procurement systems: These prevent government institutions from obtaining the best research equipment. Poor pay doesn’t attract top talent, while inadequate career progression breeds mediocrity. Moreover, most PhD students in India receive minimal support, paltry funds and remain disconnected from global research networks.

Even with autonomy, S&T institutions will still struggle with a suboptimal work culture that has been entrenched for decades. Therefore, building the capacity of scientists and academics is important. Even well-meaning measures like the Institutions of Eminence, Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) and the PM Fellowship have seen only marginal improvements on the ground.

The Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 has already identified some of these challenges. Additionally, the National Research Foundation announced under the new Education Policy 2020 is an unprecedented opportunity for sweeping changes in the research ecosystem. Several other reform ideas are on the table.

We need to create efficient administrative mechanisms and research offices to free Indian scientists from obstacles, allowing them to focus on research. The ease of doing research can leapfrog by granting institutional autonomy, streamlining research funding and disbursements, providing flexibility in recruitment, and creating stability in funding.

Research in S&T institutions must align with India’s development challenges and priorities. Likewise, a business case for the world needs to be created to leverage India’s cost and talent arbitrage by making India a global R&D destination beyond a back office of research.

Unlike most countries, major S&T laboratories in India are not an integral part of universities. India could bring together universities and S&T laboratories in thematic or geographical clusters for collaborative and interdisciplinary research of global standards. It must also improve the governance, positioning and reach of research to attract large-scale funding from industry and philanthropy.

India needs to build and nurture doctoral and postdoctoral communities and improve career options for early career researchers. This would eventually lead to world-class research results. It must also recalibrate incentives for scientists to create an uplifting research environment.

India hardly celebrates S&T and its scientists, with the media rarely covering S&T. There is extremely low science content, like documentaries and books, as part of popular culture. This highlights the need to disseminate S&T knowledge, especially among young people, and to promote public dialogue on science.

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