Time for action not introspection
By Dr R. Balashankar
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose to state the obvious on the falling Research and Development initiatives in India. At the prestigious gathering of national and international scientists, while inaugurating the 99th Indian Science Congress at Bhuvaneshwar the PM lamented that China has overtaken India. After being in the helm for seven years, it is an admission of his and the government’s lack of vision which has resulted in this setback.
Singh compared India and China and commented that China was overtaking India in scientific developments.
Statistics tell the sorry tale: China spent on science $153.7 billion in 2011, marking 1.4 per cent of its GDP. This is the second biggest investment, next to America’s $405.3 billion, 2.7 per cent of GDP. India on the other hand spent $36.1 billion (one-fourth of China), 0.9 per cent of its GDP. The Chinese investment in R & D has been increasing by 20 per cent each year since 1999. According to reports, today, 750 global companies have research centres in China. India spent on its part, 0.6 per cent of the GDP in 2003 in R & D which crawled to 0.9 per cent in 2011 (0.3 per cent in eight years)! Now Singh has set a target of spending 1.1 per cent of GDP by the end of 12th plan (2017).
India at the time of independence laid a strong foundation for research and development and their application and absorption in industries. Men of stature like Homi Bhabha, Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar among others set up institutions that would promote the scientific temper. Today, the world of science has become highly bureaucratised, constraining and promoting anti-creativity. The babus rather than the scientists call the shots. In decades India has not had a Science Policy. There have only been sector specific reports.
Flanking the Prime Minister in the photo-op at the Science Congress were two ministers – Cabinet Minister for Science and Technology Vilasrao Deshmukh and Minister of State for S & T Ashwini Kumar. Neither are known to have any background in science or experience.
The last time the S & T ministry had a scientist as minister was under the NDA when Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi was the minister. He was able to rejuvenate the labs and relate to the scientific community.
What India needs today is more and better research. Learning in India is kept away from research. Meaning, the universities, the natural starting points of research are mere teaching machines, with the labs becoming only employment tools. There is a disconnect in the career of any eager science student from school to college to the lab. In most advanced nations the universities and the R & D centres work in close coordination with the senior scientists leading a pack of students. In India, there is a stiff demarcation between the theorists and practitioners resulting in degrees not backed by research, which in turn suffers from lack of enthusiasm. It is not a difficult task to surmount. It only needs a reworking of the orientation of the universities and the labs, both of which are functioning in necessary numbers in India. The Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) alone has 39 labs and 50 field stations. This is one of world’s largest public-funded research programmes. The defence sector in India has its own set of labs. The corporate contribution or plough back from profit into R & D in India is among the lowest.
So, it is not the lack of structure that is obstructing India’s emergence in R & D. It is the lack of leadership, direction and the national will to excel that is pulling the country down. Confessional statement in Science Congress is not a solution to this. In fact it is demoralising. If the Prime Minister and subsequently the Cabinet Minister were sincere in what they said, the government should follow up the words in action by setting in motion a course correction. It would not happen in a day. But at least the government would atone for the past neglect of an important area. This century is a knowledge world. The better and faster the knowledge the stronger and powerful would be the nation. And in that, strong R & D is the first requirement.