India: S&T Sector: India needs to improve science

Indian science is a sleeping giant in dire need of awakening. It can repeat the magic of the economic reforms of the early 1990s if it succeeds in reforming the science and technology (S&T) sector to a significant degree. There are some reasons why India is held back:

India spends just 0.64% of its GDP on science and technology, the lowest level among BRICS countries. The US, China and South Korea spend 2.73%, 2.4% and 4% of their GDP on science and technology respectively.

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

Despite being the 6th largest economy, India is ranked 50th in the Bloomberg Global Innovation Index 2021 and 48th by the World Intellectual Property Organization. Only IISc Bengaluru, IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi feature in the top 200 QS World University Rankings.

India ranks 9th in research impact through citations, while the US and China top the rankings.

In contrast, the CEOs of many of the world’s tech giants are of Indian origin. Indian professionals make up a quarter to a third of the workforce of most tech giants. Every 7th and 10th doctor in the US and UK is of Indian origin. 12% of American scientists have roots in India. So what is missing in India that makes many languish here but shine abroad?

Poor ease of research: Scientists in India complain that most of their time is spent on administrative work. Riddled with bureaucratic processes, there is insufficient adoption of global best practices. Institutions offer inadequate incentives and lack a competitive, merit-based environment for research to flourish.

Outdated procurement systems: They prevent government institutions from providing best-in-class research equipment. Poor compensation does not attract the best talent, while inadequate career development breeds mediocrity. Furthermore, most PhD students in India receive minimal support, negligible funding and remain disconnected from global research networks.

Even with autonomy, S&T institutions will remain burdened with a suboptimal work culture entrenched for decades. Therefore, building the capacity of academics and educators becomes important. Even well-intentioned measures such as institutions of eminence, the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) and the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship have seen only minor improvements on the ground.

The Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 has already identified some such challenges. Moreover, the National Research Foundation announced under the New Education Policy 2020 is an unprecedented opportunity for radical changes in the research ecosystem. There are several other reform ideas on the table.

We need to create efficient administrative mechanisms and research offices to free Indian scientists from the hurdles, allowing them to focus on research. The ease of doing research can make a qualitative leap by providing institutional autonomy, streamlining research funding and disbursement, bringing flexibility to recruitment and creating funding stability.

Research in science and technology institutions should be aligned with India’s development challenges and priorities. Similarly, a business case needs to be made for the world to leverage India’s arbitrage costs and talent, making India a global R&D destination beyond the R&D back office.

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

India needs to create and nurture communities of PhDs and postdocs and improve career opportunities for early-career researchers. This would eventually lead to world-class scientific results. It should also realign the incentives for scientists to create a conducive research environment.

India hardly celebrates S&T and its scientists, with the media rarely covering S&T. Scientific content, such as documentaries and books, is extremely rare as part of popular culture. This brings to the fore the need to spread knowledge in the field of science and technology, especially among young people, and to promote public dialogue about science.

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