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Whither Indian science

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  19 Jan 2017 12:00 AM GMT

By 2030, India would figure among top 3 countries in the world in science and technology (S&T), Prime Minister rendra Modi has pledged. Iugurating the 104th session of the Indian Science Congress in Tirupati last week, he held forth on the concept of ‘Scientific Social Responsibility’ for leading varsities, research institutes and labs — that they link up with schools and colleges, involve teachers and students, and create an environment for sharing ideas and resources. As part of this outreach effort, the Prime Minister has advocated harvesting innovative ideas of young minds and designing appropriate training to give them hands-on exposure. Of the two databases tracking global scientific output, India presently ranks fifth in SCOPUS and eighth in Web of Science. In terms of research paper publication, India already figures among the top three in computer science, telecommunication and chemistry, while doing well in fields like agriculture, material science, pharmacology and energy fuels. Even if the SCOPUS database is considered, experts believe India may overtake Germany and Britain within a decade if she maintains her current output growth rate at 14 percent. But Chi and the US are much farther ahead, with Chi’s output 3.5 times and US output 4.5 times bigger compared to India. Prime Minister Modi has spoken about attracting the best scientific talents from across the world to India, but his government will have to really bend its back to improve the linkage between S&T and industry, despite the ‘Make in India’ mission. It is a fact that while only 0.65 percent of the country’s GDP was being spent on research and development (R&D) in the Nineties, that figure has only inched up to 0.87 percent in 2014 — so we are far adrift of 2 percent of GDP as talked about often. This can be compared to Chi which spent 2.05 percent of its GDP on R&D, thereby breaking into the big league led by the likes of Japan (3.58 percent), Germany (2.87 percent) and US (2.73 percent).

At the Nobel Dialogue Series at the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit recently, 2004 Physics Nobel laureate David Gross pointed out that for every 10,000 people — the number of workers engaged presently in basic science and engineering is 8 in the US and 20 in Chi, but just 4 in India. In this context, he pointed out that while Chi is aggressively seizing opportunities to fund and set up major scientific projects, India is getting tied up in political and legal obstacles, resulting in delay of prestigious projects like LIGO India Observatory to study gravitatiol waves and India Neutrino Observatory to detect neutrinos underground. “If you wait until you become, as projected, a bigger economy than the United States in 2050, you will be a user economy and service economy, buying goods made elsewhere, buying inventions invented elsewhere,” Gross warned the Indian establishment. Nobel laureates like William Moerner, Harold Varmus and Serge Haroche suggested that banks be given incentives to fund startups, which in turn can cluster around varsities and research institutes like Cambridge University which created thousands of jobs by helping startups thrive within and around its campus. Observers have pointed out that in several indicators of scientific progress and achievement, India is performing far below potential — whether it is in number of articles published in peer-reviewed jourls, number of patents registered, number of top awards won by scientists working in this country, apart from the amount of public and private funding earmarked for research. And the problem begins at school level, with lakhs of teaching positions lying vacant and S&T modules not upgraded regularly with latest developments. Indian techies started to earn a reputation for their country abroad in the late Nineties with the rise of information technology (IT) services industry, but it obscured the fact that many budding talents chose IT over basic science for a career. Since then, governments at the Centre began to catch on to the economic benefits of a robust R&D base — expanding the IIT network and building scientific institutes like the IISER, hiking research grants and instituting scholarships. But overall, the country needs broad public-private synergy to cultivate a genuine culture of innovation, to get more students into basic research, and to encourage scientists to take risks and go for breakthroughs. Thinking big on the S&T front is fine to begin with, but following through will require sustained commitment over the long haul.

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