Science as the Foreign Jamaai
India’s policy establishment neglects basic science and technology at its own peril
Science and scientists are now like the foreign jamaai in the traditional Indian household: treated well and showcased to outsiders, but never really integrated into the larger family. Immediately after Independence, Nehru provided a great thrust to science, with rationalism or the ‘scientific temper’, a key pillar of the new India which he sought to create. He accorded scientists special respect, and many of them had direct and unhindered access to him. Subsequent prime ministers — particularly Indira Gandhi — continued this tradition till the 1990s.
Over the last two decades, India’s achievements in space and nuclear technology have won much acclaim, and its phenomenal success in IT has led to its global recognition, however exaggerated, as a technological powerhouse. Today, the world has become dependent on technology, which increasingly drives the global economy. India itself is transitioning into a knowledge economy. Despite this, the government seems to be less enthusiastic, and its commitment to S&T appears lukewarm. One indication is the proportion of the country’s GDP spent on S&T. Two decades ago, it was decided that this should be at least 2%; today, it stagnates as it has for years, at under 1%.
Scientists no longer have the privileged position that they enjoyed in the past, and the bureaucracy often calls the shots in many matters related to science. Politicians talk about the importance of science, but increasingly this seems like mere lip service. Even as the S&T establishment has grown in size, its relative importance has shrunk. This is analogous to the position of India in global science: absolute growth, but relative decline. Some countries like China and South Korea have hugely raised their share in global science publication, while India has fallen far behind.
India is considered the world capital for frugal engineering with examples like low-cost refrigerators, medical equipment and cars. However, the under-pinning of basic science to support these technological and design innovations is weak and getting weaker.
This is why many looked at the Twelfth Five-Year Plan with great anticipation. One hoped that it would impart a new impetus to science and integrate S&T into core areas of development. Just about a year ago, the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister brought out a vision document outlining steps to make India a global leader in science, emphasising the vital role of S&T in the context of India’s developmental goals.
The expectation was that this exercise would be taken further, in a concrete manner, in the years ahead. In this context, the Planning Commission’s approach paper to the Plan is a disappointment. S&T could well have been the central core of the 2th Plan, instead of an addon. While a separate chapter on innovation is a welcome step, it has practically no linkage with the one on S&T. In the education chapter, there is next to nothing on enhancing research in universities, or the need for a huge increase in the number of high-quality doctorates in S&T, or the acute shortage of faculty in science and engineering. While the approach to innovation is fairly comprehensive, education and S&T are in silos, reflective of the actual position.
Science is global, but the S&T chapter does not place Indian science in the global context. It notes, again, the need to raise R&D expenditure to 2% of the GDP from the present 0.9%; but of the incremental 1%, it wants private R&D to contribute three-fourths. Apart from the impracticality of expecting such a large increase in private sector R&D, this raises doubts about the government’s own commitment to R&D.
Since private R&D is likely to be concentrated at the delivery end of the research-development-engineering chain, science will again get a short shrift. Socalled ‘small science,’ done typically in the universities, gets no mention, though it is this, around the world, which is the foundation of bigger science and of technology. This is also, typically, the breeding ground for innovation and breakthrough technologies. There is no mention of the policy regarding technological self-reliance in strategic sectors: has this goal been abandoned? The growing strategic importance of electronics, high-performance computing and communication needs recognition. The need to liberate S&T institutions from the stranglehold of bureaucratic procedures — including those affecting recruitment and investments — and to give greater freedom and autonomy to research institutions is downplayed. Bureaucracy is one reason why Indian scientists do so well abroad, but not in India.
The S&T chapter in the approach paper misses many key areas. It could have broken new ground and identified more specific policy directions, especially with regard to energising science research in universities, redefining the role of government R&D establishments and integrating S&T into mainstream development efforts. The needs of mission-oriented efforts, say, in strategic sectors, industryled R&D, and basic science are quite distinct, and need different approaches.
Indian industry has a dismal record of R&D; but market compulsions are changing that, and some fiscal incentives can stimulate investments. Government commitment, though, seems to be trending in the opposite direction. There is need to recognise that development, economic growth and geopolitical power are dependent on S&T capabilities; the government must, therefore, invest far more in S&T, and completely overhaul the machinery of managing science.