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India's research conundrum

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India-'s Research Conundrum. Research and development (R&D) forms the basis of future competitiveness of any nation. It is because R&D is critical for...

Research and development (R&D) forms the basis of future competitiveness of any nation. It is because R&D is critical for any form of innovation. Today’s science is tomorrow’s technology.

A classic case in point is the US economy. It is a world leader in technological innovation. From the development of critical, indigenous defense production to the development of world-class products and services, it has shown that public and private sectors can both be pioneers in R&D within a nation. The scientific and technological prowess has done good for not only US citizens but has done a lot in general for the betterment of the human condition.

What can explain the rise of US? In our opinion, it is because the country has fostered a spirit of scientific inquiry that was part of its founding father’s legacy. Part of this started with having had a targeted approach in fostering science and technology within its policy context. Part of it has also to do with developing economic centers of activity (think Silicon Valley) based on its science and technology ecosystem. Also, it has had a specific focus on institutions that have enabled its stupendous economic growth post the Second World War. In India, since Independence the focus has been on fostering science and technology but this has essentially not culminated into India realizing its true potential barring specific instances like green revolution, etc.

With notable exceptions like TIFR, CSIR and ISRO with its recent brilliant mission to Mars and several private companies, the research ecosystem broadly remains shallow at best and completely absent at worst. Even the IITs which were first created with the purpose of research to augment the CSIR labs have, it seems, forgotten their basic responsibility to do research. Their essential function has been reduced to producing a workforce of trained manpower to be hired by the industry.

Part of the research conundrum lies in the development of talent for research. It is again dependent on better perks and facilities for researchers. Most of the brilliant talent moves to greener pastures in search of a better quality of life, that research is unable to provide in India. It is not the case elsewhere. A top professor in US can draw benefits commensurate to the CEO of an MNC. So entrenched in our mindset is the bias towards S&T that when two weeks back the then health and family welfare minister was shifted to the science and technology and earth sciences ministry, a prominent newspaper called it a ‘low-key’ ministry, another one called it a ‘far less high profile ministry’. In our opinion, the impact of science and technology research is if not more than, then at least equivalent to that of the Health Ministry.

With low ratios on R&D as a percentage of GDP, India cannot hope to become a scientific or industrial powerhouse till the time it adequately spends on (R&D).

While spending alone cannot be a measure of R&D capability now, or future competitiveness (as shown by Mangalyaan), it certainly points to the necessity for greater investments.

What we require is additional funding for research. Also, we believe the present model of government or public sector funding will have to be replaced by a newer paradigm of private sector funding as India liberalizes privatises and globalises further. It was pointed out in the May 2013 whitepaper on the “Stimulation of Investment of Private Sector into Research and Development in India” of the ministry of science and technology. The paper also noted that in most developed and emerging nations of the world the ratio of public to private sector funding in research was 1:2 while in India it was the complete opposite, i.e., 2:1. If India has to attain global competitiveness as envisaged in its Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STI) 2013, and further the ‘Decade of Innovation’ it will have to bring about a fundamental change in the people’s mindset.

(The article is co-authored with Sankalp Sharma, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Competitiveness, India. Amit Kapoor is Chair, Institute for Competitiveness & Editor of Thinkers. He can be reached at amit.kapoor@competitiveness.in)

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