Where is Indian science headed?

Srinivas A TV Jayan | Updated on January 30, 2018

There can be no discounting the growing presence of Indian scientists on the world stage. But are our education and research bodies stuck with the wrong attitudes and priorities, ask TV Jayan and A Srinivas

It’s not often that matters of science hit the frontpages. But they did recently, and egregiously, when the Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Satyapal Singh, said that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection lacked scientific basis and should be withdrawn from school curricula. That drew the ire of scientists from prestigious institutes in the country and3,000 of them signed an online petition against his statement.

On February 12, which happens to be Darwin’s 209th birthday, thousands of scientists, research scholars and students are expected to hit the streets across the country – just like they did in August last year. Apart from protesting the Minister’s regressive remarks, ‘India March for Science’, the banner under which they would all gather, have two major demands: rooting for evidence-based science and increased funding for science and education.

That said, Indian science’s track record has been quixotic, and the Minister may have drawn a better response if he had touched upon germane subjects in Indian science – priorities in science policy, social outcomes of research (such as responding to floods, pollution and civic decay), and, most important of all, genuine concerns in science and technology education.

Prolific in publications

But first, the positives. India’s significance is rising on the world science stage. As the Unesco Science Report 2015 points out, “India has continued building its capability in... space technology, pharmaceuticals and computer and information technologyservices.... India’s technological capability in pharmaceuticals is fairly well-known, but her recent forays into the manufacturing of aircraft parts are a step into the unknown”.

The report also observes: “India has become a hub for what is known as frugal innovation...Frugal innovation, or engineering, creates high-value products at an extremely low cost for the masses, such as a passenger car or a CAT scanner... India... is also codifying them, then exporting them to the West”.

According to the SCI citation database, India’s share in global research publications is above 5 per cent in chemistry, agriculture sciences, pharmacology and toxicology, material science and microbiology. It is above 4 per cent in the case of physics, biology and bio-chemistry and engineering.

According to the SCOPUS datatbase, its scientific publications output has risen from 62,000 in 2009 to over a lakh now. Says Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology: “The global rate of growth in scientific publications is 4 per cent whereas ours is 10 per cent. We are at sixth or seventh position in terms of number of scientific publications. Quantity, I would say, is not weak at present.”

Satyajit Rath, Professor at the National Institute of Immunology, makes another point: “In terms of scientific output per dollar spent, we are not worse off compared to Europe.” US, China, Japan and Europe dominate the scientific publications scene.

Says Sharma: “Our purchasing power parity is three times that of countries such as the US. In another words, one research rupee spent in India is equal to ₹3 spent in these countries. Besides, the cost of producing a PhD in India is one-tenth of what it is in a country like the US.”

On patent filings, the report of the World Intellectual Property Rights Organisation, 2016, points out that India stood at seventh place in terms of the number of patents filed by residents and non-residents domestically, with China, US, Japan, South Korea, EU patent office and Germany ahead of it.

It suggests that India is an innovation hub, at least in pharmaceuticals, computer software and automobiles, where the private sector spends more than half its R&D funds. The public sector is defence-oriented.

The latest Economic Survey 2017-18 observes: “On one hand, much of India’s low patent output could be due to its lower middle-income status. However, patents have grown much faster with income in countries like China, Korea, and Japan. Unless there is a greater focus on R&D, rising income alone will not allow India to catch up in the near future.”

MNCs driving patents

Now, for the less-flattering macro facts. The Indian share in the number of patents sealed in India has fallen from 40 per cent in 2001-02 to 15 per cent in 2015-16. Interestingly, the number of patents sealed or granted has dropped sharply from 16,000 in 2008-09 to just over 6,000 in 2015-16. Meanwhile, the number of patents granted by the US Patent Office to Indian applicants has been on the rise, most of them being MNCs.

The surge in FDI and R&D activity has led to MNCs accounting for over 80 per cent of patents issued to Indians by the US patents office, against 23 per cent in 1995. This raises questions whether FDI has led to technology assimilation in India, something that China managed to ensure over the last three decades.

Sunil Mani, Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, and author of the Unesco report’s chapter on India observes: “Indian companies are yet to come to terms with patenting. Software patents have been on the rise vis-a-vis pharma patents and this is MNC-driven, especially at the US end. The US patents secured by Indian inventors tend to be domestic pharma companies.”

On technology transfer, Mani points to the possible lack of coordination between science and technology policy and the Make in India (MII) policy.

“Rather than identify strategic sectors for indigenisation, MII, essentially an invitation to invest in manufacturing to promote exports as in the case of the East Asian model, amounts to an A to Z list,” he says.

Funding complexities

The Centre and States, which set aside ₹56,000 crore towards R&D in 2016-17 (the private sector spent about ₹43,000 crore, assuming a 43 per cent share) should be clearer about what outcomes it wants. For instance, electronics imports (above $40 billion annually) are a measure of a lack of technological self-sufficiency.

VK Saraswat, Member, S&T, NITI Aayog, explains: “Indigenous technology development has been sparse except in strategic areas such as space, atomic energy and missiles. Electronics has become one of our weakest areas. We will set up eight or nine micro foundries, invest in component and systems manufacture.”

However, it is true that India’s R&D intensity (R&D spend as a share of GDP) fell from 0.83 per cent in 2008-09 to 0.69 per cent in 2016-17, essentially because the increase in the share of private spending in R&D has been offset by the corresponding fall in the share of government outlays. The global norm is way above this (see graphic).




Explaining the Budgeting, Sharma counters: “Many points are often overlooked when comparisons are made with developed countries on funds spent on research. In 2014, India produced 15,246 PhDs in science, engineering and medicine fields. Similarly, the number of researchers in India is around one-fifth that in China or one-fourth in the US. So, we need lesser money to support them.”

Be that as it may, researchers are facing a crunch. Anindita Bhadra, Professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, says: “It is not only funding for research that is being cut down and stalled, but also fellowships for students. CSIR and UGC fellows who are doing their PhD, are not receiving their fellowship on time. Students are apprehensive about pursuing careers in research. While basic research is suffering, projects on ayurveda, yoga, panchgavya are receiving better funding.”

Rajiva Raman, Professor, Centre for Genetic Disorders, Banaras Hindu University, says: “I do observe from my own experience and from that of my colleagues that funding has shrunken precipitously. The greater problem is not to receive funds after getting the project sanctioned, and this exacerbates with passing years. In 2013, a major national funding body felt there should be a concerted project on Vitamin B12 deficiency and disease susceptibility in India. The grant was released in March, 2016; the sanctioned amount was much less than that requested, while the costs of everything escalated.”

In June last year, Girish Sahni, D-G of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – which runs a chain of 37 laboratories – said the autonomous research body is in a severe financial emergency. Though CSIR got a allocation of over ₹4,000 crore in the last Budget, Sahni, in a mail circulated among directors of various CSIR labs, said that the funds available for research for the year was a little over ₹200 crore.

Education model

But the real elephant in the room is the way science is taught and research is conducted. Sharma concedes: “Quality of research has to catch up. For this, we need to have creative ideas and relate our work to larger issues in science or society. Our inability to do all these emanates from weaknesses in our educational system.”

There is a dual problem with science education. The first has to do with the collapse of the university system, the denigration of the humanities, and with it the lack of an inter-disciplinary ambience that is key to developing an ecosystem for creativity and social responsibility. The second is the firewall between research and teaching, with research being considered superior, which adversely affects both.

Rath, however, is wary of linking science directly to tangible outcomes: “Natural science insights contribute in non-linear ways to social outcomes. They teach society to look at cause and effect. Techno-centricism has contributed to the research-teaching divide. Large grants tend to go to projects that promise technological outcomes. Since teaching is seen as a distraction to research, such grant applications actually play down time for teaching.”

N Raghuram, Vice-President, Society of Scientific Values and Professor of Biotechnology at GGS Indraprastha University, in New Delhi, says: “While national labs should be evaluated by technologies they produce, the mandate of universities is to produce quality manpower for research. If adequate research funds are not made available to universities, the quality of future generation of research workforce will suffer.” Higher education accounts for just 4 per cent of public R&D spend, which impacts basic research.

Sundar Sarukkai, Professor of Philosophy at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, explains: “The history of science tells us that great science arose out of an engagement with local concerns. The creation of IISERs is a half-hearted attempt to reintroduce an inter-disciplinary approach. The government must set clear social goals to hold scientists accountable, and not be in their thrall.”

But with Darwin theories being contested, all these equations may be reset.

With inputs from Venkatesh Ganesh,

M Somasekhar and PT Jyothi Datta

Published on January 30, 2018

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