“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx


Science in Industry and the Academy

At least 5.1 lakh patent applications were filed in India between 2005-06 and 2017-18, according to the data compiled by the Department of Science and Technology, Govt of India, as part of the latest Science and Technology Indicators (STI 2019-20) released recently. Data shows 76 per cent of these applications were filed by "foreigners resident abroad" and the rest by Indians. The silver lining is that the number of Indian applicants is slowly increasing. Between 2005-06 and 2009-10, 18 per cent of patents were by Indians. This increased to 24 per cent for the next five years and for the three years thereafter, more than 30 per cent of the patents were filed by Indians. At the same time, India improved its ranking in the global innovation index by five places to 52nd in 2019 from 57th position in 2018.

According to a report titled 'R&D Expenditure Ecosystem', the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister said that "India's public investment in R&D as a fraction of GDP has remained stagnant over the last two decades at around 0.6 per cent to 0.7 per cent of GDP and this is well below the major countries such as the United States (2.8 per cent), China (2.1 per cent), Israel (4.3 per cent) and Korea (4.2 per cent). The growth in research and development (R&D) expenditure should be commensurate with the economy's growth and should be targeted to reach at least 2 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2022".

"To ensure that India leaps into a leadership role in innovation and industrial R&D by stimulating private sector's investment in R&D from current 0.35 per cent of GDP, it is suggested that a minimum percentage of turn-over of the company may be invested in R&D by medium and large enterprises registered in India," the report emphasised.

R&D in science & technology in India suffers, today more than ever, from government underinvestment. This is exacerbated by the fact that India tries to run on the same track as the wealthiest countries and the best endowed institutes in the world. Only a handful of scientists and institutions in India can afford it, and then only by monopolising an unfair share of the country's scant funds. Even these players barely compete with their chosen peers-never really at the top, but "somehow running".

This leaves most researchers and institutions with inadequate resources, and worse, feeling backward.

In terms of big international initiatives, atomic energy and space science, these are two significant investments that the government of India made very early on in the 60s and the dividends are for all to see. Besides, we set up a system for these two areas based on the traditional science model. However, unfortunately, we are not doing so in other areas such as life science or medicine. These are the areas where we need a strategy to improve our ability to compete internationally.

Another obstacle is the slow and complex approval procedures for large experimental programmes in India. The government needs to understand that research is not a question of a few experiments - it requires longer investment. Short-term projects create complications: for instance the Department of Biotechnology's new initiative, the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council, works with industry and academia to try and fill some of these gaps. But BIRAC funding is staged funding; it is helpful but the budget is relatively poor.

Is there a dearth of talent in India? Certainly not and today R&D investments, in the private/commercial sector in particular, are today growing at twice the rate of government/public investment.

Is there a dearth of unstoppable achievers and innovators? Yes: because making talent shine takes a culture that is proud of its scientists and a charged intellectual environment that nurtures, mentors and drives them.

The efforts made by a handful of educational institutions such as few IITs, academies and a few others are crucial, but inadequate. The majority of science graduates in India are deprived of meaningful training. At this crucial stage in their careers, they are denied the mentoring required to instil the culture of science and the habit of analytical thinking and free questioning.

And once the scientists are trained? They work with inadequate, ill-maintained equipment, in isolation from stimulating peers, their research not always free from unscientific interference. We need to create an environment that nurtures research.

The quality of infrastructure and ecosystem for innovation in India still leaves much to be desired. Do we concentrate on industrial or fundamental science? The innovation ecosystem needs a knowledge economy driven by fundamental research, and a commercial economy driven by businesses and customers. These economies are interlinked. This also includes the funds for government/public funded research and development derived from taxes.

The bulk of spending, especially for basic research, comes from the government, through channels like direct funding of research facilities, grants to universities and private-sector researchers, contracts for specific projects, and tax subsidies. Without such intervention the private sector may not deem it profitable to invest in basic science and research. They may concentrate only on applied research projects that fetch short-term returns.

From a commercial investor's point of view, the returns from basic research seldom accrue to the inventor, especially if the new knowledge or technology can be copied at low cost. They would want governments to set up an effective intellectual property framework, for exclusive and long-lasting claims to the commercial benefits of their discoveries. Extending and expanding patent rights will also help to strengthen the intellectual property rights regime. Investment in research usually fetches later, but very impactful returns.

Investments in science and technology are not just limited to research and development, but comprise a range of intangible investments that help drive innovation. We need an appropriate level of public and private investment, effective innovation partnerships between businesses and with universities. Maybe private corporations could pool funds together through consortia to address different broad research areas. One way to do this can be to focus public investment on basic research, and private investments on further applied research.

India should also develop enabling policies that money can't buy. Senior researchers working freely with students spot raw material and connect them with more scientific mentors, nurture them and help their careers over decades. In India, researchers generally start being mentored only when they show promise as young principal investigators. Thus, a fresh returnee from a leading postdoctoral lab abroad suddenly becomes all but invisible to key collaborators or contacts at home and elsewhere. This results in the returnee pursuing quality problems fragmented into ever smaller stories for ever more publications, each of lower visibility.

How do we edge towards the big ideas? A top-down, long-term mentorship scheme starting with graduate students could prove useful. Cultivating excellence is a selective process. So it is important also to innovate for an egalitarian system. Outstanding senior scientists, visionaries who care deeply about taking their nation from good to great, must not be neutralised by those intent on preserving the ossified status quo.

India should redevelop scientific ethics and etiquette. The research community should value, for instance, collaboration with small neighbouring colleges or universities instead of recognising only international affliates. India should create a new peer-review system, research publication system and new measures of "impact" - all tailormade for our needs, problems, resources and interests. We need to believe in ourselves and not just chase world rankings - as individuals, as institutions and as a country. Most importantly, we should honour those who work on problems that are crucial to local contexts.

India needs quality multidisciplinary research centres on energy, poverty, malnutrition, health, education, air and water pollution, water conservation, climate change, unseasonal flood, drought, weather forecasts for agriculture, food security and more besides. These centres would also train the next generation of researchers to use holistic approaches. A few IITs and IISc Bangalore, has already established such centres. This step should be emulated nationwide with funding from government and private industry. Germany's Max Planck Institutes provide an ideal governing model, or the many CNRD specialised research centres in universities in France.

Organisations need to make applied research and development relevant to their business while non-government organisations, in addition to the government, need to promote and allocate funds for basic research. The role of such organisations and initiatives, in acting as a catalyst to achieve success in research and development, are pivotal to both national progress and global competitiveness (i.e. Infosys Science Foundation, Ajim Premji Foundation, M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation etc). We should foster collaborations between the government, academicians and the industry and not-for-profits, facilitating the flow of innovations from research centers of universities, to the industry, benefiting a nation's economy and its progress.

Our educational system is a spoilsport in all this. At the fundamental level, a pedagogical change must encourage scientific enquiry amongst children. Curiosity and passion are the two most important keys to becoming a scientist. A solid foundation at the primary and secondary levels of learning can help students enhance their understanding and give them the confidence to pursue research in later years. Unstructured, accommodative and flexible learning coupled with fulfilment of job roles through successful investment in R&D can ignite the spark. Our exam-based system based on regurgitation is a bit of a problem, as the scientific enterprise (even in the human sciences) depends on asking questions.

In addition, we need systemwide policies to promote women into science and technology leadership and research.

To climb out of the economic downturn and arrest disemployment, governments must be proactive in nurturing and encouraging the development of innovation ecosystems that foster basic research within industry and academia.  


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