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Big discoveries have small origins

Context:

Innovations in science and technology are integral to the long-term growth of any nation and have instrumental and intrinsic value for society.

Though India can point to many contributions to global scientific knowledge, it underspends on R&D even relative to its development.

Economic Survey 2017-18 calls for doubling Research and Development expenditure from its current level of about 0.6% of GDP. However, it would still lag behind China (2.1), Israel (4.3), Korea (4.2) and the U.S. (2.8), each spending more than 2% of their GDP on research.

What could be the likely reasons for low R&D spending in India?

In India, government plays a dominant role in spending on R&D. As a fraction of GDP, public expenditures on research have been stagnant – between 0.6-0.7 percent of GDP – over the past two decades.

Public expenditure is dominant, although its share has come down from three-fourths of all expenditures to about three-fifths.

About Three-fifths of government’s investment in R&D goes to mission-oriented projects in the areas of defence, space, nuclear and environmental sciences.

The government is not just the primary source of R&D funding but also it’s the primary user of these funds. Even more, government expenditure on R&D is undertaken almost entirely by the central government.

Private investments in research have severely lagged public investments in India. According to Forbes, 2017 analysis there are 26 Indian companies in the list of the top 2,500 global R&D spenders compared to 301 Chinese companies.

India‘s universities play a relatively small role in the research activities of the country. Publicly funded research in India concentrates in specialized research institutes under different government departments and largely plays a teaching role.

It appears that fewer Indian students have beenenrolling in recent years for Ph.D. degrees, whether due to more attractive options after a master’s degree or rising work visa challenges for other counties like USA.

In terms of publications trends reveal a fact that India is gradually improving its performance. However India produces fewer patents per capita. An undue delay in processing patents penalizes innovation and innovators within the country.

India to catch up in the near future, there needs to be a greater focus on R&D in addition to rising income levels.

Possible solutions to expanding R&D in India

India needs to redouble its efforts to improve science and R&D in the country by doubling national expenditures on R&D coming from both public and private sector and universities.

  1. Improve mathematics and cognitive skills at school level.
  2. India needs to gradually move to investigator driven model funding science research. Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB), a statutory body of DST has sanctioned about three and half thousand new R&D projects to individual scientists. It is a step in the right direction.
  3. Increase funding for research from private sector as well as from state governments. Government can also work with the private sector to create new R&D funding opportunities in line with 50:50 partnerships with SERB for industry relevant research under the Ucchatar Avishkar Yojana (UAY).
  4. State governments too need to recognize the need to invest in application oriented research aimed at problems specific to their economies and populations.
  5. Create a new knowledge eco-system by linking national labs to universities. This would facilitate qualified faculty from research institutes to work with bright young university students.
  6. Mission driven approach would be helpful for the growth in R&D.
  7. Facilitate greater engagement of public in science and research establishments.
  8. There are a number of government fellowship programs such as the Ramanujan Fellowship Scheme and the Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE) Faculty Scheme that provide avenues to qualified Indian researchers residing in foreign countries, to work in Indian institutes/universities. These schemes could be enhanced according to the current needs.
  9. Important innovations often result from thesmall-scale science research. Time and again, small science projects have demonstrated the potential to emerge as harbingers of technological changes. For instance, Higgs boson at CERN had its humble origins in seminal theoretical works of several scientists working independently.

Conclusion

Investing in educating youth in science and mathematics, reform the way R&D is conducted, engage the private sector and the Indian diaspora, and take a more mission-driven approach is the need of the hour in India.

Vigorous efforts to improve the “ease of doing business” need to be matched by similar ones to boost the “ease of doing science.”

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