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India, US research gets fresh leg-up

India and the US will announce eight new agreements between top research universities at a summit level meet in June in a bid to give fresh impetus to their education diplomacy under the USD 10 mn Singh Obama 21st Century Knowledge Initiative. Charu Sudan Kasturi reports.

delhi Updated: May 07, 2013 23:36 IST
Charu Sudan Kasturi

India and the US will announce eight new agreements between top research universities at a summit level meet in June in a bid to give fresh impetus to their education diplomacy under the $10 mn Singh Obama 21st Century Knowledge Initiative.

Eight Indian universities will each tie up with an American university handpicked by top researchers in the latest phase of the initiative, named after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President Barack Obama. The universities will collaborate on research projects on climate change, demographic gains, public health, sustainable infrastructure development, renewable energy and agriculture education.

Announced in November 2009 when Singh was invited by Obama as his first state visitor after becoming President, the initiative is a one-of-its-kind attempt by the two countries to use their strong educational ties for collaborative research - and diplomacy. India has since decided on similar pacts with Germany and Israel. But no other diplomatic or international educational agreement involving India has ever borne the name of a Prime Minister.

The University Grants Commission, India's apex higher education regulator, has picked four Indian universities that have pitched joint projects with American counterparts. The US-India Educational Foundation has selected four other American universities for projects with Indian varsities. The selections - to be announced at the India US Higher Education Summit scheduled for June - represent the second set of projects carefully selected by Indian and US officials and researchers under the Singh Obama Initiative.

Rutgers, Cornell, Virginia Tech, University of Pittsburgh, University of Montana, Duke University and the University of Michigan were among the first set of American universities awarded projects under the initiative. From India, Banaras Hindu University, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (IIT), and IIT Delhi were among the institutions picked.

But the Singh Obama Initiative - or the Obama Singh Initiative as the Americans call it - isn't only about education and joint research. Top officials accept that the pact is a part of the joint strategic cooperation between the two "natural partners," as Obama has called the US and India, the world's two largest democracies.

The sectors picked for collaborative research - such as agriculture, climate change, public health and India's potential gains from its young population - have been sources of tension between the two nations.

American subsidies for domestic agriculture have often been cited by Indian administrators to justify their own protectionist policies. The recent Supreme Court judgment refusing to grant a patent to pharmaceutical giant Novartis for a cancer drug citing public health concerns triggered criticism from the US administration. The US Trade Representative's Office (USTRO) criticized the judgment last week. On climate change, India and the US differ fundamentally on how to calculate their respective carbon burdens and on their responsibilities towards curbing the menace. And India is worried that the gains from its much-touted "demographic dividend" -a reference to its 600 mn plus population of men and women below 35 - could leak to countries like the US, unless it offers its youth a better deal.

"The idea is that the collaborative research will help the two countries understand each other's positions better," a senior Indian official involved with the Singh-Obama initiative from the start said. "As friends, that needs to be an area of focus."

India annually sends over 100,000 students to the US for higher education - second only to China.