Bharat Ratna awardee and the head of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India CNR Rao’s lament that the political class in India doesn’t support the scientific community enough is not a new one. Scientists often, and correctly so, complain that investment in basic science research in the country is marginal and even whatever little they get doesn’t reach the intended recipients on time, delaying crucial projects. Unfortunately, this has been the case for years and will probably continue to be the same in the coming days.
Take, for example, the 2013 science policy, which was released earlier this year. While many hoped that it would push for a dramatic change of course, nothing of that sort happened. In fact, the policy is old wine in a new bottle. Here’s why: in 2003, the country’s goal was to increase its research and development (R&D) investment from under 1% of its GDP to 2% by 2007. Ten years later, the science policy’s target is still the same and is silent on why India has failed.
In absolute terms, India’s investment in science is a fifth of China’s and one-twentieth of the US’s funding for science and technology. India’s investment in R&D in 2010 was $24.8 billion, well below that of the US ($398 billion), Japan ($148 billion), China ($102 billion), Germany ($72 billion), France ($43 billion), and South Korea and Britain (both $41 billion).
Having said that, it would be prudent to add that merely pushing R&D expenditure will not ensure more research output. The country needs a resource pool of professionals who can justify the R&D budget. India’s 1,54,827 trained R&D professionals are almost a tenth of the number that the US and China (1.42 million) boast of, and are fewer than countries like Russia (4,51,213) and Korea (2,21,928), apart from the developed West and Japan.
Even financial crises have not stopped nations from continuing to invest in cutting-edge research. For example, the European Research Council continues to invest huge funds in research that allows researchers to identify new opportunities and directions in any field of research, rather than being led by priorities set by politicians.
This approach ensures that funds are channelled into new and promising areas of research with a greater degree of flexibility. They are doing this because scientific and technological discoveries can form the basis of new industries, markets, and broader social innovations of the future. India must follow this path for its own long-term benefit.