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Decline of Indian science

The science policy is crumbling just when India-made cars are being exported, writes Vipul Mudgal. What interests you?

india Updated: Jul 24, 2006 03:34 IST

Decline of sciences is an odd topic of debate in a country viewed as a powerhouse of the knowledge industry. But India’s science policy is falling apart just when its software prowess is being recognised and made-in-India cars are being exported to the West.  

Given India’s ancient scientific tradition and its impressive track record after independence, it is painful to admit that much of our agricultural research is a let down, fundamental research at the universities is stagnating, autonomous institutions like the AIIMS are seriously sick and the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) continues to produce duds. Obviously, the gains in software and biotech industries are in spite of our science and technology (S&T) policy.

S&T research in Indian universities and institutions of excellence has long been a victim of poor policy direction. Above par scientists are pushed to migrate elsewhere if not for insufficient funds or lack of choices, then due to favouritism of seniors or political interference.

A frustrated Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisor CNR Rao predicts that at this rate Indian science will be ‘finished’ in the next five years. Call him an alarmist but you can’t ignore the empirical evidence of falling standards. 

Eugene Garfield, the American pioneer in mapping scientific information, showed that in 1973 Indian scientists accounted for about half of the developing world’s quality science papers. In the seventies, his benchmark Science Citation Index placed India at 8th place behind only the US, UK, USSR, France, Japan and Canada. By 2000, India had slid to 15th position.

Many scientists argue that mission-oriented research is a better indicator than the number of citations. But, sadly, two of India’s prestigious research missions -- on agriculture and defence -- are monumental fiascos.

With nearly a hundred national research facilities, several project directorates and over 30,000 scientists on board, India’s agricultural research behemoth has failed to develop ground-breaking techniques for the poor, rain-dependent farmers.

Its bureaucracy has terminated hundreds of expensive projects mid-way, often without critical appraisals. DRDO’s projects have failed so often, and so miserably, that it could be easily India’s biggest embarrassment in the field of S&T.

Innovation, another significant marker of scientific progress, corroborates India’s decline. The Financial Times’ exhaustive report on innovation 2005, based on the number of patents applied for, shows that with all its knowledge industry claims, India is not among the top 30 countries. (China is fifth after Japan, US, South Korea and Germany) Countries like Brazil, South Africa and Israel are far ahead of a retreating India. 

India’s medical research has virtually no productive link with its rising pharma industry.

It is true that India’s finest scientists and best laboratories are globally competitive, but they are like the proverbial islands of excellence, surrounded by a vast ocean of mediocrity.

If we want to nurture a veritable crop of great inventors and visionaries, we need to upgrade our basic science teaching and research everywhere in the country and bring in fresh inputs like better talent, more investment, and systematic public-private partnership through a well planned and target oriented national science policy.

Decline of S&T wears down a country’s productivity and competitiveness. It also erodes the society’s scientific temper. A target of spending at least 6 per cent of our GDP on education appears a small amount if seen as a long-term investment in raising living standards and enhancing food, energy and national security. Are we prepared to do that for starters?