Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did some plain speaking to top scientists and students inside the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Bombay, voicing concern that China and South Korea may have ‘leapfrogged’ ahead of the nation in their ‘mastery over science and technology’.
Choosing an apt platform of the platinum jubilee celebration of the National Academy of Sciences to express this reality check, Singh said, “I have encountered growing concern among our scientists that China has overtaken us in science. If true, then we must ask ourselves why and what can we do about it?”
Singh’s concern extended to the “decline in standards of research in universities and even in the IITs”. He emphasised that reverse brain drain must be encouraged in universities and government institutions.
The PM’s blunt admission of leap-frogging Chinese research and development (R&D) compared with India and our “divorce between science and teaching” comes soon after his Science Advisory Council presented him with facts and figures in July, on China outpacing India.
"We need a national commitment for massive increase in our R&D investment," Union Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal told the Hindustan Times in response to the PM’s speech. "The PM’s statements give me hope."
Compared with India’s R&D investment of 0.8 per cent of GDP, China spends 1.3 per cent, said Sibal. Between 2006-2021, China aims to increase this spending to 2.5 per cent of its GDP. “That would be $230 billion per year after 15 years,” said Sibal. “If China has the willpower to spend $230 billion, we need to do much more for R&D…That depends on the finance minister and the Planning Commission."
Eminent scientist MGK Menon agreed, “China has the money and centralised thinking." This year, the US Science and Engineering Indicators 2006 called China the world’s third-largest R&D performer. China has experienced ‘the most rapid growth’ in spending for academic R&D, the report said.
The PM did reiterate his government’s plan to increase Indian annual expenditure on science and technology from less than one per cent to two per cent of GDP in five years.
But Menon, also an Indian Space Research Organisation advisor, told HT he has been waiting for that increase since Rajiv Gandhi was PM. “But now I want to see it implemented,’’ he said. Menon also said the IIT’s quantum of research is not commensurate with their standing, with the Mtech and PhD work lacking the ‘image’ of BTech research.