Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s call for India to boost its knowledge economy by encouraging ‘reverse brain drain’, or risk being left behind by emerging industrialised nations like China and South Korea, is timely. Speaking at the platinum jubilee celebrations of the National Academy of Sciences in Mumbai last week, Mr Singh welcomed the recent trend of some of India’s brightest students who had done well in advanced fields of research abroad returning to the country. India’s scientific research capability is clearly slipping alarmingly, with fewer research papers published and even fewer patents registered. This is hardly surprising since the poor quality of education dispensed in undergraduate institutions is reflected in post-graduate education and research. In fact, most universities in India are just teaching shops where the faculty rarely engage in any research work, unlike academics in countries like the US, Britain and Australia.
Perhaps India should take a leaf from the research notebook of, say, Russia, where innovative teaching is now apparently considered just as important as research. As a result, Russia’s prestigious academies of science, research institutes and classical universities are no longer walled in. Instead, they have been merged into ‘centres of innovation’. Also, unlike in advanced countries, scientists here are rarely involved in utilitarian ‘low-end’ research, preferring to commercialise inventions and patents. This makes Indian R&D ‘brahmanical’ in nature as no one questions the relevance of high-end research.
Although the sciences are capital-intensive subjects, merely pumping more money into science and technology will not come to much if it is not followed through. Successive governments have made similar gestures before to acknowledge the vital role of science in India’s development, only to let those declarations remain on paper. The trouble is, any government that gives funds usually also has its nominees in the governing bodies — bureaucrats who act like club members in scientific disciplines about which they have no clue. So these establishments remain opaque to scrutiny — a lack of accountability leading to wasteful expenditure. Hopefully, the government will learn from these mistakes.