Indigenous Research In india: Where Do We Stand?

I was reading this informative article titled “The Missing Scientists” by Shyamal Majumdar, former resident editor of the Financial Express, in the Business Standard which restates what has been said in the relevant circles for a very long time now- India needs to buck up on the research front and we need an integrated approach with specific objectives outlined. (Majumdar has earlier written on related issues such as employability of Indian engineering graduates and the adequacy of their skill set for research, applied or basic)
The article is to a large extent China-centric, so it goes without saying that Indian figures kind of convey the now clichéd message that India can’t cut the mustard with China when it comes to indigenous research. (The figures cited are not mine, they are “secondary propositions” or even “tertiary propositions”, so if they are to be challenged, please feel free to get in touch with Mr.Majumdar and please do not hesitate to share with us corrections, if any…)
Majumdar points out that Indian research spending has never exceeded 1% of its GDP and over 80% of Indian firms do not spend much (in fact he says “nothing”) on R&D, making us the world’s ninth largest spender on R&D. In comparison, China spends 3 times the same number with a plan in the pipeline to increase it to 4% by 2025.
Again, 75-80% of India’s research expenditure comes from public enterprises and 65% of China’s R&D expenditure comes from private enterprises. In a way, Indian R&D figures justify the need for a framework for accountability and commercialization of all this research, which is where one could say the PFIP Bill (earlier known as the PFRD Bill) comes into picture.
It’s ironic that we have a requirement of working of patented inventions since commercialization is one of the cornerstones of our patent policy (as reflected in the General principles in Section 83 of the Act), but commercialization of public research, where the bulk of the amount comes from the taxpayer, hasn’t received much attention.
But, this in a way hands us a counterview to the need for the PFIP Bill; if working of patented inventions is a requirement under the Patents Act, would it not be sufficient to require public-funded research to be patented so that they may be worked and commercialized? Probably not, because not all public funded research is patentable in nature, but that need not translate to the research being unfit for commercialization. Further, the Bill emphasises on a uniform framework to account for every penny received by recipient institutions.
Coming back to Majumdar’s article, he states that the figures suggest poor R&D expenditure by private firms, which he supports citing the results of a study undertaken by Administrative Staff College of India. Most of India’s R&D expenditure, according to the report, is in areas such as space, ocean development, atomic energy and defence. However, industrial competitiveness vis-a-vis countries like Taiwan, Korea, Israel and Singapore leaves much to be desired.
Another important statistic that Majumdar cites is the number of papers published by Indian scientists in International journals which used to be close to 11,000 with China producing a thousand shy of that number. Now, it’s an incomparable reversal of roles with India producing 19,000 papers and China…50,000. So not just in industrial research, even in academic research such as mathematics, physics and chemistry, India lags behind. (This was something I had suggested in a comment on a post on the PFIP Bill to make a case for the Bill)
As for scientific talent, according to Dr.CNR Rao, chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council to the PM, of the 6,50,000 engineering graduates that India produces in a year (which is eight times the number in the US), about 60% are not well-trained and not fit for employment. This dearth of quality engineering talent has forced the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to put pause to its plans for setting up centres of excellence.
The former Chairman of Indian Space Research Organization, Dr.Madhavan Nair, has said that despite ISRO receiving 1,35,000 applications for 300 posts, the quality of the majority of the applicants was not enough for developing instrumentation for astronomical observation, which is essential for the future of India’s space programme.
Paucity of quality faculty is another sore area, which has been discussed time and again. One could go on with these figures, but if merely articulating on problems could solve them, utopia wouldn’t just be a figment of imagination or a literary motif. Sometimes reading these articles one wonders if we are beating a dead horse, because if the issue is relevant and of critical importance, there have to be visible signs of change in the right direction…
Fortunately, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel; the setting up of Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) to bridge the divide between undergraduate scientific education and research is a welcome step. The proposed National Foundation for Science and Engineering on the lines of the National Science Foundation in the US, with the objective of attracting Indian scientists from abroad is another step in this direction.
The larger idea has to be to invest in long-term integrated initiatives which acknowledge ground economic realities and that patriotism in scientific research will help go only this far (unfortunately). It must be clarified that we are not belittling any committed Indian scientist’s efforts who has sacrificed greener pastures, within and outside India, to serve India, but it cannot be denied that talent, these days, needs a bit of mollycoddling if goods have to be delivered (again, another lesson from China).

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