‘First set up the labs, then dream the Nobel’

I had earlier analysed the ‘Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, 2013’. I had inter alia noted that the policy does not focus on enhancing R&D facilities in universities. On the other hand, it intends to multiply inter-university centres “to enable a wide cross section of university researchers to access advanced research facilities and equipment which are otherwise not available in university environments.”  

In this regard, I intend to introduce an interesting article in ‘The Hindu’ titled ‘First set up the labs, then dream the Nobel’ (19 January 2013) by Mr. Sriram Balasubrahmaniam. The author was highly critical of India’s unfavourable ecosystem for nurturing and retaining talent in science and technology. The article ended with a candid note – “President Pranab Mukherjee observed at the Science Congress that a Nobel Prize in Indian science was “long overdue,” as if every country has a predetermined right to be given the Nobel. Let’s get the research going first.”

Retaining talent

The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at the 100th annual session of the Indian Science Congress held in Kolkata in January, urged scientists to give high priority to research which will address pressing problems in the country. He asked scientists across disciplines to collaborate with one another and private research labs to foster innovation which will improve living conditions in India. The author rightly argued that the achievement of the aforesaid objective is contingent upon the existence of a favourable ecosystem for research and innovation. Referring to the survey by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States, the author noted that 40% of the researchers in India are emigrating to pursue their research abroad.

Of the 14,617,000 people who graduated from the colleges in India in 2011, 12% pursued post graduate degrees and an abysmal one per cent pursued research in the country. In 2011, the number of students from India pursuing higher education (masters and PhD) in the U.S. was 103,895. They formed 14% of the higher education population in the U.S. alone. In terms of research productivity, India has 7.8 scientists per 1,000 population compared to 180.66 in Canada, 53.13 in Korea and 21.15 in the U.S. He attributed the low interest in research to sub standard facilities and lack of funding in most research institutes. Though his argument is well-founded considering the extant state of affairs, citation of sources of the aforesaid figures would have added more credibility to his argument.

The author noted the insufficient investment in higher education. According to “Higher Education at a glance” released by University Grants Commission on 21 March 2012, the nation spent a meager 1.25% of GDP on higher education. On the other hand, United States spent around 3.1% of GDP on higher education. Further, Harvard University’s endowment stands at $32 billion whereas the total extramural grants provided to Indian universities put together is about Rs.12 billion! The author suggested raising the investment in higher education to at least 2% of the GDP.

The author was also critical of the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, 2013. According to him, “it contained no details, no road map for research, and was more aspirational than visionary.” He was also critical of the non-enactment of the Protection and Utilisation of Public Funded Intellectual Property Bill, (PUPFIP), the Indian equivalent of the Bayh-Dohle Act, which has been pending in Parliament since 2008.

Alumni involvement

The author bemoaned the lack of alumni involvement in administration of Indian universities. According to him, US universities are mostly run by their own alumni which ensures the supremacy of former’s interest. The author suggested a minimum alumni involvement of 50% in the functioning of university boards. According to him, “this would democratize the process more, and help to nurture talented alumni who could contribute back to the universities.” While I am unable to gauge the resultant democratization of this suggestion (if accepted), it is enough to note that it is an idea worth consideration.

Addressing policy bottlenecks

As evident from above, the article drew a grim picture on the extant state of affairs. It is imperative to address the policy bottlenecks so as to arrive at an enduring and permanent solution. There is an urgent need for revitalizing and re-energising the extant ecosystem for the promotion of research and innovation. The role of universities in tailoring and nurturing a conducive ecosystem can only be overlooked at nation’s peril. There is an urgent need for nurturing and retaining talent. The government may consider revisiting the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, 2013. As I had noted, even though the Policy is quite an encouraging document, it overlooked some crucial aspects.

It is pertinent to note that the government is mulling various schemes for addressing the weaknesses in the extant framework. For instance, according to the ‘The Hindu’ report titled ‘Centre to offer lucrative stints for Indian scientists’, the government is considering a scheme for offering lucrative stints for Indian scientists working abroad to teach and conduct research in scientific and technical research institutes. The scientists will be selected by an expert committee consisting of top Indian and international scientists. They will be invited by the government to work in India for short periods. The selected scientists will be paid directly by the government through a special window. The remuneration is likely to be at least Rs. 55 lakhs ($1,00,000). The news report, if correct, is encouraging and forthcoming as it will attract talent which the nation badly needs at this juncture. But this will not address the basic flaws in the system. A wholesome ecosystem for nurturing and retaining talent will elude the nation as long as the fundamental flaws in the system are not addressed.


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