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The decade in science

The decade in science
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First Published: Mon, Jan 31 2011. 10 58 PM IST

Updated: Mon, Jan 31 2011. 10 58 PM IST
In January 2001, at the dawn of the decade in which climate science would somersault from doomsday fantasy to an obdurate orthodoxy, and stem cells would emerge as the new insurance, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee exhorted India’s largest annual congregation of scientists—the Indian Science Congress—to double the country’s food production from 209 million tonnes (mt) then.
It wasn’t that there was a dearth of food for India’s billion—just that an inefficient public distribution system made it incumbent to produce more to feed its economically diverging citizenry.
Unfortunately, food production hardly increased through the decade, and this January— when it’s a little above 230 mt— Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expounded on this year’s theme, Quality Education and Excellence in Science Research in Indian Universities, at the science conference. He didn’t rake up missed food production goals.
Then, scientists here have been long used to policymakers ignoring previous goals and setting new ones.
Undeniably, it was the decade in which the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) catapulted a nearly 1,400kg satellite into the moon’s orbit at a cost that is a fraction of what the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration spent on lunar missions of similar scope, but it was also the period when India’s research spending stagnated at 0.8% of gross domestic product (GDP). Every major economy, dedicated over 1% of its annual earnings to research and development (R&D) activities.
Incidentally, Vajpayee, in that same speech in early 2001, had pledged to hike R&D spending to 2% of the GDP.
Scientists at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, India’s largest consortium of publicly funded research bodies, cumulatively patented more than they had ever done in the history of independent India, but the venerable body continues to spend more money in maintaining these patents than extracting commercial value out of it.
For the first time ever, Indian scientists contributed intellectual capital as well as locally engineered hardware to international collaborative experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider instead of scrounging for “donated time” or being merely “observers” in previous experiments of such ambition and scope. It has become the norm for the country’s science ministers over the past few years to mention that all international research collaborations that India now undertakes—whether it’s funding solar research or hunting for microbes in the Arctic—is always on “equal” terms—or matching research budgets, with other countries.
It was also the first decade ever that there were three times as many research publications out of China than India, a far cry from the 1980s when the trend was the reverse. Moreover, every major international science prize—be it the Abel Prize for mathematics or the Nobel Prize for sciences—eluded Indian scientists and were at best, and in keeping with half-a-century-old tradition, won by someone of Indian origin and duly celebrated.
A nation whose rapid economic rise is partially powered by information technology (IT) and IT-enabled services, which churns out over 700,000 engineering graduates and around half-a-million science graduates every year, barely has a single-digit percentage of them opting for PhDs and going on to research careers in Indian academic institutions.
To cite Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data, India has 119 researchers per million of population, compared with 1,564 in China, 2,706 in the UK, 4,605 in the US, and 6,807 in Iceland. Even in terms of the number of researchers per 1,000 people employed, India, with 24 researchers, ranks below China (115), Japan (131), the US (324) and the European Union (231).
It isn’t that Indian science administrators are blind to the reality of the paucity of disruptive science in India. The Planning Commission earmarks generous funding commitments to improve science infrastructure in its Five-Year Plan documents, yet, skimming through the annual budget documents shows that a significant chunk of the money goes unspent.
This discrepancy, it is argued, is largely due to a lack of absorptive capacity within India’s universities and research institutions. Ossified teaching
departments that rarely encourage interdisciplinary research; bright, science students opting for careers in engineering, management and eventually investment banking instead of research, and a dearth of options that can lure smart students, pursuing their research in the US and Europe, back to Indian research labs are the key problems that stymie this spending.
The big bang theory: A part of the CMS particle detector is lowered underground. The CMS experiment is one of the four main ones that will collect data at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. CERN
There are slivers of hope, though, and this is most evident in recent trends that indicate scientists and academics in India’s most hallowed institutions, actively involved in “commercializing” their research. Taking cues from their counterparts in universities abroad, researchers at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) now actively flaunt their commercial and industrial consulting projects as much as citations in high impact factor journals. It isn’t unusual now to hear of government research labs discuss taking a “stake” in a start-ups, or actively negotiating with international companies to sell intellectual property for profit.
Over at least the past seven years, several multinational firms including Microsoft Corp. and International Business Machines Corp. have been setting up their key research centres in India, often recruiting the brightest of Indian scientists and researchers to power their patent pipeline. It isn’t unusual now to see several fresh graduates spurning hefty pay packets to set up their own companies and often in extremely competitive spaces such as microprocessor design, low-cost computing solutions as well as nanotechnology-based drug-design.
Cracking the Joint Entrance Examination to the IITs continues to be the ambitious engineering aspirant’s pet torment, but a small but growing proportion of these students now use these tests to pursue undergraduate courses at newly minted institutions such as the multi-city Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, where the traditional three-year bachelor of science courses are being replaced by more holistic four- and five-year dual degree science programmes that encourage students to explore and delve deeper into disciplines such as physics, mathematics, chemistry and biology, than be monochromatic, assembly line software graduates.
Indeed, in line with global trends, President Pratibha Patil has already declared this decade as being “decade of innovation”. Whether that will be another missed target—like the food production goals—is something only the calendar will tell.
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First Published: Mon, Jan 31 2011. 10 58 PM IST