Bangalore: As Hari Krishna walks down the gravel path at the sprawling Raman Research Institute in Bangalore, he discusses his research plans—he will complete his PhD next year, searching for new compounds in liquid crystal; go abroad for a postdoctoral programme; and work for a few years there before considering a return to India.
This pretty much represents how most young researchers think on Indian campuses.
“There’s no postdoc culture here, nor is there emphasis on getting quality (PhDs) and large number of PhDs,” says Gangan Prathap, vice-chancellor of the Cochin University of Science and Technology, lamenting the low per capita investment in research. “We suffer from the tyranny of low expectations (in research),” he adds, referring to the overall quality and quantity of research output in the country.
Data from different sources indicates this. According to the Human Development Report 2007-08, India has 119 researchers per million of population, as 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 EU (231), according to the directorate for science, technology and industry, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which, however, admits that the share of non-OECD countries in global R&D spending is increasing.
In terms of publications, comparison with China is inevitable, and rightly so, as the Asian giant was way behind India in research until the 1980s, but has improved dramatically to become the second largest investor in R&D globally.
China outperforms India in citations across all major technical categories. “The Chinese are not only publishing substantially more than India, but they are publishing in higher Impact Factor (a proxy metric for quality) journals as well,” according to a November 2007 report in the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change (TFSC) authored by researchers from the US Naval Research Laboratory, Washington DC.
One of the reasons for this decline is a fall in number of Indian journals from the international ranking. “During 1980s, India had about 40 journals which were ranked by the international Science Citation Index, but now the number has fallen to 10-12,” says Sujit Bhattacharya, one of the authors of the TFSC report, and a visiting professor at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Academic research and publishing are not divorced from economic development of a nation; yet, it is the economic boom in the country that is pushing students towards pursuing highly-paid jobs, ignoring research. “Scholarship is becoming less valued in modern India,” says Ron Vale, a visiting researcher from the University of California, San Francisco, at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. He believes Indians are ahead of international peers early in science (high school) but fall behind shortly thereafter.
“The system inhibits the small subset of interested students from exploring research interests and accelerating their careers,” says Vale, who admits having made his 5th and 7th grade children study Indian math textbooks during his stay in Bangalore as they are better than the US books for students at the same level in the US.
Even scientists here have raised the alarm. For instance, the Indian National Science Academy (Insa) and the Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS), which, along with the National Academy of Sciences, have about 3,000 members, submitted a set of recommendations to the Planning Commission in 2006 for the 11th Plan. Called Higher Education in Science and R&D: The Challenges and the Road Ahead, it highlights, among other things, the need for promoting postdoctoral culture in the country with special emphasis on raising stipends; special assistance to 10 selected universities to establish them as world-class centres, and more interdisciplinary movement between science and technology streams and industrial R&D.
However, robust industry linkages are something which most research institutions and universities have neglected so far. Industry interactions in universities are largely because of personal contacts and research interests. “They are not institutionalized, so when the researcher moves on, the linkages break,” says Bhattacharya, who published a report titled Industrial linkages in Indian universities: What they reveal and what they imply? in the international journal Scientometrics in 2007.
Part of the problem also lies in the fact that most PhD research problems are not realistic and, hence, do not excite students to take up research; they also discourage the industry from collaborating with academia. “The type of research problems guides are choosing today do not open up avenues for the industry,” says Bhattacharya, whose report also highlighted that lack of infrastructure in the seven premier universities it studied, including IIT Delhi, IISc, and the Jadavpur and Pune Universities, is the major reason why researchers do not interact with the industry.
Will money solve the problem?
Poor infrastructure, low salaries, limited international or even national exposure and low morale are all indicators of the monetary crunch in scientific enterprise. But as things stand today, there has been infusion of money in several sectors. For instance, the 11th Plan allocation for scientific departments, including the department of science and technology (DST) and atomic energy has increased threefold to Rs75,304 crore from Rs25,301 crore in the 10th Plan, although a major chunk of this would go to space and atomic energy departments. For instance, the 2008-09 Plan budget for the three science departments—DST, department of scientific and industrial research and department of biotechnology—grew by 20% whereas it grew by 27% for the department of space.
Still, it isn’t as if money for research is unavailable. “There is no dearth of funds today, what is needed is a will to make those funds available to researchers easily and quickly,” says N. Seetha Rama Krishna, head of operations at the Tata group’s computer research laboratory in Pune. “A scientific mind is ambitious and thinks globally, but the bureaucratic processes restrain it when they say ‘we can’t sanction more than Rs10 crore’,” adds Krishna.
Funding agencies also need to have more appetite for risk when it comes to supporting research. “There’s a tendency to fund the same set of established researchers, an unwillingness to factor in the uncertainties in technology development,” says Bhattacharya.
India is probably getting into an environment which might resemble that of the universities in the US in the 1970s, when academics struggled with the problem of interacting with the industry. “On the one hand India has suddenly discovered resources, but on the other, even though the intention in deployment is good, we don’t know how to do it,” says P. Balaram, director, IISc.
India is starting to accelerate its research output productivity after the stagnation in this between 1980 and 1995 put it behind its Asian counterparts.
“The way science advances, gains are required across many disciplines, not just a few selected ones,” says Ronald N. Kostoff, lead author of the TFSC report, who says India needs enhanced R&D investment across the board.
“India has the tools to be a research productivity leader, (but) it needs more of an expression of national will.”
This is the third and concluding part of a series on the quality of science education in India. Part 1 covered schools, and Part 2, engineering education.