Home / Opinion / Online Views /  National Technology Day: But where are our scientists?

For the last 15 years, scientific and industrial organizations besides educational institutions across India have been religiously celebrating the country’s National Technology Day on 11 May to mark its technological capabilities in areas such as defence, atomic energy, space and governance. Most of these institutions choose to highlight past scientific achievements, recall the contributions of Indian scientists such as C.V. Raman, Homi Bhabha, Satish Dhawan and Vikram Sarabhai, talk about some future technology trends and give awards to mark the occasion.

There’s merit in these actions but the major concern in the age of Google and Bing searches, social networking on Facebook and micro-blogging on Twitter, is tapping young research scientists to be as innovative as the giant scientists of yesteryears. Especially, given that experts have repeatedly cautioned that almost 50% of the lakhs of engineers that schools churn out annually, are unemployable.

Doing research, obviously, is a far cry.

The relatively low share of India in the top 1% of journals, one of the parameters used for assessing the global impact of the national science and technology system, has always been a matter of concern. Over 60% of the increase in the top 1% journals seems to have emanated from just four disciplines—engineering, chemistry, clinical medicine and materials science. The changing global trends in volume share of publications indicate a scope for India gaining at least 5% global share by 2017. If India were to gain this global share, its relative ranking could improve to five or six from the current ninth ranking based on current global trends, according to an “evidence" report prepared by Thomson Reuters for India’s Department of Science and Technology in July.

But this would require, among many other policy-based actions, larger investments into research and development (R&D) and expanding the number of full-time equivalent R&D professionals.

The US had 23.1% of the world’s researchers in 2002 (around 13.5 million researchers) and this share fell to 20.0% by 2007 though the number of researchers increased to 14.26 million, said the Thomson Reuters report. The European Union or EU had 20.6% of the world’s researchers in 2002 but its share fell to 20.1%. China’s increase in researchers moved its share of world researchers from 13.9% in 2002 (around 8.1 million researchers) to 19.7% of world researchers by 2007 (14.25 million researchers, a bit short of the US).

India’s world share of researchers actually fell from 2.3% of the world share in 2002 (1.16 million) to 2.2% of world share in 2007 (1.55 million).

Further, according to the Unesco Institute for Statistics (July, 2011), the US was the most R&D intensive region, measured by gross domestic expenditure on R&D as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007 with 2.7% in both 2002 and 2007 (no change). For China, the figures were 1.1% in 2002 and 1.4% by 2007, and those for India were 0.7% in 2002 and 0.8% in 2007.

Since 1947, India has achieved self-sufficiency in food grain production, launched a space programme that has enabled satellite launches and a moon mission; has an autonomic energy programme; indigenously-developed missiles and aircraft; and exports in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and information-technology services.

Yet, India lags other key countries and some of its BRIC (the Brazil, Russia, India and China grouping) partners in research investment and output. Global investments in science, technology and innovation are estimated at $1.2 trillion as of 2009. India’s R&D is less than 2.5% of this, and is currently under 1% of the GDP.

The Thomson Reuters report, cited above, also revealed that India’s share of world research output in clinical medicine was less than 1% between 1981 and 1995 but increased to 1.9% by 2010. China, South Korea and Brazil have greater shares than India. In neuroscience and behaviour, India’s share of world research output averaged less than 0.5% in the earlier period, but it rose to 1.4% by 2010. India’s share in pharmacology and toxicology fell between 1981 and 1995, but it rose dramatically to 6.1% by 2010, more or less converging with the shares of the UK and Germany by 2009. The country’s share in molecular biology and genetics fell between 1981 (1.7%) and 1995 (0.9%), but it rose to 2.1% by 2010, although China, South Korea and Brazil had greater shares by 2010. India’s share in microbiology, though negligible in the 1980s and 1990s, leapt in 2008 to a 4.9% share by 2010. This moved India’s rank up in relationship to the established research economies and made it second to China among emerging research economies.

India had a large world share in agricultural sciences, which broadly averaged 7.4% over the 1981 to 1995 period, well ahead of other emerging research economies. Its share fell to 6.2% by 2010. What is notable about this particular field is the leap in Brazil’s share: 9.6% by 2010, which exceeded the share of China.

India’s world share in physics fell over the earlier period from 3.9% in 1981 to 2.9% by 1995, but rose to 4.6% by 2010. China’s output quadrupled during this period to 18.6% of world share by 2010.

India’s share of world output in space science rose and fell over the earlier period: it was 2.1% by 1995, but rose to 3.4% by 2010. India’s share of world output in mathematics fell from 3% to 2% by 1995 and was broadly maintained at these levels. China’s rise in mathematics was notable in this earlier period. China trebled its mathematics output over this period to 16.7% of the global share by 2010.

India’s share of world output in computer science only marginally increased over this period. It was 2.4% by 2010, up from 1.5% in 1981. The global share moved to three emerging research economies by 2010: China (14.5%), South Korea (6.3%) and Taiwan (5.7%).

India’s share of world output in engineering fell from 4.3% in 1981 to 2.2% by 1995. China’s rise was notable over this period. In the later period, however, India regained its lost share: 4.2% by 2010. India was overtaken by other emerging research economies by 2010, namely China (16.4%), South Korea (5.4%) and Taiwan (4.4%).

In terms of shares of world R&D expenditure by principal geographic regions and countries in 2002 and 2007 (measured by gross domestic expenditure on R&D, or GERD), India increased its percentage share of world global R&D spending from 1.6% in 2002 ($12.9 billion PPP, or purchasing power parity) to 2.2% ($24.8 billion PPP) by 2007. The equivalent figures for China were 5% ($39.2 billion PPP) in 2002 and 8.9% ($102.4 billion PPP) by 2007.

By way of contrast, the US share of world R&D expenditure fell from 35.1% ($277.1 billion PPP) in 2002 to 32.6% ($373.1 billion PPP) in 2007; the European Union’s share fell from 26.1% ($206.2 billion PPP) to 23.1% ($264.9 billion PPP) over the same period.

But there is hope.

India ranks ninth in number of scientific publications and 12th in the number of patents filed. Further, India has declared 2010-20 as the Decade of Innovation. The Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013 and the National Innovation Council are aimed at positioning “India among the top five global scientific powers by 2020". Increasing GERD to 2% of GDP has been declared as a national goal in the STI Policy 2013.

To achieve these goals, the government will have to encourage more academia-research-industry partnerships, promote inter-disciplinary research, besides creating a national scientific temper. As the world develops software products, surveillance systems such as mini, micro unmanned aerial vehicles, robotics and intelligent systems like robot swarms besides converging bio, nano and information technologies, the country needs more and more of its over 1.2 billion population to be involved in that research.

These steps are critical if India wants to be known for much more than its ‘jugaad’ or being a smart user of technologies developed by other countries.

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.
Recommended For You
Edit Profile
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout