India’s tragedy: Science lacks funding and funding lacks science

DC
Published Nov 21, 2013, 2:24 pm IST
Updated Jan 20, 2016, 3:22 pm IST
His outburst may be just what we need, as going by an analytical report of the DST in September this year.

 

It needed to be shouted from rooftops, and eminent scientist, Prof. C.N.R. Rao, did just this when he used the spotlight he was suddenly under for receiving the Bharat Ratna, and drew attention to the poor funding that research and development (R&D) received in this country.

His outburst may be just what we need, as going by  an analytical report of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in September this year. India spent only 0.87 per cent of its GDP on R&D in 2009-10, when other  BRIC countries like Brazil spent 1.17 per cent, the Russian Federation, 1.25 per cent, China , 1.70 per cent and South Africa, 0.93 per cent on it. 

India may be a little better placed than other  developing countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Mexico which spent just 0.5 per cent of their GDP on R & D, but this is obviously not saying much.

In its defence, the Union government points out that funding for scientific research has increased manifold in the past few years even if it nowhere matches that of other BRIC nations or the developed world.  

The DST report says the country’s Gross Expenditure on R&D (GERD) has been rising over the years and  doubled from Rs 24,117.24 crore in 2004-05 to Rs 53,041.30 crore in 2009-10.

It rose to Rs 62,053.47 crore in  2010-11 and Rs 72, 620.44 crore the following year. Added to this India’s per capita R&D expenditure has risen to `Rs 451 (US$ 9.5) in 2009-10 from Rs 217 (US$ 4.8) in 2004-05.

A retired officer of the DST argues that over the last few years successive governments both at the Centre and state have shown genuine interest in funding science, but it is difficult to up the funding steeply all at one go. “It is a process,” he maintains.

While acknowleding that India’s most prestigious research institutes don’t match the best of scientific centres in the developed world, he blames the brain drain it has been experiencing for some years and poor management of these institutes for much of this.

“Even today if you ask a research scholar  in any one of our prestigious institutes including the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), he will tell you he prefers a foreign institute.

Scholarships and stipends are very attractive in western countries and we cannot match them,” he says, strongly suggesting that those at the helm of affairs do  some introspection on why we have failed to build world class institutes despite government funding and the  autonomy they enjoy.

Private sector must invest more

It’s not only governments that become penny wise and pound  foolish when it comes to Research and Development, but also private companies.
 
Although the Department of Science and Technology ( DST) says business participation in GERD is rising , it is clearly inadequate when compared to what it is capable of.

Going by the DST report, private sector has a share of 34.2 per cent in R &D today, but  private companies are spending just 0.27 per cent their total sales on it, leaving a huge potential untapped.

Moreover, the present spending by private companies is  restricted to R&D activities for their own product development and improvement , notes a scientist. 

“On the one hand  there are complaints that patents received by scientists through  government  supported schemes and  fellowships are sold to private companies for huge sums and on the other major industrial players don’t  support any R&D activity other than for their in- house projects. In western countries it is vice versa. Private companies provide the lion’s share of funding for research,”  he says.

Scientists like him are keen on the private sector investing more in the area as they feel the government needs help in furthering scientific research and cannot be depended on to do it all on its own.

Next: India must export tech: Roddam

India must export tech: Roddam

Professor C.N.R. Rao’s inflammatory comments on politicians did soften the impact of the point he was trying to make — government funding for science, technology and research is negligible.

Dr Roddam Narasimha, one of the foremost authorities on aerospace science and fluid dynamics, who founded the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences in IISc, feels the total amount of money spent on science has been low, but steady. “It is less than 1 per cent of our GDP and has been that way for a long time,” said Dr Narasimha.

“I  am amused but also very hurt by the number of people who criticise the Mars mission,” says Dr Narasimha. “To all those who ask me if the money could have been better spent, I say in which other country apart from India would you be able to launch a space mission for so little money?

When people can spend Rs 4000 crores on crackers during Diwali, but still grudge the Indian Space Mission its paltry Rs 450 crores, it will tell you everything that’s wrong with this country.”

He notes that even small Asian countries have come very far today based on scientific research while India, which once outstripped her neighbours in terms of research output, now lags behind. “We use Korean smart phones, drive Korean cars and use television sets made in Korea.

How can a small country, which, 30 years ago, was backward in comparison to us, have come so far?” he asks, while pointing out that South Korea spends about 3 per cent of its GDP on science.

“In India, the money spent on science and technology has shown an increase only because the GDP has gone up. It is less than 1 per cent of our GDP and has been that way for a long time,” he regrets.

“The Centre spends less than 0.8 per cent of this. If India nurses any ambitions at all of being a leader in science and technology, there is only one way to do it. It should be integrated with our economic thought and policy.

If we push towards becoming globally competent, you will find that industry wants R&D, for it cannot compete without it,” he says, underlining that export of high technology goods from India must be encouraged.

Ask him if the country is capable of competing in the global market and he says, “The thing with science here is that it costs much less than in other countries. Even so, our scientific output is miniscule, something like 2 per cent of what is produced globally.”
 


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