Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Sep 26, 2022 Updated 6 Days ago
Today’s unique combination of economic growth, geopolitical opportunity, and scientific innovation is perfect to kickstart India’s push to become a research powerhouse.
Investing in the future of Indian Science At 75, India has a lot to feel good about. However, to be a global leader, it must channel its growing economic strength into a vital yet perennially neglected pillar of national power: science and technology. India has been sorely lacking when it comes to supporting scientific innovation. Consider India’s research and development (R&D) expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP)—according to the World Bank, in 2018, India spent 0.66 percent of its GDP on R&D, as compared to 2.14 percent in China and 3 percent in the United States. Even more worrying is the long-term trend. In the past 20 years, Chinese spending on research has skyrocketed in line with its economic growth, while Indian spending has declined as the broader economy has grown. Source: World Bank This is a huge mistake. Scientific and technological progress is the most crucial driver of long-term development and, as noted by physics Nobel laureate David Gross, “India … has the potential to become a scientific power”. The development of an indigenous COVID-19 vaccine is just one of many signs of this potential. Today, Gross’s statement is truer than ever. India sits at a sweet spot where it can benefit from not only geopolitical trends as supply chains diversify away from China, but also scientific trends as emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, and renewable energy mature at breakneck speed. Science, today, is at a stage of compounding innovation where advances in one field spur advances in others. Google’s AlphaFold AI model designed to study proteins is one such example. In just one year, AlphaFold has predicted structures for nearly all proteins known to science and has already become an indispensable tool for biotechnology researchers. Such disruptive discoveries are increasingly common on the frontier of science, and India must take advantage of this generational tailwind to jump start its scientific ambitions.

India sits at a sweet spot where it can benefit from not only geopolitical trends as supply chains diversify away from China, but also scientific trends as emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, and renewable energy mature at breakneck speed.

As a start, India must increase its gross expenditure on research and development (GERD). Deepak Pental, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, has argued that boosting GERD to 1 percent of GDP is a realistic target. More importantly, this expenditure cannot be stagnant as it has been for the past 30 years; it is vital that GERD increase at least in line with India’s economy. A good recommendation made in the 2020 New Education Policy, but not yet implemented as of 2022, is the proposal for the National Research Foundation (NRF) to fund large-scale research projects in universities with Rs 50,000 crore over five years. This could be modelled on the US’s National Science Foundation, which has played a key role in transforming America’s universities into research powerhouses. While initially, most research spending must come from the Centre, the long-term target must be to incentivise R&D spending in the private sector. As the 2021 Economic Survey pointed out, in scientifically dominant countries like the US and China more than 80 percent of GERD spending is from the private sector, which explains breakthroughs like Google’s AlphaFold. By contrast, the Indian private sector contributes only 37 percent of research funding. In this respect, the NRF’s goal of increasing links between academia and industry will be invaluable. However, more money by itself does not equate to more innovation. At its heart, science needs human talent, and India’s science strategy must be keenly focused on cultivating human capital. A significant share of any increased spending must be used to augment PhD and postdoctoral stipends to attract the best students to basic research. Initiatives such as the Prime Minister Fellowship Scheme for Doctoral Research are a great start, but they must be expanded.

As the 2021 Economic Survey pointed out, in scientifically dominant countries like the US and China more than 80 percent of GERD spending is from the private sector, which explains breakthroughs like Google’s AlphaFold.

This is also a domain where India’s geopolitical advantages are useful. It can use its friendly relations with developed countries like the US to encourage scientific exchange. Programmes like the Quad Fellowship—which funds 100 students from all four Quad countries (US, India, Japan, Australia) to pursue graduate degrees in science and technology in American universities—is a good initiative but is too small in scope. India must consider further talent exchange programmes with its partners whose awards should be conditioned on some type of public service obligation. This could be in the mould of Singapore’s Presidential Scholarships, with the aim of bringing students back to India after graduation to develop an indigenous research ecosystem. An example of such an obligation could be doing a few years of research at a national lab after graduation. India should also draw lessons from China’s success in becoming a scientific power. One idea worth examining is China’s Thousand Talents Plan. Launched in 2008, it brings leading Chinese scientists living abroad to China through incentives like high salaries, extra research funding, and other perks like accommodation subsidies. India should consider such a scheme with its own considerable diaspora to bring back talent which, in turn, can train the next generation of Indian scientists. During his Independence Day address, the Prime Minister challenged India to become a developed country by its centenary. To do this, we do not need just made in India but also invented in India. Today’s unique combination of economic growth, geopolitical opportunity, and scientific innovation is perfect to kickstart India’s push to become a research powerhouse. Making this commitment to innovation today is one of the most consequential decisions we can make toward India’s future prosperity.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.

Contributors

Jyotirmai Singh

Jyotirmai Singh

Jyotirmai Singh is a PhD candidate in Physics at Stanford University interested in quantum sensing. He obtained his undergraduate degree in Physics from UC Berkeley.

Read More +
Preey Shah

Preey Shah

Preey Shah is an MS candidate in Computer Science at Stanford University with a focus in artificial intelligence. He obtained his undergraduate degree in Computer ...

Read More +