Research in India Part 1: Local solutions needed to deal with unique problems

The topic of research and development in India is an oft-debated one. There are plenty of views suggesting that the country is simply not doing enough to justify its place in the global economy vis-à-vis research or to achieve its own ambitions, particularly in light of the 'Make in India' initiative. On 7 January in Bengaluru, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the phenomenon of 'brain drain' — something that obviously hits research hard — from the nation. The following is the first in a three-part series on research in India. You can read the second and third parts here and here respectively.

Research and Development (R and D) is critical for an economy to remain competitive in the era of globalisation. Although India has no dearth of talent, it certainly falls behind other developed nations as far as contributions to quality research are concerned. For decades, India's potential to become a centre for world-class research has been neglected. Additionally, India spends a fraction of what other nations spend on R and D. According to OECD, India spends 50 percent of the global average per researcher. The menace of 'brain drain' is further aggravated by the increased number of students opting to continue further studies in other countries, largely owing to the larger sums of grants available for research. Despite India appearing as a global knowledge superpower, only about three percent of global research output (as of 2010) was from India.

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

In several fields, India’s share in global research output was below the overall average count. In an effort to address this issue, we will discuss the status of R and D in India, barriers and drivers, the correlation of science and research to economic development, as well as, the infrastructure and ecosystem needed for innovation to flourish.

Basic research requires resources, time and infrastructure. The remuneration in research is less appealing when compared to other avenues of employment. The absence of effective role models and the government’s control over funds are additional barriers. Research also requires cross-border collaborations, which could be hindered by constraints put by the government. Moreover, a scientific temperament should be developed at an early age, something that we have collectively failed to do for our youth, as a nation. Even the best of schools do not encourage children to be curious, ask questions or make observations, thereby making students conform to an archaic mode of learning.

On a positive note, the government has taken a few initiatives, including the establishment of a National Institution to Transforming India (NITI Aayog), to increase involvement of entrepreneurs and researchers, in an attempt to foster scientific innovations. A major chunk of investments in R and D come from the Department of Science and Technology. Given the talent pool, several MNCs are setting up their R and D centres in India to establish their presence within the country. This will surely encourage R and D. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in R and D is on the increase under a more positive ecosystem. According to Zinnov, a management consulting firm, the engineering R and D market in India is estimated to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 14 percent to reach $42 billion by 2020. These figures can be largely attributed to the large sums of foreign investment that have been entering the market through MNCs. Fostering a climate which is conducive to research, will increase FDI, which will be a positive sign for broader diversification of investments across different sectors in the country.

As a large emerging economy with several challenges ahead of us, research and development is critical, if our economy has to remain competitive in this era of globalisation. For our products to be competitive internationally, continuous development of new technologies and products will be necessary. Investments in science are not just limited to R and D, but rather comprise of a range of intangible investments that help drive innovation. We need an appropriate level of public and private investment, effective innovation partnerships among companies and with academia. Maybe private corporations could pool funds together through consortia to address different broad research areas. One way to do this can be through public investment focused on basic research, and private investments focused on developmental research.

On the other hand, for a large country like India, we need local solutions to deal with myriad local and unique problems we have. We need to undertake applied research that can focus on areas of national importance like poverty, health and education, to start with. Once the monetary benefits are attractive and create viable opportunities, youngsters in India will be inspired and motivated to take up research here in the future. While applied research can be taken to market and show economic returns in the near term, basic research is the foundation for that and needs to be encouraged too.

Organisations need to make applied R and D germane to their business while non-government organisations, in addition to the government, need to promote and allocate funds for basic research.

The role of such organisations and initiatives, in acting as a catalyst to achieve success in research and development, are pivotal to both national progress and global competitiveness. We should foster collaborations between the government, academicians and the industry and non-for-profits, facilitating the flow of innovations from research centers of universities, to the industry, benefiting a nation’s economy and its progress.

On a more fundamental level, a pedagogical change is imperative to encourage scientific enquiry amongst the youth. A solid foundation at the primary and secondary levels of learning can help students enhance their level of understanding and render them the confidence to pursue research in later years. Unstructured, accommodative and flexible learning coupled with fulfilment of job roles through successful investment in R and D can ignite the spark. Gnanadeepa, piloted by the Infosys Science Foundation, is an initiative that trains teachers to impart science and maths concepts to their students in ways to increase retention and understanding.

The author is Trustee, Infosys Science Foundation

Part 2: Does R&D hold the key to fuelling economic development?
Part 3: Ecosystems are the key to nurturing an innovation economy