By Dinesh C Sharma
The annual jamboree of science – the Indian Science Congress – was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi amidst the usual pomp and ceremonial gusto in Mysuru on Sunday. Successive prime ministers have used this forum to share their vision about science in India and make big-ticket policy announcements. Judged from this criterion, Modi’s speech fell short of expectations.
The Prime Minister made few specific points relating to the need for a framework for auditing scientific departments and research institutions, creating technology incubators in academic institutions, greater collaboration between central and state agencies engaged in research and encouraging innovation. While all these are great pointers, none of them amount to a policy shift.
The critical issue of increasing government support to research and development (R&D) only got a passing reference couched in extreme generality: “We will also try to increase the level of resources for science, and deploy them in accordance with our strategic priorities.” The Prime Minister’s prescription for concern about quality of science education and research in the country was even vaguer. He said: “We will make it easier to do science and research in India, improve science administration, and expand the supply and improve the quality of science education and research in India.”
It is now universally acknowledged that if India wants to be counted among leaders of science and technology globally and also solve its problems ranging from hunger to heart disease, it will have to invest more in R&D. For too long, we have made sub-critical investments in scientific infrastructure and have been cribbing about India lagging behind countries like China and Korea. Among BRICS nations, India’s R&D expenditure is among the lowest: India spends 0.9 per cent of its GDP on R&D compared to 1.97 per cent by China. Only South Africa spends less than India. It is heartening that despite low investments, India is among top 15 in terms of research output. China is second after America, according to recent data.
While frugal innovation and crowdfunding – referred to by the Prime Minister in his speech – are important ideas to promote innovation and startups but they are no substitutes for enhanced investments in science education and research. All this was articulated in the science, technology and innovation (STI) policy launched during the Science Congress session in 2013. The STI policy, which has not been abandoned by the current government, had proposed a clear roadmap for integrating science and technology with innovation as well as socio-economic sectors. The STI system, according to it, should promote inclusive growth, availability and affordability of solutions for people.
At the same time the document had envisaged India to be among the top five global scientific powers by 2020. The target was to increase R&D investment to reach 2 percent of the GDP in five years with the private sector contributing 50 per cent of the same from its present share of 30 per cent in total R&D investment. In order to facilitate private sector investment in R&D, the policy had proposed setting up of a National STI Foundation in public-private partnership mode. This would allow private sector to access public fund for R&D for social and public good. It was suggested that government should share risk for seeding science and technology-based high-risk innovations by private or public agencies. The document spoke of demand-based R&D interventions in ten sectors of high-impact potential, prioritising critical R&D areas like agriculture, energy, water management, health and drug discovery, environment and climate change.
Talking of promoting innovation, scientific research and science education in general terms, without setting any goals is not going to yields results. The STI policy of 2013, much like Technology Missions of 1980s, had clearly set out specific targets to be achieved in a given timeframe. In the absence of a new policy announcement by the present government, one presumes that 2013 policy still remains the official policy. If that is so, we should see some concrete steps to implement some of the ideas enshrined in that policy which was a result of collective wisdom of India’s scientific community involved in making that policy.
In the past one year, we have seen just one initiative to translate an idea from the STI policy (integrating science with socio-economic sectors): the National Space Conference which identified 170 applications of space technology that touch almost every aspect of governance, development and conservation, as mentioned in Modi’s speech. We need to see more such projects and programmes.
Science congress is a unique platform where Nobel laureates, science administrators, top scientists from research labs and university students rub shoulders under one roof. It is a melting pot of ideas, knowledge and experience. Major policy reforms have been effected by the government as a result of recommendations made by science congresses in the past. New government departments like the Ministry of Nonconventional and Renewable Energy were established as recommended by the science congress. Keeping in mind such pivotal role played by the congress, some hopes are still pinned to the 2016 congress.