Is India Equipped For Big Science?
A tectonic shift is occurring in the science landscape, wherein newly-developed nations are audaciously investing in frontier scientific research at par with developed nations.
India is game to join this new wave of advancement, but its research funding mechanisms are deficient.
Can Indian philanthropy endow indigenous R&D?
The Government of India (GoI) has been the sole aid for scientific R&D in India, largely due to Indian polity’s highly centralised structure. Centralisation and populist policies have proved to be detrimental to science in India and limited gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) to below 1 percent of the national GDP - 0.88 percent in 2009 and 0.82 percent in 2012.
While India’s geostrategic competitor China increased its R&D investments rapidly in the past decade, India thwarted its own rise in favour of bottom-of-the-pyramid innovation. Its leadership failed to realise aspiring superpowers pursue high technologies and not frugal innovation. China has doubled its GERD to around the 2.08 percent GoI has been targeting for the past few years but is yet to reach.
India is a multi-trillion dollar economy, but its scientific institutions fall short of giving it the much-needed techno-strategic jump. The Narendra Modi-led Union Cabinet has set some momentum since 2015, allocating Rs. 1,500 crores for the India-based Neutrino Observatory, Rs. 4.500 crores the National Supercomputing Mission, Rs. 378 crores for the Aditya Mission, and Rs. 1,200 crores for LIGO-India, to be spent over 2017–2020. The Modi administration has also allotted Rs. 44,000 crores for its science and technology ministries and departments in the 2016–17 Union Budget. A substantial amount of this budget will be invested in renewable solar energy R&D, and towards transforming India into a global hub for genomic research.
However, despite these investments, India’s GERD is far behind that of the European Union, China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States, and its own target of 2 per cent.
What is pulling India back? Low innovations and investments. The Global Innovation Index 2015 ranks India at a dismal 81st position. GoI recognises innovation is the missing link in India’s economic advancement: The 2011 National Manufacturing Policy (NMP) released by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry stated manufacturing contributes only 15%–16% of India’s GDP while in China, Japan, and South Korea—all high technology manufacturers—staggeringly around 25%–34%.
High-value manufacturing—the secondary phase after hi-tech innovation—finds mention in India’s 2011 NMP, Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-17), and “Make in India” programme, and India has an ambitious target of increasing its manufacturing output to 25% of its GDP by the year 2025 while economic growth in India and China has made Asia the top geographical region to invest in corporate R&D spending, but rather than utilising indigenous capacities, India’s business R&D imports have increased 116%.
China leverages its business imports by wholly exploiting its dominion over rare earth mineral supplies and resultant hi-tech electronics manufacturing whereas India is losing its capital to imports that symptomise scientific-academic R&D institutions are unable to wholly meet the next generation demands of Indian industry, and there is vacuum in the name of collaboration.
To enhance India’s innovation indices, GoI has, in the past few months, launched domain-specific corpus funds for the private sector to interact with R&D entities.
The Ministry of Commerce and Industry launched the Technology Acquisition and Development Fund focusing on from medium and small enterprises to enhance product and industrial design, and energy-efficient technology capacities; the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology announced a corpus of Rs. 2,200 crores—the Electronics Development Fund—for capacity building in next generation nanoelectronics manufacturing; and the Steel Authority of India and steel manufacturers have announced a Rs. 200-crore corpus—the Steel Research Technology Mission of India. Many venture capitalists and corpuses like the India Innovation Fund promoted by the National Association of Software and Services Companies and ICICI Knowledge Park, the Global Innovation & Technology Alliance promoted by the Confederation of Indian Industries and GoI’s Department of Science & Technology (DST), and the Indian Innovation Growth Programme—India Innovates—by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Lockheed Martin Corporation, and DST, are successfully funding diverse industrial start-ups and university spin-off projects.
Basic science R&D in academic-scientific institutions is yet to be picked up. While start-ups are known for their fast breeding character, scientific research requires longer incubation periods to get a commercially viable output. For such basic research, philanthropic and corporate social responsibility (CSR) support becomes vital.
A large part of existing philanthropic and corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities in India are restricted to popular sectors like sports, child and women welfare, disaster relief, and school education, but there is much need to create awareness of the possibilities of philanthropic contributions in niche areas like R&D.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) announced during the Union Budget, is seeded with an initial grant of Rs. 150 crores for this fiscal and is expected to generate a massive fund of $300-$500 billion over the next five years. AIM can be an indispensible interface between academic-scientific institutions and the private sector, especially vis-a-vis philanthropy and CSR. Basic science remains a hugely untapped sector in Indian philanthropy and CSR. Academic and scientific institutions and philanthropists must comprehend each other’s needs, reduce incompatibilities, and together acquire regulatory symbioses in the greater interest of the nation.
Non-governmental symbioses have the potential to diminish existing output lethargy and make India’s scientific ecosystem agile and progressive. A prospering economy would only help GoI to gradually increase its GERD much higher than present contributions.
It is important for India’s government, scientists, and private sector to work synchronously and utilise basic science for the advancement of our vast populace. While present-day applied science can supply to near-future demands, a vast amount of basic research is yet to be carried out to sustain our needs in the latter half of the twenty-first century.
Investing meekly in science has brought India to what it is today; investing strategically and aptly will certainly make India, in the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a $20 trillion economy.
This article was first published on Gateway House here.
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