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Promote Scientific Research:Expenditure Needs to be Geared Up, by Dhurjati Mukherjee, 30 Nov 06 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 30 November 2006

Promote Scientific Research

Expenditure Needs to be Geared Up

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has always been a votary of spreading scientific knowledge and pointed to the need for giving more attention to this sector. Not only have financial allocations for science teaching in India increased but he has also committed to boost up the annual expenditure on science and technology from less than one per cent of GDP to two per cent in the next five years. Over the years lot of concern has been expressed by various sections of academicians and also by our Prime Minister and President, all of whom have expressed the need to concentrate on research and translate the benefits to the field and factory.

The PM regretted recently that research standards have declined in Indian universities and warned about a “disconnect between research and teaching in the sciences”. Moreover the type of research being conducted was concentrated in specialized institutes and generally did nor have a direct bearing on society. The universities also had difficulty in mobilizing adequate financial and intellectual resources which, in turn, hampered research.

Delving into some bare facts, one finds that R&D expenditure has remained static at 0.8 per cent of the GDP during 1985 to 2005 though China increased it from 0.5 per cent to 1.3 per cent during the same period. Japan and South Korea spend 3 and 2 per cent respectively on R&D. Moreover China increased its number of scientific publications to 104 times during the two decades while India could do it only 2.3 times, according ta a study by R. N. Kostoff of the U.S. Office of Naval Research. 

Eugene Garfield, the American pioneer in mapping scientific information, has corroborated the decline in Indian standards. According to him, in 1973 Indian scientists accounted for about half of the developing world’s quality science papers. In the 70s, his benchmark Science Citation Index places India in the 8th place behind the US, UK, USSR, France, Japan and Canada. By 2000, India had slid to the 15th place.

Though one may argue that citations need not be the only benchmark, India’s agricultural research has also not been very successful to develop ground-breaking techniques for the rain-dependent farmers, as result of which production and productivity is very low in drought prone areas. Regarding defence research, the Defence Research & Development Organization’s (DRDO’s) ambitious plans to achieve 70 per cent weapons indigenisation by 2005 has been abysmal failure and may not be accomplished even by 2010.

According to a 1999 CAG audit, the development of the Pinaka, a multi-barrel rocket launcher, was compromised by non-availability of qualified manpower. The DRDO’s scientists are grossly outnumbered by up to four times the auxiliary staff than found in similar private sector establishments. As regards the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is concerned, India’s success stories are far behind that of global competitors.

For example, China has launched 24 foreign satellites so far, sent two manned missions into space, is believed to be planning a human mission to Mars in 2017 and a satellite navigation system akin to the European Galileo. India has only just begun to consider sending a man into space and would still take another 6-7 years to launch manned space aircraft.  Moreover, the GSLV crash is indeed a big setback to the country’s entry into the $ 2 billion commercial satellite launch market.

In pharmaceuticals though, India is a leader in the Third World, it has done no better when it comes to discovering new molecules to treat diseases. “No new molecules are being discovered”, observed Dr. C. M. Gulati, a drug expert, adding that what is happening is just “peripheral research where the industry is developing new formulations of existing drugs or new routes of drug delivery and getting patents for these”. With this kind of research, experts believe that India cannot capture even 0.5 per cent of the drug R&D market. In fact, the country’s medical research has no productive link with the rising pharma industry.

Apart from these sectoral developments, interest in science education is also on the decline. Students opting for pure science for graduation in India dropped from 32 per cent in 1950 to 15 per cent in 2000. Scientists per million population in the country in a mere 157 compared to 545 in China and 2319 in South Korea. Obviously this is because on R&D expenditure per capita is a mere $ 5.5 compared to $11.7 of China and $ 241 of South Korea. It is true that India produces some finest scientists and has some very good laboratories but they are like proverbial islands of excellence surrounded by a vast ocean of mediocrity.

Although our science and technology policy has advocated pubic-private partnership in research, industry’s contribution remains just about 20 per cent as compared to around 70-80 per cent in advanced countries and 40 per cent in China. It is indeed intriguing why the Indian private sector has been unable to contribute to R&D compared to their counterparts in South Korea and Singapore not to speak of the Western nations. Except for the Tata group and another one or two in the pharmaceutical sector, the contribution of even the market leaders in industry towards research has been quite poor. Even industry-wise, R&D expenditure has not been encouraging except, of course, for the pharma and IT sectors.

Realizing the imperative need to give a boost to science education and attract more students in this field, the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister decided to set up the National Science & Engineering Foundation and two new institutes of science. The proposals come with some hefty price tags: Rs 500 crores for each of the two institutes and Rs 1000 crores for the Foundation to fund basic research in the universities. The obvious goal is to inject more money into science and create more centres of excellence and basic research.

The Government’s concern at this juncture cannot be doubted and quite justifiably, so as the country aims at achieving international standards and become globally competitive in the coming years. The warning of ‘acting now’ has been rightly sounded by Prof. C. N. Rao, the PM’s Scientific Advisor, and this has resulted in evolving an action plan at the highest level with the following objectives:

Selected few to be handsomely funded so that they attain international standards;  demand performance from individuals and institutions after providing necessary funds; create an autonomous research foundation to take care of all aspect of scientific research;

initiate a massive programme of rejuvenation of state and central universities; encourage top talent from all corners of the country to enter the field of pure science and also encourage young scientists in research work in all possible ways; and  provide freedom of operation to scientists, universities and scientific institutions.

Scientific innovations in key areas such as power (atomic power), defence, biotechnology, pharma, IT and mining sectors are imperative for the country at this juncture. To emerge as a world leader in the true sense, there is need for sustained research in the above areas, responsibility for which has to be shared jointly by the government and the private sector. For a country to emerge big and strong R&D has to be given priority and more funds allocated for this purpose under different heads so that the benefits of research reach society, both rural and urban and industrial and agricultural.---INFA

 (Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)



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