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How India can get the best researchers

January 07, 2010 11:52 IST

The aggregate domestic R&D spend in India has never exceeded 1 per cent of GDP, and over 80 per cent of Indian firms spend nothing on research, says Shyamal Majumdar.

Last Sunday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said something that India's leading scientists have been saying for long: The time has come to liberate Indian science from red tape and cronyism.

Singh's comments came barely a week after Nobel laureate Indian-American scientist Venkataraman Ramakrishnan told reporters in Chennai that India must provide scientists autonomy from red tape and local politics if it wants scientists of Indian origin to return home. "They should be allowed to do science - peacefully," Ramakrishnan said.

It's easy to understand why these two eminent gentlemen are worried. The aggregate domestic research and development (R&D) spending has never exceeded 1 per cent of GDP, making India the world's ninth-largest spender.

China spends more than three times of what India does. The gap will only widen further with China planning to increase the proportion of R&D spending to a staggering 4 per cent of GDP by 2025 (it's around 1.5 per cent now).

Besides, about 75-80 per cent of India's R&D spending comes from public enterprises, while in China, more than 65 per cent comes from private enterprises. India also fares very low in the ratio of researchers to the total population: It has 120 people employed in R&D per million of the population compared to 633 for China.

The private sector's role in promoting science and indigenous R&D has also been abysmal - something the prime minister didn't forget to mention in his speech delivered at the Indian Science Congress in Thiruvananthapuram.

A study done by the Administrative Staff College of India a few years ago found that over 80 per cent of Indian companies reported zero spend on R&D in their annual reports.

The broad pattern of India's spending on science shows that a major chunk goes into mission mode projects in areas like space, ocean development, atomic energy and defence.

While the defence sector continues to garner maximum funds, industrial R&D has suffered badly - something that will most certainly affect the industrial competitiveness of India vis-à-vis countries such as Taiwan, Singapore, Israel and Korea.

There are other problems too. Nearly a decade ago, the number of papers published by Indian scientists in international journals used to be close to 11,000, while Chinese scientists could manage only 10,000.

But latest figures tell a completely different story: While Indian scientists published over 19,000 papers, their Chinese counterparts managed a whopping 50,000.

It's, therefore, a fact that in terms of research and purely academic disciplines, such as mathematics and physics, India is beginning to trail in comparison not just to other countries but to its own past performance.

CNR Rao, chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council to the PM, has also often raised the employability issue. Annually, India produces 650,000 undergraduates, which is eight times that of the US.

But 60 per cent of the undergraduates are not well-trained, as a result of which over half of engineering students are unfit for employment.

That's something that has prompted Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to put on hold several proposals for setting up centres of excellence.

Five research boards have been operational for the last couple of years to assess research proposals for the DRDO, but very few have matched the standards set by the premier research agency.

"It's not shortage of funds. The crux of the problem is shortage of quality scientists willing to commit at least three years for research with defence laboratories," says a DRDO official.

The just-retired chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), G Madhavan Nair, has also repeatedly said that a dearth of scientists capable of developing instrumentation for astronomical observation has been restricting the future progress of space science projects in India.

This is despite the fact that the premier space research organisation got over 135,000 applications for a mere 300 openings last year.

Consider this: Isro has a total staff strength of 13,000, which includes canteen staff and even drivers. Compared to this, the number of Americans working on a single shuttle is over 10,000.

A part of the reason for Isro's inability to get the right is, of course, the salary. It offers Rs 30,000 as entry-level monthly salary to candidates who have a first class BE/BTech or an equivalent degree with an aggregate minimum of 65 per cent.

The few talented ones would obviously prefer to join the private sector or space agencies, observatories, universities, satellite communication companies and meteorological offices abroad.

All this has also meant a shortage of faculty. According to the government's own submission in the Lok Sabha last month, the scenario is critical in Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, where there are only 210 faculty members against the sanctioned strength of 478.

The situation is no different in National Institutes of Technology (NITs), where the faculty position stands at 2,603 against the sanctioned strength of 3,747. The faculty position in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) stands at 2,983 against the sanctioned strength of 4,267.

So, Singh's concerns have real basis. What is heartening, however, is that the PM hasn't restricted himself to plain-speaking alone and has been taking some initiatives to strengthen the linkages between academic institutions, research institutions and industry.

Consider the initiative to set up five Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Kolkata, Pune, Mohali, Bhopal and Thiruvananthapuram, and one National Institute of Science Education and Research in Bhubaneswar.

About 50 per cent of the students at these institutes study for an integrated five-year MSc after their 12th standard.

The budget allocation has also been generous. Each IISER will get Rs 500 crore (Rs 5 billion) for the first five years - money that's enough for IISER Kolkata, for example, to set up a 200-acre campus at Haringhata near Kolkata.

The central theme of these institutes is to integrate education with research so that undergraduate teaching as well as doctoral and postdoctoral research work could be carried out in symbiosis.

This means the IISERs are a sharp deviation from the existing system that separates scientific research and education.

Under the existing system, Indian universities teach science at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and separate national laboratories carry out research at doctoral and post-doctoral levels. IISERs seek to bridge that divide.

Setting up these institutes was just one part of the PM's initiatives. The country will also have a National Foundation for Science and Engineering on the lines of the National Science Foundation in the US. To be set up with an annual budget of Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion) to oversee and finance new research and offer fellowships to attract Indian scientists from abroad, the Foundation is being eagerly awaited.

While these are welcome steps, there is no denying the fact that a lot more needs to be done. For example, experts say one of the main reasons for Indian educational institutes not getting enough quality science teachers is the government's old mindset of treating everybody alike in terms of salaries, research funding etc.

For example, China has switched over to a star-system under which leading academics are paid higher salaries and research funding. That's sensible as getting the best researchers is the only way pockets of excellence can emerge. Is HRD Minister Kapil Sibal listening?

Shyamal Majumdar
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