Jan 7, 2009

India - Why the drop in innovation ?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated the obvious when he said in his address to the Indian Science Congress at Shillong a few days ago that, when it came to scientific effort, the country lagged behind not just the developed nations but also the newly industrialising economies of Asia. His comments have found a quick echo in an innovativeness index, where India’s rank has dropped sharply and is now way below China’s. The Prime Minister in Shillong could do no more than reiterate his promise to double the investment in science to 2 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). As it happens, the current level (as reported by the department of scientific research) is only 0.8 per cent of GDP; so 2 per cent would imply an increase of 150 per cent. No one who is realistic can see this being achieved; and yet, the matter deserves serious attention because one of the prime causes of economic growth is technological improvement.

There is little corrective action that can be expected from this government, when it is about to complete its term in office. But to give credit where it is due, it has taken many steps in the past four years, the most significant being the decisions to set up five new Indian Institutes of Science (IIS) and the upgradation and setting up of new technical education institutes (IITs). There are two problems, though: deciding on such a course and actually establishing new institutes are quite different things, and even these steps are by no means adequate. For a start, it is not enough to set up specialised institutes, the science departments in the universities need upgrading too. That in turn raises several other problems: the failure to attract a sufficient number of bright students to the science stream at the secondary and higher secondary school level (which is when a fascination with science can be expected to begin), and perhaps linked to this the poor remuneration level and even poorer career advancement prospects for those who opt for a career in science teaching and research. It is of course hard to compete with the rapid increases in salary levels that have occurred in the commercial world, and the attractions of working with infotech companies like Infosys and Wipro will seduce over-qualified products of the best technology schools into writing codes for a living. These disadvantages can be neutralised by offering open learning environments in university departments, along good laboratory and other facilities.

India’s expenditure on science compares poorly with China's 1.23 per cent and (if such a comparison is relevant) Japan's 3.11 per cent. India has only 110 researchers per million people, against 633 in China and over 5,000 in Japan. The research output is bound to reflect this disparity. In some fields, such as space and information technology, where proper investments have been made, the country has done well. But in most others areas, the country's record is dismal and therefore does not inspire any confidence that it can achieve faster knowledge- and technology-based economic development. With the intellectual property regime getting tighter, shutting out the scope for reverse engineering and re-engineering to launch new products, the need for indigenous research to sustain economic development has become even more important than before. Greater investment in research and development, including fundamental research, is imperative. And both the public and private sectors need to contribute

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