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India’s New Science Policy is about Innovation

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 09, 2013

    The recently concluded (3 to 7 January 2013) Indian Science Congress was historic in more than one way: It was the centenary session of the congress with both the President and Prime Minister in attendance together for the first time. India’s Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STI 2013)1 was also unveiled by the Prime Minister during the congress. This policy document is expected to guide India’s development model in the coming few decades. The theme for the centenary session was “Science for shaping the future of India” which actually is the ‘context’ for the new science policy too.

    Scientific policy making in India has evolved over a period of time. The earlier policy, which was announced a decade back (2003), was called the Science and Technology (S&T) policy. The word ‘innovation’ has been added to the latest policy formulation. For India the paradigm of innovation is about presenting improved S&T based solutions to drive social and economic development. Some years ago, India had declared the decade 2010-2020 as a ‘Decade of Innovation’. STI 2013 could also be viewed as an added manifestation of this strategy. The key focus of new the policy is to encourage the Research and Development (R&D) output. The government feels that “developing solutions to social problems is the new grammar of modern science”2. For developing this policy document, the government had taken inputs from nearly 4,500 experts.

    The identified areas where innovation is needed are: energy and environment, food and nutrition, water and sanitation, affordable health care, etc. For the last few years, the office of Adviser to the PM on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations (PIII) is working on developing a national strategy on innovation with a focus on an Indian model of inclusive growth. The idea is to create an indigenous model of development suited to Indian needs and challenges.3 Here, the idea is to use existing sources of qualified people and engage the Indian Diaspora to ‘recreate’ the old Indian tradition of innovation.

    STI 2013 envisages the creation of a word-class infrastructure for R&D and skill development as well as encouraging the scientific community by providing adequate opportunities and better career options. The formation of new inter-university centres is on the anvil and the government also wants to increase the participation of India’s scientific community in various international projects. Moreover, there is a proposal to give performance related rewards. Appreciating the importance of private industry, the government would be encouraging their participation in R&D. It has also been proposed to evolve a new PPP (public-private partnership) model in this regard. Obviously, to achieve all this, an increase in gross expenditure on R&D to 2 per cent of GDP (currently it is less than 1 per cent) in the next five years has been proposed. Presently, India’s contribution in the form of scientific publications in the top 1 per cent impact making journals is only 2.5 per cent and the ambition is to quadruple such contributions by 2020.

    What the Prime Minister has presented as STI 2013 appears to be a policy document made keeping both rural and urban India’s needs in mind. It is an attempt to bring back the focus on innovation. The intent is to make investments in R&D for the purposes of deriving societal benefits and developing a system which could be commercially viable and help employment generation. Various useful and doable ideas have been presented. Appreciating the reluctance of private industry to invest in R&D because of the financial risks involved, the government has shown a readiness to share such risk. This should help increase private sector involvement. Also, realising that the rigidity of centrally developed plans for investment options do not suit STI, the government has suggested a flexible approach in this regard. The most significant measure proposed is ‘to increase the public and political understanding of science’. For a country like India where faith and religion are often found exploited, it is important to engrave scientific thought in the minds of the people. The PM’s comment in this regard is very significant. He suggests that, “complex issues like GM foods, nuclear energy and exploration of outer space should be settled by structured debate and analysis instead of fear and faith.”4 The idea of mobility for the scientific community from academia to industry and vice versa is also a very welcome step. This would not only make R&D more exciting but would also introduce a new teaching culture where both theory and practice could go hand in hand.

    STI 2013 makes one courageous commitment, namely, ‘to position India amongst top five global scientific powers by 2020’. But the question is: is this just wishful thinking or does India actually believe that this is possible within the next seven years? This goal is achievable only if there is a complete change in the way we do “science” in this country. More importantly, our present day scientific standing may not match this ambition.

    Nuclear science and space science are two arenas where India has done reasonably well over the years but we are still not the frontrunners. It is a fact that India still needs outside help for its nuclear energy infrastructure. Today, India in spite of being a so-called IT superpower is still not in a position to master the Integrated Circuits technology (‘chips technology’). It is important to note that even in IT, India is good only as a ‘service sector’ and lacks miserably with regard to hardware development. Should India, which is yet to master the art of aircraft engines or cryogenic technology required for launching heavy satellites to geostationary orbit, dream so big? During the science Congress, the President of India pointed out the lack of Nobel Prize winning scientists in India. All this indicates that we have a long way to go.

    According to EIU (2009),5 India’s rank in the Economist Group’s Global Innovation Index for 82 countries progressed from 58th place in 2006 to 56th in 2008, with a further progression predicted to 54th place by 2013.6 It is important to note that since India has started seriously investing in innovation only since 2010, it would take some more time to evolve. Over the years serious attempts have been made to develop various inter-university centres for science education and research, an experience that has been very encouraging. But the reality is that India’s most ‘glamorous’ technology institutes, the IITs, do not figure even in the top 200 institutes globally. The Indian Institute of Science (IISc) also has a similar ranking. Some global surveys have not even ranked IITs in the top 400.7

    Also, there are issues like students not getting attracted to study pure science. This is a very complex issue. The social mind set of the country indicates that the most sought after career options are engineering and medicine. This has particularly led to the degradation and commercialization of engineering education. Issues like the impact of reservation policies on growth (science in particular) are not even getting debated since these are politically very sensitive issues. Then there are problems associated with the criteria of judging the performance of scientists. An over emphasis on PhD degrees as a prerequisite for employment and mind-sets like ‘publish or perish’ are forcing scientists to publish half-baked results. It is important to appreciate the fact that economics-based cost-benefit analysis is less relevant to judge performance in the scientific endeavour. Unfortunately, like various sports authorities in the country, there are certain scientific establishments where science administrators are continuing to serve for many years, and this needs to change.

    The excellent aspect of this policy document is that it is encouraging research in new areas such as biotechnology, earth and atmospheric sciences and life sciences. Research in such areas is essential if the state has to fulfil the dream of transforming agriculture through innovation. Ideas such as partner not only with the established global leaders in S&T but also engage emerging players could offer possibilities of making new friends and allow entry into new markets. Over a period of time this could also enable breaking the ‘technology know-how cartel’ controlled by a few developed states.

    A most critical aspect of technology innovation is the investments made by the state in strategic technologies. It is important to remember that most of the technological developments during the 20th century were guided by military needs. While current innovations are believed to be guided by market forces, the importance of R&D in the defence arena should not be overlooked. Spin-off technologies and innovations are likely to impact development in civilian/social fields too and states like India that make significant investments in their military–industrial complex need to take advantage of this.

    Overall, STI 2013 indicates that innovation is the key if India has to establish itself as a leading player in the S&T sector globally. India believes that thoughtful and need-specific investments in R&D are essential for the growth of the country. The new policy is proposing the development of high cost infrastructure (inclusive of scientific manpower) for this purpose. It is also expected that this policy would help and assist the corporate sector and would encourage them to undertake greater R&D efforts. However, there are very many challenges too. Only effective implementation of this policy is likely to fetch the desired results.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.