A disappointment for scientific community

(THE HINDU article)

After a decade-long policy paralysis in science, technology and higher education research during UPA I and II, the Indian science community was waiting with optimism. To its disappointment, the budget did not commit any substantial funding that the field of Science and Technology (S&T) deserves. It also failed to give any signals to strengthen the research and innovation base of our ailing 700 universities and 30,000-plus colleges.

Investing in R&D
Benchmarking OECD and other front-ranking economies, the Manmohan Singh government from 2004 reiterated its commitment to increase the Gross Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD) to 2 per cent of GDP. In the last decade, Indian GERD/GDP either stagnated at a little less than 0.9 per cent or even relatively declined when adjusted to inflation. During the same period, the Chinese figure witnessed a jump from 1 per cent to 1.9 per cent of GDP. China’s economy is three to four times larger than the Indian economy. It is investing at least five times more money in Research and Development (R&D) compared to us. Going back from earlier commitments, the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013 promised to increase the magic figure to 2 per cent only “if the private sector raises its R&D investment.” The budget statement has a somewhat similar tone.
The quality of science production and excellence in science is falling rapidly due to poor peer evaluation systems and merit-based incentives
Without a clear-cut commitment and a road map from the government to increase the public share of GERD to 2 per cent of GDP, the laudable goals of “positioning India among the top five global scientific powers by 2020” (STIP 2013); building a new science and technology base in nanotechnology, material science, bio-medical research and devices; a range of biotechnology-related front-ranking research clusters in Faridabad and Bengaluru; science component of ‘smart cities’; high speed and bullet trains etc., as desired in the budget, will remain a distant dream. Without allocating sufficient funds for research, we may even become dependent on foreign countries for critical technologies. The issue of higher government commitment to GERD also assumes significance as more than 55 per cent of GERD in the last few decades is consumed by the strategic sectors of defence, atomic energy and space. Hence what is broadly left under the civilian R&D is less than 45 per cent of GERD. With a series of missions planned to Mars and the moon, ‘big science’ international projects and emerging geo-political scenario, the dominance of strategic sectors in GERD is likely to continue in the coming decade. The progress of science agencies and R&D is intimately connected with human potential in higher education.

Research in higher education
Research in higher education has been a victim of policy paralysis in S&T in the last few decades. Two crucial features of research in higher education are its share in national GERD and research intensity. In the last decade, universities accounted for over 52 per cent of total cumulative national research publications measured by international databases such SCI or SCOPUS. But they were allocated just 5 per cent of GERD. Second, just about 10-12 per cent of our universities and colleges can be described as research intensive. The rest — nearly 88 per cent of our universities — are only teaching institutions. The bulk of our higher education sector is yet to attain what is known as the Humboldtian goal of teaching and research excellence. These facts have been repeatedly pointed out to both HRD and the Department of Science and Technology. But so far very little has been done to create a level-playing field between higher education and science agencies.
Universities in the OECD region (25 countries) accounted for 20 per cent and Japanese universities accounted for 17 per cent of GERD in the last decade. Even Chinese universities increased their share of GERD from around 5 per cent in the 1990s to over 15 per cent at present. The policy measures taken to increase research intensity in universities and nurture them to attain world-class standards in China were part of its national innovation strategies. Project 211 in the mid-1990s allocated U.S. $7.98 billion for 100 universities. Project 985 further shortlisted 39 universities to develop them into their version of ‘Chinese Ivy League’ from the late 1990s with a budget of 4.87 U.S.$ billion. We have not only fallen behind our global competitors, but have failed to adequately address the question of research intensity and gross enrolment ratios in the higher education sector.

We have not only fallen behind our global competitors, but have failed to adequately address the question of research intensity and gross enrolment ratios in the higher education sector. Photo: H. Vibhu

So far, national leadership has failed to forge close collaborative links and channels of mobility between public science agencies, universities and user industries. For instance, there is very little collaboration between the best of our software firms and universities. The Nano mission funded 150 projects but did not lead to any fruitful joint collaboration between institutions and industry. All three operate in relative isolation with each other. Such inter-institutional collaborations are important as they not only arrest fossilisation of research areas but also enhance the mobility of research personnel. Acquiring sophisticated equipment and instrumentation is a capital-intensive affair. Inter-institutional mobility will optimise the usage of scarce S&T resources. In this context we can learn from the French experience.
In the last two decades, 80 per cent of CNRS (French National Research Council) laboratories were reorganised to establish joint R&D units with universities in their close proximity. They follow a system of joint appointments to enhance mobility between different institutions and establish joint incubation and innovation centres to commercialise technologies.
With Public-Private Partnership and FDI looming large in S&T institutions, we need to formulate a series of S&T laws to govern and regulate knowledge production, incentives and research innovation schemes. There is no national intellectual property law governing all public research and educational institutions at the moment. Without this step, PPP in research is going to be problematic. This assumes significance as the new policy intends to open up research and innovation schemes to the private and corporate sector firms in future.
The other area where our science leadership has failed us is in science organisation. The quality of science production and excellence in science is falling rapidly due to poor peer evaluation systems and merit-based incentives. A large number of S&T journals continue to lag far behind international benchmarks. They are not the first or even second priority. They are a fallback preference if papers are rejected by foreign journals. Science agencies do not attract the best of talents. Young faculty in universities feel quite frustrated to discover after entering that it takes 12 long years to get their first promotion. There is large-scale internal brain drain taking place from science and engineering to commerce, management and marketing areas.
Over the years, one can witness the loss of research and academic autonomy in science agencies and academia. The scientific elite who are leading these large institutions no longer see themselves as representatives of the scientific academic community. It seems, this elite draws its legitimacy not from its membership in the academic-science community but from its access and proximity to political power. It is indeed a dangerous trend that the scientific elite is getting embedded with political powers sacrificing their research and academic autonomy in the process. Only time will only tell us where we are heading.
(V.V. Krishna is professor in science policy, Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU and Editor-in-Chief, Science, Technology and Society, Sage.)