Why India must invest more in science

You must have read that 38% of doctors in the US are Indians, as are 36% of scientists at the space agency NASA and so are 34% of Microsoft employees. Daggubati Purandeswari, former MP and the minister of state for human resource development under Manmohan Singh’s first term as prime minister, had heard this too. Unfortunately Purandeswari parroted those numbers in a Rajya Sabha session without verifying and, because those statistics are not true, shewas ridiculed in the press for it.

The true numbers are are estimated to be smaller (but still significant). About 5% of doctors in the US may be Indians or of Indian origin, same for about 5% of NASA scientists and perhaps a similar proportion of Microsoft employees. What is probably also true is that most of these people with an Indian connection studied abroad in top universities before taking on these prestigious jobs.

We love to brag about what our fellow citizens achieve, and it is great to see that patriotism. But, sadly, we also love to exaggerate our achievements and inflate our egos in the process.

While it is great that Indians abroad have achieved and keep achieving great things, we must also reflect upon the fact that the country doesn’t do enough towards training its young to achieve those things at home. And a reminder of these facts and fables is necessary today in light of the recently released Indian budget.

Stopping the brain drain

India invests less than 1% of its GDP  in scientific research. Compare that with China’s investment of nearly 2%, the US’s of about 3% and South Korea’s of almost 4%. India’s ambition of featuring among the big nations of the world is being cut short because of our poor investment in science, and the results show.

The Times Higher Education ranking of world’s universities released today does not feature a single Indian educational institute in the top 100. Brazil, Russia and China—countries often considered India’s equal in the global economy—all feature at least one university in the prestigious list.

This mattes because, while we like to proclaim proudly that we are a nation full of engineers and doctors, we must also face the reality that the best of them go abroad to fulfil their dreams and aspirations. India needs to do better to hold on to its talents, and the easiest way to ensure that is to invest more in creating world-class universities for higher education and research.

Many bright minds have paid attention to this problem, and there has been some progress. The new Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, for instance, are welcome developments, but they must be provided enough support to flourish. The recent budget for science has even not managed to keep up with inflation—it is only 3.4% more than that in 2014.

Dheeraj Singh of the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur thinks science departments need at least 15% more funds each year to live up to their promise. CNR Rao, former head of India’s Scientific Advisory council, told Nature, “There are scientists in India who want to do cutting-edge science. But to be competitive you need more funds.”

Paisa wise, Rupee foolish

And this plea is not without precedent. According to Space Foundation, for every $1 that the US government spends on NASA, the country’s gets $10 in economic benefit. Such a return is made possible because of the knowledge and expertise that NASA creates. Technologies such as global positioning systems used by smartphone users to find their location on a map and weather forecasting using satellites were developed by NASA researchers. The recent success of the Mars Orbiter Mission shows that Indian space research can do similar things with smaller investments.

Some may argue that India needs to invest in healthcare before it invents new rockets. While that argument has problems, even if accept it, the recent budget did worse for healthcare than for science. A 15% cut to the healthcare budget means that India’s health crisis is going to get worse. For all that prime minister Narendra Modi has promised, his actions speak louder than words. His government prefers the short-term benefits much more than long-term growth.

First published in Lokmat Times. Image credit: NASA.

When you mess with scientists

With a grim future for its Economy, the leaders went on an austerity drive. They threatened to cut science funding. Scientists community was outraged. The UK produces as much as 10% of global scientific output with only 1% of the global population, they argued. The Science is Vital campaign was born and it helped force the government to not reduce but freeze science funding for next four years. In real terms, that means an overall cut of 10%. Is that still too much?

Leaders acknowledge that science is vital for the economy, but is that enough? – eu:sci, January 2011 issue

Can academic pursuits and money not go hand-in-hand?

This month’s C & EN editorial by Allen J. Bard argues that ‘the culture of academic research has shifted over the past 50 years from research evaluation based on teaching, creativity and productivity to one based simply on the amount of money raised.’

Allen goes on to note that ‘I’ve been to party to tenure discussions that have centred on “scoring two major grants” rather than on the quality of work.’ What is more worrying is that, ‘the fact is that the final decision to fund really comes from the project officers who have often become remote from the frontiers of research and often fall prey to the fad of the mouth’.

He also points out that this has led the universities to focus on demonstrating the ‘economical value’ of the research and their ‘critical mission’ becomes getting more intellectual property (IP) or start-up companies. He concludes by saying, ‘If working closely with students and doing long-term fundamental research is not the goal and money is the important thing, there are more lucrative professions than academic ones for them to pursue.’

If it is true that academics spend 70% of their time writing research proposals then I do agree that Allen has raised some very valid points. But I can’t seem to agree with him that academics should be a pursuit devoid of money.

I think if it’s possible to be an academic who is good at commercialising ideas then one should be. All those monetary benefits of IP that come along with it are a good thing for a university, especially in the economic climate that we are in, where we face major cuts to research spending and increased tuition fees.

Also blaming this capitalistic view of a university for not being able to attract the right talent isn’t right. Academics tend to believe that all the people who do research do it because of the love of the subject and nothing else. Well, they might, but more often than not they may have other reasons. In that respect, the fact that an academic pursuit can lead to a good commercial idea, may actually lure more people than just the subject nerds.

And yet, I cannot agree more that it shouldn’t become the ‘critical mission’ of a university. It may have happened that universities started small, trying to align with the capitalistic nature of the market, by asking academics to ‘think about’ commercialising ideas and over the years reached the point, that they have now, where it has become their ‘main aim’.

Aiming to leap

The Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India has advised the government to increase its science funding from less than 1 per cent of GDP to up to 2.5 per cent by 2020. It has also recommended overhauling the management of science in the country to increase innovation in the research community.

India calls for ambitious increase in science funding – Chemistry World, 8 October 2010