Funding for science in India has had a terrible track record and reflects in the country’s research output. But come Friday, the government will have another opportunity to fix this long-standing problem.
India needs its government to spend more to build research infrastructure, improve the quality of training as well as R&D capacity and to suitably pay the people employed in this sector.
The 2018 Economic Survey highlighted that India spends only 0.6-0.8% of its GDP on R&D – a figure that hasn’t budged in nearly two decades. To compare, China spends 2.13% of its GDP on R&D and South Korea, 4.2%. One of the prime demands protesters have made at India’s ‘marches for science’ is that R&D spending be increased to 3%.
A recently released list names the top 1% of the world’s most highly cited researchers. In a set of 4,000, it counts only 10 Indians, but over 480 Chinese. Indian scientists have been publishing more papers over the years, and India was the world’s fifth-most productive country in 2017 by this measure. However, the quantity masks a deeper problem: the number of times these papers have been cited is significantly low, likely because the research is of poorer quality.
As for commercialising its scientists’ research – India placed at 44 out of 50 on the International Property Rights Index in 2018 (although it was an improvement). A ready example is the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which has struggled to generate enough revenue from its own work, which in turn has fed a passive bias against ‘pure’ science research.
It’s also not easy to be a researcher (engaged in legitimate work) these days. Since 2014, tens of thousands of young scholars have been demanding that their existing stipend norms be revised. However, despite multiple promises, no formal announcements have been forthcoming.
The researchers also want their fellowship/grant emoluments to be disbursed on time; many of them receive their arrears only once every few months, and some after over a year.
Such delays will have, and have had, cascading effects. For example, research is often a protracted process of trial and error before a successful outcome emerges. So funding requires long-term vision as well as consistent support.
Additionally, delays also hit research plans, recruitment of new talent and, crucially, the ability to retain it. If we slip up, young scientists are going to think about leaving for other countries and older scientists are going to have second thoughts about coming back.
It isn’t only a question of ensuring delays don’t happen again. It’s about making the whole grant application and disbursal pipeline more transparent. Scholars need to know why one proposal was approved and the other rejected. And after approval, they need to know where their money is coming from, how they can ensure they receive it and, if they don’t, what they can do about it. Academics and researchers have long talked about corruption and nepotism in this regard.
The Indian research system hasn’t realised the advantages of interdisciplinary research well. Such research can solve many issues plaguing the country as well as invite more foreign collaborations. However, research groups in India are often siloised to the extent that an effective interdisciplinary collaboration often requires an intervention at the level of institutions, funders and science bodies.
Instead, we need to move towards a research culture centred on collaboration and turn away from competition, and where effective mentorship is rewarded. (For example, Ghent University in Belgium recently adopted a progressive model to encourage scholars to focus on quality and excellence, and exit their ‘rat race’.)
Such an ecosystem could also be better equipped to minimise, or prevent, over-regulation. Good research needs regulations to be effective yet also nimble and responsive to scientific updates.
Speaking of going overboard, another major impediment to efficient science is over-centralisation. Delhi cannot be the “mai-baap” on which research in India always depends. In a large country like ours, decentralised funding and a well-defined, localised R&D programme are key.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also spoken about transforming state universities – where 95% of the country college students study – into research hubs. This will require a lot of work; a good place to begin would be to include research methods in their curricula. (This in turn should draw attention to state spending on R&D, which is also low.)
Investing in R&D is one of the more well-established tracks along which a nation can grow. And if India wants to grow faster, it must simply spend more on R&D – instead of issuing new slogans about it.
And PM Modi and his ministers should view the forthcoming (interim) budget, the last in the current government’s term, as an opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to put their money where their mouths are.
Sambit Dash is a biochemistry teacher at the Melaka Manipal Medical College, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Anant Bhan is a researcher in global health and bioethics and an adjunct professor at the Yenepoya (deemed to be) University, Mangaluru.