Science is a low priority in India

By Muzafar Jan
The website of the Indian Department of Science and Technology says, “India is one of the top-ranking countries in the field of basic research”. But an objective analysis of scientific knowledge production in India during the past 50-60 years guides a conclusion that it is remarkably almost non-existent, uninspiring and mediocre by any standards. Statistics about the position of India on global chart in contribution to science show that India this country of a billion plus people has infinitesimally small scientific force, relatively few high quality universities, an anemic manufacturing sector and it faces an epidemic of red tapism.
India’s gross expenditure on research and development (GERD) as percentage of GDP has remained so far less than or at 0.9%. Most distressing is that it has remained stagnant for more than 10 years! A low investment obviously means low returns. It means low compensation to researchers, under performance of universities or institutes and general lack of policy for the promotion of research and development.
Its implications have been that India does not have a single university in the world’s top 200, and the country fails to retain about 70% or higher top PhDs which eventually move to better places for research elsewhere. An added irony is that you may not qualify for certain jobs or positions in India unless you possess post-doctoral degrees done outside India. Another factor that directly affects research in science and technology in India is that the country has only 160 researchers per million population, compared to 4,651 in the United States. Two lakh researchers among a population of 1.3 billion is one of the lowest densities of scientific workforce, ranking even below Chile and Kenya.
Rather paying attention towards the deteriorating 600 or more central and state universities in the country more of the same caliber of institutions are regularly opened like two new IITs and two new medical schools and AIIMS.
This bureaucratic morass has impeded research and innovation in India right from the time it gained independence. There are certain sporadic success stories though of a small number of Institutes like the Indian aerospace and IT. The former can be largely attributed to the vision of great scientists like H. J Bhabha, C. V Raman, M. Saha, S. N Bose etc. of that era. But soon after the independence science got trapped in the hands of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats eventually leaving India in a state with no clear road map or places of reputation or human resource to stand for science and development.
There is not a single outstanding discovery in science made in India since the country became independent that could match that of the best in the world and could be considered worthy of a Nobel. Today, although India ranks 10th in the world for output of scientific papers, it ranks 166th for average citation per year, an prominent indication about the quality of scientific research undertaken!
The lack of financing for scientific discovery, coupled with a serious shortage of trained manpower geared to work for innovative and original ideas makes a bleak scenario. The government, instead of asking hard and critical questions, is treating the scientific establishment as a holy cow and has willingly abdicated its responsibilities and left it to a well-entrenched coterie to run the show!
Faced with a feudal and hierarchical mindset operating at every level of the scientific establishment, there is very little scope for young scientists in India to assert themselves. This results in disillusionment and stagnation at early and most productive years. Unless several radical measures are taken, after clearly identifying the core issues, there is no immediate prospect of India achieving its ambition of being among leading countries.