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India Scientific Power?:STRUCTURAL CHANGES CRUCIAL, By Dhurjati Mukherjee, 6 Feb, 2013 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 6 February 2013

India Scientific Power?


By Dhurjati Mukherjee


Notwithstanding the UPA-IIs intent of using science for building the country’s future, can India aspire to be among the top five global scientific powers in the year 2020? While the recent Indian Science Congress’ policy document titled ‘Science, Technology & Innovation (STI), 2013’ has an ambitious target, it could do well in reaching out to the Government for support.   

For starters, both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pranab Mukherjee have too agreed on the need for innovation in science research, which could benefit the community as a whole and the development of a scientific temper within the society. The country, it has been acknowledged needs new breakthroughs in water-sharing technologies, enhancement of land productivity and development of climate resilient varieties of crops. This apart there is need for fresh rational thinking on tapping nuclear power and genetically modified food given the dwindling resources and the increasing population growth. Therefore, in the knowledge-intensive world, it’s obvious that innovation is necessary to empower the growth process.

Innovation essentially means good and new ideas that lead to socio-economic benefits for the society as a whole. As is generally agreed, science-based innovations are imperative at this juncture, as policy makers and scientists emphasized at the conference, to deliver technologies that would help new products and new processes for economic benefits of society.

But since science-based ideas mostly originate in amateur labs and in academic environments, rather than in private industry, there is need for more Government support for research and innovation. Thus government initiatives in setting up 50 new academic and research institutes and increasing the number of full-time researchers from the current 150,000 to about 250,000 within five years, which was mentioned at the Science Congress, is no doubt welcome. But it remains to be seen whether private participation in research and innovation in India could result in anything fruitful in the coming years.  

The STI Policy document with ambitious ideas has very little about the structural and/or procedural changes necessary for implementation. However, the key points enunciated in the Policy merit attention. These include, promoting the scientific temper; making careers in science research and innovation attractive; making India among the top global scientific powers; enhanced private sector participation in research and development (R&D) and converting it into applications through PPP model and seeking science and technology based high-risk innovations.

The Government has carried out the easier part of declaring its intent but, as scientists pointed out, a change in the mindset need not wait for a policy to be unveiled. One may mention here that the painstakingly compiled database of grass root innovations at the National Innovation Foundation or the database of traditional knowledge – both efforts of Government agencies themselves – have thousands of ideas that have the potential of commercial success, if necessary support is provided.

However, any policy that aims to combine science with innovation must take into account specific problems faced by society. Academic environments where ideas are free to flow and can be tested require not just well-equipped laboratories but also groups of dedicated scientists willing to work together.

Unfortunately, barring the pharmaceutical sector, the performance of the Indian industry over the last two decades has been rather disappointing. The number of patents granted in India is very low – about three per cent of what was achieved in the US, China and Japan and also way behind countries such as South Korea, Russia, Canada. Industry-academic linkages, for all practical purposes, do not exist in the country.

In such a situation, the President’s wish for a Nobel Prize in Indian science is difficult to become a reality and also if any individual effort gets recognition, the system as such does not change. While more autonomy should be given to universities and academic institutions, there is also a need to promote and ensure that real research is being carried out. In this connection, the resolve in the Policy document to encourage local innovation to support “national development and sustainable and more inclusive growth” merits special attention.     

One can definitely state that 2012 was a year when science and technology did not progress in the way that it should have. Though some technologies were launched on a limited commercial scale, which holds potential for the future, these were too expensive.

There is need to create a science-technology interface to develop appropriate technologies for meeting national needs and for creation of wealth. In the current year, one would expect to witness a change from the previous year with high-speed and affordable data solutions being available to a bulk of citizens. It may also be mentioned the need to make changes in data connectivity and access so that the country, which runs on paper money, becomes a cashless, rather a less cash-intensive society. 

In the rural sector, many innovations are needed starting from removal of contamination of water and development of climate-resilient crops. Arsenic contamination of water is a big problem in many parts of the country and very cheap innovative technologies have to be found to enable the masses get potable drinking water. Though research in this direction has progressed, the ideas have to be transformed to commercial success. In the field crops, which require less water, there has also been some advancement but more areas need to be covered.

The support to science and science and technology interface should be through a competitive grants system funded by public money. All major science and technology countries have excellent competitive grants systems where scientists and technologists individually and also jointly submit R&D projects that are reviewed and funded. Importantly, there has to be a proposal tracking system which should be prompt, judicious and unbiased.

The second structural change should be expending and strengthening institutions that serve the cause of teaching and research rather than to open exclusive research institutions around personalities. Students should be motivated for post-doctoral research, preferably in the country, and proper incentives given to them. The examples of other countries should be seen and emulated and in areas of research, collaboration with universities and institutes encouraged for better results.

Experts believe, and not without reason, that a passionate approach towards advancing science and technology has been missing among the political class and the policy makers. This has to undergo a change and then only can STI be the guiding force to bring about the desired change. ---INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)



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