Indian Science: Awakening the Sleeping Giant

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ongoing state visit to Washington, there are high expectations for concrete outcomes. Undoubtedly, critical, and emerging technology cooperation will be featured heavily as the two leaders look for ways to jump-start the partnership. While promising, India needs to simultaneously address systemic challenges currently bridling its domestic science and technology (S&T) sector to ensure the continued success of such a bilateral partnership.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, lead the new U.S.-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET). This initiative is aimed at expanding U.S.-India science and technology partnerships by leveraging expertise from governments, the private sector, and academia. Core domains of the partnership include strengthening the innovation ecosystem, defense technology, semiconductor supply chains, space, telecommunications, and STEM talent.

India was the first country to explicitly adopt “scientific temper” in its constitution. The 42nd amendment in 1976 declared that it shall be the duty of every citizen to develop a scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform. Despite such a constitutional focus, India did not usher in transformative reforms in its S&T space.

That contrasts with the People’s Republic of China, which began to open its economy in 1978. These initial reforms were followed by revitalizing its science ecosystem through systematic reforms in the 1990s. The strategy paid off. China competes with the United States and nations for global leadership in several domains, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and semiconductor manufacturing.

India needs to create new science and technology knowledge and translate it to economic and social goods, thereby enabling sustained economic growth. India has the economic scale, a large talent pool, huge market size, as well as a vibrant start-up ecosystem. All these factors provide a good bedrock for the development of the S&T space in the country.

However, challenges persist. India spends a mere 0.66 percent of its GDP on science and technology—the lowest among BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). In comparison, the United States, China, and South Korea spend 3.07 percent, 2.4 percent, and 4.5 percent of their GDP on science and technology. Furthermore, much of India’s research spending is conducted in government institutions and lacks clarity on market needs and applications.

Despite being the fifth-largest economy, India ranked 50th on Bloomberg’s Global Innovation Index in 2021, and 40th on World Intellectual Property Organization’s Global Innovation Index 2022. The Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru; Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay; and Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi are the only institutions to feature in the top 200 QS World University Rankings. India ranks ninth in research impact through citations, while the United States and China rank first and second, respectively.

The dismal rankings of Indian institutes are in stark contrast with the professional performance of the Indian workforce. Google, Microsoft, and Adobe are just a few examples of global firms being led by professionals of Indian descent. More than 70 percent of all H-1B visas issued by the United States government go to Indian software engineers. According to the Economic Times, 12 percent of U.S. scientists have their roots in India. So, what is lacking in India that makes professionals languish in India but shine in other countries?

Indian science is saddled with poor ease of doing research. Riddled with bureaucratic processes, there is insufficient adoption of global best practices. Institutions offer inadequate incentives and lack a merit-focused competitive environment for research to prosper. Outdated procurement systems preclude government institutions from securing best-in-class research equipment and consumables for research. Inadequate compensation does not attract top talent while poor career progression breeds discontent. Additionally, most PhD scholars in India receive minimal funds and remain disconnected from global research fraternity. To address this, India should create and nurture communities of PhD students and postdoctoral students. India should also work on improving career options for early-career researchers that could eventually lead to improvements in research outcomes. India also needs to recalibrate incentives for scientists to create an uplifting research ecosystem.

Ease of doing research can be improved by granting institutional autonomy, streamlining research funding and disbursements, bringing recruitment flexibility, and creating funding stability. The funding value chain needs to be optimized by streamlining research proposal submission and evaluation, as well as disbursements, along with a robust and seamless technology backbone. In addition, the compensation structures need revision to attract scientific talent, along with progressive HR policies that have performance centricity. All these measures would enhance the ease of doing research in India.

Even if research institutions gain more autonomy, they will remain saddled with suboptimal work culture entrenched over decades. Therefore, capacity building of scientists and academics is critical. There is evidence that even well-intentioned measures like Institutes of Eminence and the Prime Minister’s Research Fellows Scheme only saw marginal improvements in this realm. The Science, Technology and Innovation Policy from 2020 has already identified some such challenges in the S&T sector. The National Research Foundation (NRF) announced by the government has an outlay of 50,000 crore INR over five years. It is an unprecedented opportunity to transform the research ecosystem, especially from the governance and funding perspectives. Eventually, this would also improve linkages between research and development, academia, and industry. Given the enormity of the tasks involved, India now needs to fast-track creation of appropriately structured NRF that has the required capacity to execute this vision.

To further promote institutional wellbeing, Indian institutions need to create centralized research and industry-interfacing and fundraising offices. Separating administrative functions will allow scientists to focus on research instead of administration.

S&T institutions need to align their research with India’s challenges and developmental priorities. Similarly, India needs to create a business case for the world to leverage its cost arbitrage and talent by making India a global research and development (R&D) destination beyond a research back office.

S&T labs in India are generally not an integral part of universities, unlike most developed nations. It is time to bring together R&D labs and higher education institutions in a geographical area under a unified thematic cluster through functional mergers to become globally competitive. This would fundamentally overhaul the way research is conducted by encouraging collaboration, improving governance, democratizing resources, and seeking international research opportunities. Collaborative and interdisciplinary research is bound to lead to better outcomes aligned with national priorities.

Clusters in the long term would yield immense economic value to the country if India is able to create cohesive and well-functioning geographical groupings with thematic linkages and interdisciplinary interactions. Clustering would also result in these entities becoming more competitive in securing international research projects and attract leading overseas faculty and researchers. These would eventually lead to improved global research rankings. This cluster-like structure could lead to an overall increase in the efficiency and effectiveness of research outputs, ultimately leading to better economic and social value creation for the country.

Global leadership in S&T will confer tremendous benefits for Indian citizens while simultaneously improving India’s security environment. Cooperation in critical and emerging technology with the United States requires more than simply having government agencies relax regulations related to technology transfer. Revitalizing India’s S&T agenda will be crucial for strengthening India’s research ecosystem. Domestic reforms will be crucial for ensuring that the United States and India are able to meaningfully engage each other and achieve the desired outcomes through bilateral engagement. Otherwise, both countries will suffer from mismatched capabilities and priorities, thereby hindering opportunities for a meaningful partnership.

Jayant Krishna, is a senior fellow (non-resident) with the Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and is the founding CEO of the Foundation for Advancing Science and Technology (FAST India).

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Jayant Krishna
Senior Fellow (Non-Resident), Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies