Searching for research

'Nature' magazine shows why India needs to urgently boost scientific research

Indian research finds itself in a downward spiral as the budget spending has remained static at 0.9% of GDP for the last 10 years.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hasn’t missed any opportunity to praise science and research while making speeches at public events, affirming his government's commitment to encouraging research in the country.  Nor has he shied away from taking credit for everything, from the successful Mars mission to increasing stipends for researchers.

That all is not well with Indian research has, however, been long lamented by experts. Recent reports of PhD theses being sold at photocopy shops in the national capital for a few hundred rupees, along with a damning indictment by a parliamentary panel, which noted that apart from the acute shortage of research professionals in the country, the quality of existing Indian doctorates leaves much to be desired, had once again underlined the serious cause for concern.

Which is why a comprehensive report by the respected science magazine Nature, slamming the government for a shoddy job at improving the state of innovation and research in the country, is unlikely to make for easy reading for the Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani who has been under fire for trying to "Indianise" education by seeking inputs from right-wing ideologues, or even for Modi who has been exhorting scientists and researchers to look to the glories of ancient India.

“Indian research is hampered by stifling bureaucracy, poor-quality education at most universities and insufficient funding. Successive governments have pledged to increase support for research and development to 2% of India's gross domestic product, but it has remained static at less than 0.9% of GDP since 2005,” the magazine noted.

Research drought

The first and foremost challenge that confronts the government is of encouraging enough people to take up research. With barely two lakh researchers, the country of over 1.2 billion people  has one of the lowest densities of scientific workforce, ranking even below Chile, Kenya, including the US and UK when it comes to research workforce density in the labour population.

Academicians in India feel that the support system from the government is missing in terms of both quality benchmarks and rewards.

“If you want people to take up research, you should give them incentives in terms of salary, grants, access to libraries and so on but that’s missing completely,” said Shaswati Mazumdar, professor at the University of Delhi’s department for Germanic and Romance studies.

No papers to publish

This has a direct impact on the number of patents and research paper India puts out. India’s rate of filing patents is on the rise because of the entry of multinational corporations, but it is measurably low per capita, compared to others. In 2013, South Korea filed over 4,400 patents per one million of population while India could manage only 17.

A report compiled by the consultancy and research firm EY had a similar observation about insufficient number of research papers authored by Indian academicians. In 2011, for instance, China’s academics published almost five times more research papers as compared to their Indian counterparts.

Missing impact

It is not that Indian spending is much lower than other countries when it comes to investing in research. Even as the US spends over $3,43,000 per researcher, India manages to spend $1,71,000, which is more than what countries like Pakistan and Spain manage, and almost equal to China’s spending of $1,73,000 per researcher.

However, this doesn’t necessarily translate into quality research as the Nature magazine highlighted. Even though India’s scholarly output has quadrupled since the year 2000, the rate has been surpassed by the likes of Brazil and China. At the same time, India’s scholarly impact, measured by the number of times papers from the country are cited in other research work, was 30% below the world average in the year 2013.

All is not lost, however, as the magazine lauded the world class research centers that India possesses, the investment in Research and Development flowing in from the businesses and an increasing share of women in obtaining research degrees and grants.

Commending the government for taking some steps in the right direction, the magazine noted that much more needs to be done. “India must tackle the bureaucratic morass that is impeding research and innovation. Scientists complain that funds for grants routinely arrive months late and that it can take years to fill positions,” it noted.

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