Science and technology: The opportunity and the challenges for India

Today is the most opportune time for India to revolutionize its science and technology ecosystem. The size of our economy provides the capital, manpower and market to invest in scientific research and enjoy its social and economic fruits.

Our government and the private players have enough money to invest in long term scientific research, while not taking away from social and developmental programs. We have a large labour force to become researchers, entrepreneurs and product developers. They can pick up the many different specialized skills required to turn an idea to a product in the market. And then, we have a large local market, the middle class and rural users, to provide opportunity to do pilots, feedback and ultimately a market for innovative product. Very few countries in the world have the scale to support such an innovation ecosystem.

Also, as a Nation we are psychologically ready for science and technology. Unlike ever before, technology has touched the lives of all strata of people – GPS, apps, internet, smart phones, MRI/CT scan machines and what not! The public opinion is amenable to investment in research and innovation to build newer technologies. They understand it can make their lives better.

It is now or never, I say in ‘India Next?’ I argue that if India doesn’t build its research and innovation ecosystem now, it risks its economic growth and social development.

Although, we have a large opportunity in S&T, we are frittering it away. We have many challenges. To begin with, India doesn’t have a critical mass of high productivity researchers. Our count is 27,500 while US is 17 times and China 7 times more than us. Consider a single field, say AI, the number of high productivity researchers from India are countable on fingers. Without such critical mass, we cannot have any impact of any scale and size, towards advancing science, creating economic or social impact.

Invest in Excellence

In order to emerge as a global superpower, India needs to focus on a few key elements, the first among them being ‘right’ investment in research. It is often argued that low public and private investment in research is the key issue. This is only partially true. We need to invest in ‘excellence’. Rather than having too many researchers, we need to spend to possess a larger number of high productivity researchers. We find that our proportion of high productivity researchers is the lowest – 14% of our researchers are high productivity, 21% for China and 30% for the US. Our growth in number of researchers is also slow – we have less than 30% engineering PhDs than a US and China. Research awareness, great professional and monetary rewards can act as major drivers for more and more high-performing students to take up research as a career option.

We need to have high ‘quanlity’ of researchers – high quantity of high-quality researchers. This is the first and the most immediate need.

As one digs deeper, many more issues crop up.

Bureaucratic process and tardiness

 India liberalized its economy in the beginning of the 90’s, but it hasn’t liberated its research ecosystem even 25 years later! The system is fraught with bureaucratic hurdles and tardiness. For instance, experimentalists in fields like neuroscience need equipment such as a MRI machine, components to build a prosthetic arm and various electronic components. To make a purchase of more than $1000, our researchers need to form a committee, run a tender process, put out advertisements so on! The process takes anywhere from 3-6 months. In the U.S., by contrast, a doctoral student can order $5000 worth of material with only a simple email approval from her adviser, for shipment overnight. Around 61% faculty members rate “Ease of getting new equipment” as below average. Given today’s exponential speed of innovation, it pretty much excludes our researchers from cutting edge experimental research.

Lack of collaboration and competition

Researchers multiply each other’s success through healthy competition and collaboration. This requires a critical mass of researchers and good PhD students, which we severely lack. This creates little opportunity to collaborate, share knowledge or even compete. Our body of researchers make small collective progress, whereas those in a China or a US, script the next breakthrough in the field. We learn from them and then again make our small improvements, until the next innovation. The spirit of competition is low and we do not have a high performance environment.

Our interaction with the global community is very limited. At MIT, in the Computer Science and AI Lab, there were three or more invited talks every week. The mechanical engineering department at SJTU hosts 300 external talks a year. In contrast, IIT Madras lists 16 distinguished external talks in the computer science department (2015-16), with none from a speaker of non-Indian origin. Similarly, money for conference travel is limited –  A PhD student can attend one international conference during their PhD. This is much lesser than the kind of exposure our budding new researchers require.

Underdeveloped Industry-academia interaction

 Institutionalized interaction between industry and academic institutions is still underdeveloped. It is the industry which supplies interesting and relevant problems to faculty to convert into original questions of research inquiry. And then research leads to social and economic development through the industry and entrepreneurship.

India does poorly on this front. Our research doesn’t translate into economic  value – we have no companies in the MIT Technology Review’s World’d 50 smartest company list (2012-16) and our high technology exports are less than a tenth of the total. MIT files 300+, Stanford 600+ annual patents, while for our institutions, the number is less than 20!

The respect for interaction with industry remains lows in Indian academia – where number of papers count more than industry deployment. The institutions do not have professionally run industry liaison offices to engage with the industry and develop a relationship. They are rather run by faculty as additional responsibility and have poor outreach. In contrast, top global institutions such as MIT have a 50+ people industry office.

On the other hand, science entrepreneurship ecosystem isn’t well developed. Investors do not support high risk businesses where it takes time to develop a commercially viable product or service. Generally, investors like to support low risk businesses with a clear large market and fast turnaround. Most Indian startups are Western copycats, not based on new research and founded by those with Bachelor degrees and not PhDs.

Distracted researchers

Our researchers cannot give their full attention to research. Given we are a developing Nation, the usual headaches of electricity, water, roads, air quality, etc. plague us. On top, the lack of technical and administrative staff is another major bottleneck. Our faculty spend considerable time maintaining equipment, calibrating them, doing paperwork, than thinking about original research questions and breakthrough solutions. In institutions like MIT, Stanford and UC, Berkeley, the number of staff members are4 times the number of faculty. For our institutions, staff is 1-2 times the number of faculty. To be able to get maximum ROI of the researcher’s ability, our institutions need to try their best to provide a hassle-free environment to our researchers.

We need a movement, a science satyagraha, to make India a formidable knowledge creator again. The government, the policy makers and our public institutions need to take notice and work towards making India a scientific superpower.

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