Can India overcome the ‘jugaad’ system of funding Science?

Indian scientists are working on tremendous projects but limited funding is keeping India from becoming the next Science superpower.

WrittenBy:Science Desk
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By Sahana Shankar 

Mangalyaan, the Mars Orbiter Mission launched by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 2013, was arguably the most celebrated story of Indian Science and rightly so. A combination of innovative strategies, indigenous technologies and a dedicated team of scientists catapulted India into the ‘elite space club’. This story is a great example of what optimal funding could do to accelerate scientific output.

ISRO comes under the purview of the Department of Space, directly overseen by the Prime Minister. Though the funding allocated is nowhere close to what other countries spend on their space program, ISRO has a fairly big budget to operate with, unlike other research institutes in India. Since its inception in 1969, ISRO has benefited from heavy investment from the government, not only in research programmes but also in infrastructure and training.

The consistent investment and efforts have paid off. Budget allocation for the Mars Mission was Rs 450 crore and ISRO managed to complete the project in Rs 447.39 crore with the exclusive mantle of being successful in its first attempt.

However, the government’s benevolence to ISRO is an exception and not the rule.  In 1996, India invested a decent 0.63 per cent of its GDP in research and development, on par with China (0.57 per cent).

Over the last decade, the debate for increasing India’s research spending has grown stronger, but without much government initiative. While China has progressively increased its investment to 2.05 per cent, Indian government’s fund allocation remains stagnant at 0.8 per cent, since 2005.

The involvement of business sector in research and development has been limited to a few areas such as IT, energy and pharmaceuticals.

The intricacy of the number game makes the issue much more complex. In absolute numbers, India spends a decent amount of money on its scientists, at par with Canada, China and UK. However, the problem lies in the total number of scientists, which is extraordinarily low. With a mere 156 researchers per million people, the density of the Indian scientific workforce is one of the lowest in the world, ranking below Chile (427), South Africa (404) and Mexico (322). This is partly because of people seeking higher-quality training abroad and paltry salaries for scientists.

In spite of all the bleak numbers, Indian Science is quite the bang for the buck. With the available infrastructure, personnel and funding, Indian scientists in premier research institutes routinely publish in top journals with an admirable rate of money spent per page, making Indian scientists one of the top performers in the world.

In the last few years, research and development in India has evolved from an esoteric activity to a socio-economically relevant exercise. Solar energy has received tremendous attention from the scientific community with the participation of both local and international investors. The biotech industry has evolved from developing affordable generic drugs to new avenues of therapy in tropical diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria. This has been possible because of the interest shown in these sectors by big multinational corporations, who are willing to pump in money.

In addition to allocating more funds to research, the government needs to leverage these scientists to look at local problems such as sanitation, water and waste management. Their familiarity with the Indian context, and critical and analytical skills that are a part of their training will be extremely useful in developing sustainable and affordable technologies, in order to tackle these issues.

India would do good to invest in Science education. The focus on education needs to be on two levels. Firstly, university programmes need to be overhauled to compulsorily include a research component in all Science programmes so that graduating students know their way around a lab and are exposed to high quality research. Unlike western universities, research is not a major part of the university culture in India, with a few exceptions such as AIIMS and the IITs. This puts graduates at a major disadvantage as they are not clued in to the latest developments in their field. The impetus should be on having qualified and motivated leaders in central universities, leading research programmes in addition to teaching.

Secondly, students, research assistants and postdocs should be paid a competitive salary to make research a viable career option. While faculty and principal investigators are instrumental in formulating a study, most of the research is carried out by students or postdocs. There are numerous visionary scientists in Indian research institutes that most students would want to work with, provided the compensation is sustainable. In 2015, it took a nation-wide protest from PhD students in government-funded research programmes to increase their fellowships.

In the true spirit of jugaad, Indian scientists are working on tremendous projects, by finding various avenues of funding from grants, private investors, and international collaborators. If they could be left to their Science, with no pressure of hunting for the next investor, India is not far from being a Science superpower.

The author would like to thank Soumyajit Saha for data compilation.


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