India too big for a science straight jacket?

Prithviraj Chavan (TWAS)


“India’s too big to be straight-jacketed into a single framework for science and technology [S&T],” said India’s science minister Prithviraj Chavan, in an interview for TWAS, ahead of the 21st General Meeting of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), in Hyderabad, India.

Chavan said that “some areas of Indian S&T will continue to develop at a steady pace, while other areas will experience accelerated growth — at times leading to the discovery of ‘leapfrog’ technologies that will have a dramatic impact on the economy”. That would be welcome, but not quite everything.

I do not want to be a wet blanket, but somehow improvement in India’s economy has not translated into equitable growth. Chavan’s facts about seven per cent increase in India’s gross domestic product (GDP) is true. Equally true is that the country has slipped down the global hunger index (GHI), ranking 67 out of 88 nations in the 2010 report released by the International Food Policy Research Institute in October. Home to 42 per cent of underweight children under five years, the country still lags behind Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Sudan in the GHI. Maybe that is why the Indian jacket’s fit in general is not quite so good.

Even on the science front, there have been a couple of disquieting reports of late. One is about the country slipping down (and a nasty fall that too) in the technology index, though some experts did tell SciDev.Net that different methods of measuring science performance could yield a different result.

The latest Goldman Sachs report confirms India lagging on R&D intensity front. Chavan also noted the need to increase, rather double, India’s spending on research and development (R&D) from the present less than one per cent of the national wealth to two per cent. For some reason this “doubling” of India’s R&D spending, as a per cent of its GDP, has not occurred, although one has heard it often, from prime ministers, their scientific advisors and senior scientists.

On the other hand, the Research Councils of UK’s latest report, based on a survey from 1981 to 2008, says India’s scientific output is growing rapidly, and its science citation impact — a measure of how often its papers are cited by other scientists — has doubled. Although India’s share of the global output remains low, it has nevertheless, shot up fast.

That is possibly why the Indian science jacket is a bit tricky to judge at first glance.

What’s your view?

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

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