The Narendra Modi-led government in India completes one year in office next week (May 26, 2015). While the government’s first budget last year disappointed scientists with its below-inflation funding increase, they were twice disappointed this year when funding for science remained flat in real terms, and actually nosedived for some departments.
But the scientific community has been hopeful that the government will come up with decent funds for them eventually, perhaps in next year’s budget.
Time for some stock taking.
Nature did just that with an India Special issue last week — looking at the “state of science in a mushrooming economy, soon to be the world’s most populous nation.” In an editorial, the journal sums it up thus: “By most metrics, India is underperforming compared with developed nations and ascendant economies such as China and Brazil. So, how best to build the country’s scientific capacity, and tackle its grand challenges including energy, water, food and pollution?”
I asked Sara Abdulla, Chief Commissioning Editor at Nature, the rationale behind an India Special issue at this point of time. “The economy and population of India are booming and the nation is sitting at the nexus of these grand challenges. Plus a new government that’s going to complete one year in office — I think that’s a great time to analyse how best India can build scientific capacity.”
The India Special reflects Nature’s interest in Indian science and the journal intends to follow it up with more coverage.
Here is the list of articles in the special issue, which is seeing some healthy readership from across the world:
The India Special makes a few things clear — what comes across as India’s biggest strengths, says my colleague, Nature Features Editor Richard Monastersky, are commitment by researchers to address the needs of India, growth in the biotech sector and the quality of India’s most elite scientific institutions. The art of jugaad — the characteristically Indian technique of frugal innovation — and youthful enthusiasm in abundance are things that shine through. The annoying bits are the age old problems of bureaucracy, government indifference, unfair appointments (or appointments based not on experience), prioritising prestige over local problems and lack of resources. The poor quality of many state universities continues to be a niggling issue.
India has the potential to turn jugaad into a world-leading quality since frugal innovation is the the way forward for the whole world. “There is a real opportunity to lead here, with focus, vision and support,” Sara observes reflecting the views and concerns of India’s leading scientists as featured on Nature‘s pages.
Given the limited resources and complexities, why is the international science community still hopeful for Indian science? “There are some positives — for example, increasing investments by the business sector, even if a lot of that is coming from multinational companies as opposed to Indian companies. The participation by women is also growing,” Richard says.
Interestingly, earlier this month, Mamannamana Vijayan, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore and a vocal advocate of increasing funding for Indian science, said, “Transition from dependence on public funding to that on private funding is like a transition from the frying pan to the fire.” Writing in Current Science, a journal published by the Current Science Association in collaboration with the Indian Academy of Sciences, he says the core activities of autonomous institutions should be funded essentially by the government.
“That in itself does not compromise autonomy. Of course we need private funding. But that should be in addition to, and not instead of, public funding. We also need to be cognizant of the Indian reality, which cannot be changed overnight. Unlike in the West, we do not have a great tradition of philanthropy in education or private investment in research. Almost all the great scientific and educational institutions in the country, mostly established after independence, are funded publicly.”
Nature‘s India Special looks at the Modi government’s “steps in the right direction” in establishing tax incentives for research and development that are among the best in the world. “These have helped to boost research investments by a few industries, but have yet to drive widespread innovation,” it notes.
Money is key for Indian science, which is clearly poised to take the big leap now. Narendra Modi’s concern for science and scientists has been in the news ever since he took office. However, whether the scientific community in this country will continue to believe that the concern is genuine hinges, to a large extent, on his government’s next budget.