Discover, invent in India

A country that aspires to become an economic superpower must first become a science & technology superpower.

Written by David J. Gross | Published:January 15, 2016 12:01 am
India, US, China, FDI, Financial Times, FT Report The lack of necessary funds for investment in science guarantees failure; but money alone will not produce the desired results.

I love India! I love its people, its culture, and its vitality. I have many dear friends and colleagues and so have visited regularly over the last three decades. For years, I have felt that India, with its long tradition of excellent science, great scientists and scientific institutions, and rich cultural history that respects learning and excellence, has the potential to become a scientific power.

Many ingredients for greatness already exist. First, India possesses an immense pool of talented young minds. Many have been attracted abroad, where they have made enormous contributions to science and technology. This overseas community has strong ties to the country of its origin and is an important national resource that could greatly assist in the development of India. Given appropriate opportunities, many would return. Second, the Indian economy is booming, now reaching levels of growth second to none but China.

How can this potential be unleashed? I have worked with colleagues to aid this mission. For the last decade, I have chaired the International Advisory Committee formed to advise the new International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS), a branch of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bangalore, founded by my good friend Spenta Wadia. The ICTS, modelled on the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara that I led for 15 years, has as its goal to foster excellence in the basic sciences through its programmes, generating interactions and cross-fertilisation between disciplines, and acting as a node for scientific information and values. In June, we inaugurated the campus of the ICTS and welcomed its new director, my ex-student Rajesh Gopakumar.

My experience with the birth of the ICTS strengthened my optimism regarding India’s prospects, but also taught me much about the enormous difficulties in creating excellence in India and the perils of Indian bureaucracy. Last week, I attended the Indian Science Congress, where I had hoped to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, express some of my concerns and recommendations regarding the state of basic science in India. As this meeting did not transpire, I welcome the opportunity to present these here.

Prime Minister Modi challenged his nation to “Make in India”. But in order to “Make in India” and compete with better or cheaper goods from abroad, one must first “Invent in India”; and in order to “Invent in India” one cannot just rely on the underlying science done elsewhere, one must “Discover in India”. I suggest the strategy: Discover, invent, and make in India.

A country that aspires to become an economic superpower must first become a science and technology superpower. China has learnt this lesson well and is on its way to becoming a world leader, both in technology and in basic science. Realising this aspiration requires investment. Despite repeated promises, the percentage of India’s GDP devoted to research and development has remained for 15 years at a paltry 0.9 per cent — minuscule in comparison with developed countries: The US figure is 2.7 per cent, South Korea spends 4.4 per cent. In the last 15 years, Chinese investment in technology, higher education and the basic sciences has doubled. China now spends 2.1 per cent, and this percentage is rapidly increasing.

Without investment, there is no return. In the US, companies spend much on research and development of their products, but have realised that they cannot make truly new products without long-term investments in basic science that are best supported by the government. The recipients of the recently created wealth in technological se ctors of the Indian economy should give back to their country to support excellence in the basic sciences. The lack of necessary funds for investment in science guarantees failure; but money alone will not produce the desired results. Were the R&D budget (relative to the GDP) to double, and were the GDP to double as well over the next decade, the resulting quadrupling of funds will only achieve its goals if there is fundamental reform in the structure of India’s higher education and research institutions.

Indian science is burdened with an inflexible, irrational and outdated bureaucracy. India imposes irrational bureaucratic regulations, such as severe restrictions on travel for young Indian scientists and for foreign collaborators, as well as forced retirement at a relatively early age for excellent, and sorely needed, scientific leaders. The only rationale I can see for such a cumbersome and harmful bureaucracy (applying the same rules to the post office and to centres of scientific research) is the inability of the government to make informed judgements of quality.

This highly politicised system must be radically reformed and modified. Elsewhere, planning for science is largely protected from day-to-day politics. Funding flows to independent agencies (such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the European Research Council), independent of ministries and politicians, where scientists have much input to shape long-term plans for growth and development. Peer review is the norm. This is especially important in the basic sciences, which require long-term and stable funding.

The government and the bureaucracy alone cannot remedy the existing state of affairs. The scientific and educational community must step up. Scientists and educators must demand changes and they must help in shaping these changes. Leading Indian scientists should engage in public discourse, participate in the necessary review and planning processes, create new institutions of research and education, and help raise the level of existing centres. India does not lack brilliant young people who can create the science of the future, but they need to be given appropriate opportunities, visibility and engaged in decision-making. India has three national academies of science, but they play little role in either advising the government or representing the scientific community. The US benefits immensely from the advice it receives from the National Research Council, which produces over 400 reports a year for its departments. The Indian government also needs increased scientific input to address the many urgent problems of India.

Reforming governmental institutions is not simple, and allocating scarce resources for long-term payoffs is difficult. But both are necessary if India is to develop the science and technology necessary for its economic development and to take its rightful place among the scientific leaders of the world.

The writer, a Nobel prize winner in physics, is Chancellor’s Chair Professor of Theoretical Physics, Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara.