The prosperity of science & technology in India isn’t something that is decades or a few centuries old. Rather, it’s a millennium-old tryst. Since ancient times, science and technology have been flourishing in India. The Indus Valley civilization, touted as the world’s first urban civilization, stands testimony to the advancements that India has made in the field of science since the early period. However, due to the repeated invasions during the medieval age, Indian science came to a standstill and started stagnating. The colonization has further regressed the spirit of scientific endeavours in India, which resulted in scientific pursuits hitting a new nadir in the sub-continent during the period spanning between the end of the medieval age and the independence.
Following the withdrawal of the British, India inherited a landmass that was stripped of its ancient scientific knowledge and had to begin from ground zero. Fortunately, nascent India is blessed with eminent leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, who showered a special focus on building science and technology in India from scratch. Since his first initiative in this direction, i.e., Scientific Policy Resolution 1958, India has managed to grow into a huge network of science ecosystems. Today, India boasts of a huge network of over 16,000 colleges, 600 universities, 2000 research and development institutes, and over 4 lakh science professionals, including some of the top scientists, and CEOs of the mega MNCs, as per the official data of 2011. However, this journey hasn’t been accomplished overnight. It took seven decades and four national policies to position ourselves in the world atlas of science and technology. So far, India has notified four science and technology policies and is on the brink of notifying the fifth one. Let’s discuss each in detail.
The periodic Evolution
Scientific Policy Resolution (SPR 1958)
Our first stride towards embracing science in Independent India can be traced back to the year 1958. This two-page document was formulated by the government headed by India’s first Prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. However, it is widely believed to have been drafted by India’s legendary physicist, Homi Jehangir Bhabha, the first scientific adviser to the Indian cabinet and a close confidant of Nehru.
The scientific enterprise in India dawned from this resolution. The intellectual motive behind the resolution was to use science as a tool for national development. Nehru, since his early stint as leader, envisaged a welfare state to uplift impoverished India. He felt that the welfare state could be fast-tracked by employing science to telling effect. He looked at science through the prism of the socio-economic needs of India. India was blessed with an abundance of raw materials but lacked the resources to tap them and use them for national development. Hence, he wanted to leverage science to channel our natural resources into effective use for welfare and development activities. The policy also envisaged science to slim out the discrepancies between the rich and the poor. Thus, the SPR-1958 looked upon science and technology as a great enabler of nation-building and economic prosperity for the nation.
It was imperative to develop a pool of scientists to pioneer India’s scientific ambitions. So, the policy exclusively mentioned its importance and made provisions to curate a culture, environment, and mechanism where the knowledge of citizens can bloom and prosper. The policy also emphasizes creating adequate opportunities for citizens to channel their scientific knowledge.
SPR 1958 is predominantly a science policy with little emphasis on technology development, as it was assumed by the think-tank that unless there is a strong foundation made of science, technology cannot be built. In tune with the policy, scores of investments flowed into this field, and as a result, several national scientific institutions sprang up in no time. Thus, SPR 1958 could be hailed as the foundational stone of India’s science and technology ecosystem.
Technology Policy statement (TPS1983)
SPR 1958 stood tall all alone for 25 years until the arrival of its successor, TPS 1983. It was formulated by the government headed by Smt. Indira Gandhi. Unlike its predecessor, TPR is spread across many pages, discussing various aspects at length. It was unique in many aspects.
Some its core features were;
- Environmental consciousness: India is probably amongst the first few countries to have spared a concern for the digressing environment. It made an explicit provision that forbids scientific activities from jeopardizing the health of the environment. It envisioned scientific endeavours to be in line with climate consciousness.
- Self-reliance: TPR-1983 reaffirms the spirit of the non-alignment movement, which is championed by India. The document gave a clarion call to minimise dependence on foreign technologies and simultaneously was vocal about the impending need to safeguard the local industries from the onslaught of imports. An orientation towards indigenous technology would reduce vulnerabilities in strategic sectors, insulating us from the dire need to be at the mercy of foreign players.
- Back engineering: It promoted reverse engineering of imported capital goods so that India could develop its own technology to cut down on imports.
- Focus on defence: In the face of inflating threats from both frontiers, it gave a huge fillip to the missile program that resulted in the Integrated Missile Development Program (IGDMP).
- Active Collaborations with foreign players: to bring the best out of the local and foreign technologies.
- Identification of specific sectors:TPR-1983 for the first time began the tradition of identifying specific sectors of importance for S&T investment. Some of them were food, health, housing, energy, and industry.
In order to fructify the document, the implementation and overseeing committee were constituted. It is mandated to provide timely guidelines to the ministries. A technology development fund was initiated to facilitate financial assistance to the industry. TPS was also wary about the prospects of emerging and future technologies and their applications in the country’s development. As a part of this, the Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) were established.
However, with the advent of LPG reforms in 1991, many of the core credentials of TPS were diluted as some of its mottos, like excessive emphasis on self-reliance & indigenous technologies, were at loggerheads with the free-market economy that India had just begun to embrace.
Science and Technology Policy (STP2003):
STP-2003 signals a shift to a post-liberalization world that’s been taken over by globalisation, knowledge-based economies, and international competition. By the dawn of the 21st century, India had established an intricate network of scientific institutions and raised decent human resources. However, there were drastic changes in how science was practised and the areas of its applications. This shift necessitated huge investments in R & D, a multi-disciplinary approach, and multinational collaborations.
With unprecedented advancements seen in the IT field and the democratisation of the internet, and globalisation happening at break-neck speeds, science has begun to impact almost every aspect of life. In particular, the growth trajectories of nations are intertwined with science and technology. In this backdrop, in order to stay relevant in the competitive world and to meet our own aspirations, STP-2003 was formulated by the government.
Its core features include;
- Investing on R&D: STP-2003 underscores the need for R & D in India. It has set an ambitious target of investing 2% of the nation’s GDP on R&D. It also gave a call for ministries to include scientists in planning and to invest heavily in R & D in their respective domains.
- Attracting the talent: It professes to incentivize and attract scientists and engineers across the globe, particularly of Indian origin to contribute to the Indian scientific ecosystem.
- Science for societal and economic development: It envisions employing science to rise to the socio-economic challenges of the country. Science and technology were supposed to eradicate poverty, increase wealth, narrow disparities, and bring about social change.
- IP regime: The policy has laid special emphasis on instituting intellectual rights regimes to safeguard and incentivise inventors.
- International collaboration: It also stressed on science diplomacy, and technological collaboration between developing countries located in the global south. i.e., global south-south cooperation.
When it comes to the appraisal of the policy, there was a significant spike in the overall investment in R&D, coming from both the public and private sectors. Ten years down the line, India’s investment in R & D reached a global average of 0.7% of the GDP, albeit far away from what was envisioned by the policy. There was also a huge leap in the publication rankings. Increasing in the number of Ph.D. students, better human resources, increased filing of patents, mushrooming start-ups, etc., can be attributed to the policy.
Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP 2013):
The decade 2010 – 2020 was announced as a decade of innovation by the incumbent Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. It was acknowledged that in order to stay afloat in global competition, it was imperative to re-align the existing economy into a knowledge-based economy. As the name suggests, the central focus was beamed on “innovation”. The key themes of the policy were building a healthy innovative environment, and linking science & technology with socio-economic aspirations.
Some of the salient features:
- Inculcating scientific temper amongst all sections of society.
- Developing human resources in the field of science, amongst all the strata of public.
- Setting upstate of art infrastructure for R&D toattain global leadership in select fields.
- Propelling India to rank among the top five global scientific powers by 2020.
- Using scientific advancement to achieve inclusive growth.
- Curating a conducive environment for the private players to operate.
- Translating R&D into commercial products through active PPP model engagements.
It was successful to the extent that it attracted many private players to participate and invest in R & D. It also heralded pathways for India to participate in global mega-science projects like Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the Large Hadron Collider (LHC—CERN), and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), etc. However, it is too early to comment on STIP 2013’s success as not even a decade has passed since its execution.
Science and Technology and Innovation policy (STIP) 2020:
The Government of India is all set to launch its 5th “National Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy”, which was formulated jointly by the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (Office of PSA) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The overall aim of the policy is to attain technological self-reliance and position India among the top three scientific superpowers in the coming decade.
What has necessitated the formulation of new policy?
- Since the formulation of the last policy, India has made huge progress in science and technology.
- Science and technology in India have undergone a swift and unprecedented transformation in recent years in terms of relevance, utility, and scale.
- COVID-19 is likely to have a huge impact on future scientific endeavours.
- India’s growing penchant for “Atmanirbhar Bharat” demands greater emphasis on indigenous technologies.
- Advent of disruptive, emerging, and future technologies at break-neck speed.
Salient features of the draft:
- Open Science: Establishment of bodies such as,
- A National Science and technology (STI) observatory as a central repository for all kinds of data pertinent to scientific activities happening in India.
- INDSTA (Indian Science and Technology Archive of Research) – a dedicated portal to provide access to the outcomes of all publicly-funded research activities.
- Capacity Development:
- Research Excellence Framework for HEIs in India (REFI) will be formulated for research assessment across the full academic spectrum within India’s higher education ecosystem.
- Innovation and entrepreneurship centres will be established at regional levels.
- Every department in the central, state, and local governments, as well as PSEs, private sector companies, and start-ups, must establish an STI unit with a minimum earmarked budget for STI activities.
- Each state is to reserve a fixed percentage of the state’s budgetary allocation for STI-related activities.
- Benchmarks for ‘ease of doing research’ will be developed
- Innovation and Entrepreneurship:
- An institutional setup for integrating traditional knowledge systems and grassroots innovation and to transform them into the overall education, research and innovation system
- Encouraging thegrassroots innovators through support for registration, claiming the IPR, patent filing, or any other legal issues.
- Equity and Inclusion:
- Providing equal opportunity in academics for women along with candidates hailing from rural& remote areas, marginalised communities, and differently abled persons.
- 30% reservation for women in decision-making bodies.
- LGBTQ+ community to be provided adequate reservations.
What’s weighing down our scientific aspirations?
As the adage goes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” implying that all the technologically advanced and successful nations share common traits like early leadership, institutional autonomy, timely funding, and rich human resources, to name a few. In contrast, the reasons behind failures are diverse. They are country-specific. They could range from absence of leadership, lack of institutional autonomy, organization-specific reasons, and industry-specific reasons.
When we speak of science and technology’s progression in India, we haven’t reached the point that our multiple policies have periodically envisioned. The inordinate delays (more than three decades) encountered in the development of the Kaveri engine for India’s LCA (light combat aircraft) plans bring India’s poor state of scientific ecosystem to the limelight. As we have seen above, there are myriad reasons why things have gone wrong for India, a few of which are:
- Inadequate spending on R&D: India fares very poorly in terms of gross domestic expenditure on R & D (GERD) when compared to global examples. India’s GERD of 0.7% is way below what other developing and developed nations are investing. The USA and China together contribute about 50% of global R & D, whereas India contributes a paltry 2.7%. Of this paltry expenditure, only 37% comes from the private sector. Most of the public expenditure on research funnels into a handful of institutions, with DRDO, DPT of Space, and DPT of Atomic Energy hogging 61.4%, 31.6%, and 10.8% of the funds, respectively, leaving a meagre amount for other institutions.
- Poor and obsolete Academics: Our education network is notorious for inhibiting the spirit of scientific enquiry. Rote learning takes centre stage and doesn’t inspire any creativity. Children are not encouraged to question; rather, they are rewarded for conforming to what they are taught. This is the nemesis of curiosity, and it creeps early in the academic life of an average Indian student. Even our curriculum is not up to the international standards.
- Lack of autonomy to the premier institutions: Unfortunately, in India, the steering of India’s scientific journey is controlled by the bureaucracy. Homi J. Bhabha had once explicitly exclaimed that many of his scientific aspirations for the country had been stifled by bureaucracy. Scientific domain experts are usually excluded from policy decisions or their views are regarded as non-binding. The success stories of DRDO, and DPT of Space can partly be attributed to their independence from Delhi’s iron hand, a luxury that not all the institutions were blessed with.
- Lopsided policy formulation: Most of the S&T policy formulations in India are bottom-up, i.e., the policy comes to the fore only when the need emerges. They merely aim to solve existing problems and are barely futuristic. This is the primary reason behind poor budgetary allocations to futuristic technologies like nanotechnology, quantum computers, IoT, etc. Consequently, India always remains a late entrant to emerging fields. By the time India gets onboard, the other players would already have raced away or the technology would have taken a different turn.
However, not all is doom. Over the course of seven decades, India has championed a few sectors, made significant inroads into many other sectors, and is on the cusp of venturing into many more sectors. Even the government hasn’t been sitting idle. Rather, it has rolled out many schemes such as NIDHI, INSPIRE scholarships, VAJRA, KIRAN, Ramanujan Fellowship of the Science and Engineering Research Board, etc. These initiatives have culminated in positioning India on a global scientific atlas, as is evident by the following stats;
- India’s Gross Expenditure on R&D (GERD) increased by more than 3 times during last 10 years
- 48th rank in terms of Global Innovation Index (from 81st position in 2015)
- Ranks 3rd in terms of number of publications in SCI journals (5th in 2014)
- Ranks 3rd in term of number of PhDs
- 3rd Largest network of Higher Education in the world
- Ranks 3rd in terms of number of Start-ups (~32,000)
- Ranks 3rd in terms of number of UNICORNs (as per Huron Global Unicorn List, 2019)
These achievements are obviously a matter of joy. But much is yet to be done if we want ourselves to be positioned among the elite league of scientific superpowers of the world, as was envisioned by the STIP-2020 draft. For this, India needs a course correction.
Road Map for India
Being amongst the world’s top three scientific superpowers is by no means a joke. India, as of today, isn’t anywhere close to it. But it isn’t bereft of the potential to be one. The following measures would go a long way in unlocking the latent potential.
- Increasing the GERD, in tune with global standards
- Modifying the academic curriculum in line with changing scientific landscape.
- A paradigm shift in India education system especially in the higher education.
- Attracting and incentivising the private sector to invest in R&D and participate in scientific endeavours.
- Granting autonomy to the scientific institutions, with limited bureaucratic interventions.
- Establishing a synergy between public-private and academic institutions to consolidate the scattered efforts.
- Pro-active policy formulation that is much ahead of time.
- Promoting indigenous production.
- Embarking on science diplomacy through active collaborations with other countries.
India has so far notified four policies, and the fifth one is around the corner. The motto of policy documents should be to set priorities & a route map for future endeavours and also to work up on the shortfalls of the previous policies. A new policy document that doesn’t take into account the reasons behind the shortfalls of the previous policy wouldn’t yield any better results than its predecessor. Hope the upcoming policy document would be wary of this and address the lacunae.
- Why 2003 Was an Important Year for India’s S&T Policy Resolutions – The Wire Science
- pdf (pib.gov.in)
- Science Technology and Innovation (STI) Policies in India: a Flashback – IndiaBioscience
- Why India is not Developed as a great scientific power? (thecitizen.in)
- Deepak Pental writes: Budget should have allotted more funds for R&D (indianexpress.com)