Can India catapult itself among the top three scientific and technology powers?
Prime minister Narendra Modi has set 2030 as deadline to achieve this rare feat. Modi discussed his plans with 11,000 strong scientists and technologists’ contingent that congregated at Tirupati for the five-day Indian Science Congress on Tuesday. While this is not easy to achieve, it’s not impossible either given the temperament, long history and evolution of scientific breakthroughs both in modern and ancient India. This has happened not withstanding the religious fanaticism that has raised its ugly head on northern borders, caste politics pervasive in half a dozen states and gender inequality pursued by some groups.
Indian origin structural biologist and US-based Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan may not be convinced of the country emerging as a scientific and technology power house. Ramakrishnan was very skeptical even about the annual scientists jamboree itself, calling it more of a circus where “very little science was discussed”. Unfazed by such negativism, Modi seems have reposed faith in the vast trained human resource to give a big fillip to make India a scientific and technological raging bull globally. Scopus database, the largest abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed literature globally, has ranked India sixth in scientific publications with an annual growth rate of 14 per cent as against world’s average of 4 per cent. If the objective of claiming the position of a super-scientific power in next 14 years has to be realised, then India will have to attract the best talent available globally apart from harnessing its own demographics more productively.
As Modi put it bluntly, scientists will have to emerge from the deep-rooted silos and work towards forging collaborations globally. For this to happen, scientists, research institutions, industries, start-ups, universities and IITs have to come together across disciplines. These linkages will have to extend to even schools and under-graduate colleges. The huge investment made by centre and states must reflect in sociological and economic dividends over the years. Scientific and technological research pursued on taxpayers’ money cannot be done in opaque environment sans transparency. For instance, in JNU alone the government invests about Rs 320 crore annually for basic research in sociological sciences and technology disciplines. But then, what’s the measure for outcomes from JNU? Do our top institutes, specialising in either basic or applied sciences, figure among the top 50 global organisations? Our IITs produce grossly overpaid MBAs, people who study engineering and then sell detergent for big bucks. Against that we have cutting edge space scientists who built a Mars Orbiter cheaper than the hollywood production budget of gravity. So, we have the talent pool, but we need to start producing an assembly line of top quality engineers and scientists.
ISRO stands out in this mediocrity thanks to eminent space scientist K Kasturirangan who pushed for disruptive innovation with emphasis on quality. There’s no denying the fact that there’s ample opportunity for research, training and skilling in areas like robotics, artificial intelligence, digital manufacturing, big data analytics, deep learning and quantum communications. After demonetisation, even integration of cyber — physical systems through research, learning and manpower training and deployment pose major problems. Apart from this, social infrastructure and technological solutions of making water accessible and affordable must become fulcrum of this research. The annual science congress jamboree then will become more meaningful.
Keeping bureaucracy away from governing the ministries and dismantling the Nehruvian model of state-driven scientific research should be precursor to preparing India leap into becoming world’s power in scientific knowledge and cutting edge technologies.