In the 75th year of our independence, we must celebrate, introspect and urgently put our shoulder to the wheel at the center of our flag and ensure that we use science effectively in social and economic transformation through sustainable growth.
While much of our research success has come from the efforts of our national laboratories, research at legacy universities is now considered problematic. On a positive note, there has recently been an increase in research in our university system with the formation of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research. They and the Indian Institute of Science attract students and faculty who are among the most talented. Many of the newer private universities also seek to combine research and education. Indian institutes of technology have invested in research programs, particularly in climate change, renewable energy, telecommunications and electronics. The university system remains the source from which springs of discovery and innovation in India and abroad are fed. Industrial research has also grown in recent years, particularly in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. India’s contribution to the global good through generic drugs and vaccines has had an enormous impact and would not have been possible without the contributions of our research institutions, universities and state-owned companies. The recent growth of the IT sector and startup ecosystem is also based on quality education. All this should be noted.
But introspection is necessary if we want to understand and shape the immediate future in a competitive and demanding world. There are many different views as to why science in India is not growing exponentially, despite extraordinary talent and considerable resources. One of them is that it originates in the growth of national laboratories due to the expansion of research in the university system. Another is that research in the university system today emphasizes adherence to a series of arcane processes rather than beneficial outcomes and impacts. A third view is that industry should significantly increase its investment in research. Finally, regulatory and compliance processes are perceived as complex and burdensome.
In a situation of extraordinary achievements, abilities, talent and energy, it becomes clear that the termination of the scientific enterprise is necessary. Furthermore, while the university system remains a wellspring of discovery and innovation, about 90% of our research support goes to elite institutions that enroll only 10% of students. This asymmetry needs to be changed. A recent budget speech announced the creation of a National Research Foundation to expand research for dissemination. A true implementation of the NRF will not only increase support, but also qualitatively change the way research is conducted. Reversing the current situation where national laboratories siphon the best talent from the university system, the NRF will make national laboratories across the country partners with universities. In several cities, dozens of top labs and universities are located next to each other, but in silos. Their open cooperation and sharing of resources is required. Finally, national research agencies should spend more of their funds on the wider university system. However, it would be a mistake to list only those requirements that must be fulfilled “from top to bottom”. Scientists must also act and develop a common goal with society, industry and state and central governments.
If society wants to see the value of supporting science, scientists must not only participate in the public dissemination of science, but also create public demand for science. For starters, if scientists make it their mission to engage with society on sustainable development, clean energy and environmental protection, as well as working with government at all levels, much can be achieved. Our academies, leading institutions and industry organizations must serve as bridges connecting science, society, industry and government. While reducing inefficiencies and increasing support, we should aim to double the positive impact of science on society every two and a half years. This is possible because modern science is based on ideas, design and their integration into action. The technological applications of previous decades, such as high-yield agriculture, appeared when we did not limit the use of resources such as water or pesticides. Today, if we demand high yields while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and insist on sustainable resource use, this can be done quickly. Determining where science can be of greatest value to our society through improved efficiency and the application of new discoveries can happen when the direction is set by society rather than by scientists themselves. When society sees research in India as important to India and the world, there will be more support for research. Scientists and society must develop a common goal to make this happen.
(The author is a former chief scientific adviser to the government)