A country that does not leverage the genius of half a billion of its own people is unlikely to go very far.
Amidst the continuing travails of Indian higher education, exemplified most recently by the botched attempt to create Institutions of Eminence, how has India been faring in research generally?
Among large countries, India is an outlier — its aggregate expenditures on research and development (R&D) are modest, both in absolute numbers as well as the low share of R&D in GDP. Furthermore, within this expenditure, public spending looms much larger than in other countries and the role of higher education is de minimis. (Table 1).
While the low share of higher education is unsurprising given its tribulations, the comparatively low share of business in R&D speaks of the low priority given by Indian businesses to innovation as a driver of growth. Indeed, these numbers would be even lower but for the growing presence of so-called Global Innovation Centers (GICs) established by MNCs in India over the last 10-15 years.
For instance, in 1997 US MNCs’ expenditure on R&D carried out within India was barely $22 million and India was not even among the top 20 countries where US firms conducted R&D. By 2014, US firms were spending more than $2.9 billion – more than a 100-fold increase – and India was ranked sixth for overseas R&D by US firms.
Despite these limited expenditures, the production of research papers coming out of India has sharply increased over the last decade (Table 2).
This increase needs three qualifications. First, quantity is not quality. Much of this is mediocre and India’s share in ‘high impact’ or ‘most cited’ publications considerably lags the overall increase in publications output.
Second, the increase in output is concentrated in more ‘mature’ areas of science and less in so in the cutting edge emerging areas such as artificial intelligence or quantum computing. India does relatively well in research in fields such as engineering, chemistry and computer science, while lagging in areas such as medical sciences, mathematics and social sciences.
Third, Indian researchers are relatively parochial in that their international collaborations are low. For instance, while 23 per cent of all international collaborations in research publications by researchers based in the United States are with collaborators in China, just 3.5 per cent are with researchers based in India. The difference is almost double than what would be predicted by the relative difference in the overall research publications output of the two countries.
Nonetheless, the substantial growth in publications is welcome progress. A key factor in building on this momentum is the training of researchers both within and outside India and in the case of the former, encouraging post-doctoral work overseas.
The largest number of Indian researchers training overseas is in the United States, and while their number has increased considerably over the last decade, the annual number – about 2,300 – is relatively small compared to the country’s needs. While in the past the majority would stay behind in the US, that has dropped to about half more recently.
However, many others move from the US to other locales whether Europe, Canada or elsewhere, rather than necessarily moving back to India.
Given the paucity of quality faculty, India cannot easily ramp up doctoral training which lies at the heart of building robust long-term research prowess. The long-term solution obviously lies in much stronger schooling systems and build on those foundations by substantially improving college education, thereby deepening the pool from which more and better trained researchers can be drawn from. But the long-term is just that – a wishful aspiration for now. What can be done in the more immediate future?
One possibility is to draw from the post-war Japanese experience when the country was faced with a severe shortage of research capacity and training in universities. At that time doctoral students were allowed to pursue their research in corporate labs, which rapidly increased the pool of researchers and boosted applied research and innovation that propelled Japan’s post-war economic miracle. Given the profusion of GICs, this would boost research and training in precisely the type of leading edge technologies that India needs.
A second possibility is for India to focus particularly in research areas with low capital intensity, unambiguous standards of quality and low language entry barriers, and where there is clear demand in the foreseeable future. The most obvious is mathematics and statistics. This would require developing a structured system of math camps and competitions at the bloc, district, state and national levels with clear entry pathways to India’s best higher education institutions that are distinct from the current system. A century ago, other than mathematics, Srinivasa Ramanujan failed all his other subjects and therefore could not join the University of Madras. Somehow, he found a way to be recognised. Imagine how many young Indians have exceptional skills in this one area but have fallen by the wayside because of the system’s inflexibility.
A third option would be to facilitate international collaborations of Indian researchers. Just the exposure itself would be rewarding to younger researchers. In this, India needs to get out of a mindset that is fixated on elite American institutions and reach out in specific areas to collaborate with counterparts in Brazil, Mexico, Cuba in Latin America, the Nordic countries, France and Germany in Europe, and Taiwan, Japan or South Korea in Asia, just to take some examples.
A fourth pathway is to award overseas fellowships to leading global higher education institutions for students from marginalised communities, conditional, of course, on their being admitted to these institutions. India needs Dalit Fields medalists, Muslim neuroscientists and Bhil artificial intelligence researchers, not only because they will contribute to global knowledge and serve as role models that excite younger researchers in their communities, but also because a country that does not leverage the genius of half a billion of its own people is unlikely to go very far.
Devesh Kapur is the Starr Foundation South Asia Studies Professor and Asia Programs Director at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.