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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 41, New Delhi, September 28, 2019

The Interest around Chandrayaan-2 hides the Gloomy Future of Research in India

Saturday 28 September 2019

by Sambit Roychowdhury

Writing on the Chandrayaan-2, the space mission, the nation’s imagination is aflame with several excellent articles on the mission having already appeared in both the national as well as international media. Besides that my own area of research and expertise is far removed from the technical or scientific aspects of space missions, myself being basically a scientist. Apparently I have little to add to what has already been said about Chandrayaan-2. But the sayings and doings regarding the mission of important people, either attached to ISRO or the Government of India, and the associated media coverage, got me thinking about the place of scientific research in our societal priorities and the consequent percolation of rational scientific thinking among the masses.

At first glance, it would seem logical that all of us, belonging to the broader Indian scientific community, should welcome all this media attention around what is at its core a scientific endeavour. And it indeed makes one happy, especially knowing that the interest thus generated is hopefully inspiring many girls and boys in the remotest corners of India to think of a career in science and technology. At the same time I have a nagging discomfort within me about the whole issue as a scientist who has been trained in the Indian research ecosystem. Maybe it is due to the fact that vedic maths (whatever that means), seers and gurus have become part of the discussion due to the doings of some scientists and bureaucrats connected with the mission itself! Or is it because a government, which has shown scant regard for scientific views or rationalism, given the statements of its leaders and more importantly its policies, suddenly using the mission to showcase itself as a champion of scientific and technological progress? Or is it due to the chest-thumping jingoism of a nation regarding a technological feat (which was unsuccessful by the way), when irrational and unscientific customs rule our daily lives? There are deep socio-political and historical issues that lie behind these questions—things I am not remotely capable of discussing with any rigour. Therefore I decided to look for some answers in numbers and data in order to try and find out about the state of research in India.

World Bank data for the twenty years between 1996 and 20161 reflect some worrisome trends for India regarding investment in Research and Development (R and D). Spending on R and D as a share of GDP was stagnant at around 0.7 per cent, and remains so today, whereas countries with GDP higher than that of India (according to the United Nations’ estimates), like the USA, Japan, Germany, the UK and France, spend at least double that percentage of their GDPs on R and D. It is actually above 2.5 per cent of the GDP for the USA, Japan and Germany—all larger economies than India. And it’s even higher for countries like South Korea and Israel that invest over four per cent of their respective GDPs on R and D. Much more importantly for India, our neighbour China’s R and D expenditure increased from around 0.5 per cent to two per cent during that same 20-year period, and continues to grow rapidly. In fact, the expenditure on R and D as a percentage of the GDP increased from 0.6 per cent to 1.5 per cent for all low and middle-income economies as a whole between 2000 and 2016, and the world average has increased marginally from around two per cent to 2.2 per cent.

During the same 1996 to 2006 period, Japan had more than 5000 researchers per million people. The USA, Germany, the UK and France increased their numbers from around 3000 to above 4000 researchers per million people. China increased the number of researchers per million people from below 500 to above 1000. And all this while the number of researchers in India per million people remained constant at around 150.2

We should also consider the quality of research output along with the quantity. Considering citations per document (a good measure of the quality of average research output) of all publications in all research areas between 1996 and 2018, India ranks 191st among all countries in the world.3 There is a small number of statistics which can skew the above ranking, given that it includes many countries which produce only a small number of research papers. If one only considers countries which have produced more than 10,000 publications during the above mentioned time period, India ranks 77th among 98 countries—a list that includes both high income as well as low and middle-income economies. Interestingly, of the six countries with GDP higher than India mentioned previously, China has a rank lower than India (82nd). Japan ranks 31st, while the other four are in the top 20.

So we find that India’s investment in R and D is well below the average and shows no signs of increase, the fraction of its population doing research is much smaller when compared to comparable or larger economies, and the quality of its research output is not great. This is a grim reality when it has been quantifiably demonstrated that investment in scientific research brings both short and long term economic benefits to a country [see, for example, 4 and 5]. And by research, I mean fundamental scientific research. A push towards doing only applied and mission-driven research that was a result of large budget cuts last year to India’s largest R and D organisation, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), is not going to improve things in any way.

Maybe in order to improve we should get back to the basics—school and university education. Quantitatively the percentage of India’s adult population with higher educational attainment has increased from 2.6 per cent in 1983-84 to 8.15 per cent in 2009-10.6

But what about quality? No Indian university or institute has made it to the top 200 in the latest Time’s Higher Education rankings.7 And India simply refuses to participate in the Programme for International Student Assess-ment8 which tests 15-year-old students from all over the world in reading, mathematics and science, after Indian students performed miserably in it.

I can dig deeper and throw up more statistics regarding the quality of schooling that an average Indian student receives, a depressing exercise which has already been done by people much more competent than me and is out there for any interested person to look up. And I did not even come to the ever-present elephant in the room—the effect of caste on who ends up getting a chance of becoming a researcher in India. Just to give one statistic, between 1983-84 and 2009-10 higher educational attainment for adults belonging to the Scheduled Castes increased from 0.6 per cent to 3.9 per cent, and Scheduled Tribes from 0.55 per cent to 2.8 per cent.6 This, in spite of the policy of affirmative action (reservations), is being introduced for enrolment in higher education. Compare these numbers to the numbers for the entire adult population of India for the same period mentioned above, and the fact that people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes comprise more than a quarter of India’s population. There also exists a religious divide, with the higher educational attainment within Muslims changing from around 1.5 per cent to 3.8 per cent during the same period, when Muslims constitute roughly 14 per cent of India’s population.

So to add to the fact that there is no effort to increase investment in research and enhance the number of researchers, we find that our school and university education is not up to the mark for creating future researchers, and due to caste and religious faultlines we are not tapping into a large fraction of the talent pool. Without improvement in R and D, we will stand by while other nations will march past us in terms of economic development and overall societal progress.

As a nation we will be left miserably ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of a fast- changing world, that is, dealing with climate change, use of genetic engineering, use of intelligent machines for betterment of industry and society, tapping into the resources to be found in the Moon and Mars, to name just a few. We need to start a debate about the future of research in our country and make it an issue in the domain of public consciousness. Sadly there does not seem to be any concerted effort to do this either by the government or the media, both of whom satisfy themselves with rare achievements like Chandrayaan-2 which are few and far between—and will become even rarer if the present state of affairs is allowed to continue.





4. “Science economics: What science is really worth” Colin Macilwain, Nature 2010.

5. “Rates of return to investment in science and innovation” Frontier Economics, 2014.




The author, a Ph.D. in astronomy from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, whose research area is far distant and faint galaxies, did research studies at the Max Plank Institute, Germany. He is now on a post-doc assisgnment at the Swinburne Instutute, Melbourne. He can be contacted at
: sambit.rc[at]

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