Ever since the world started comparing India and China against each other, often scoring China higher, many in India have drawn consolation from the belief that while China may be the world's factory, India certainly has the edge in science.
The mushrooming Indian software companies, some of which were beating multinationals on their own turf, and a handful of drug companies that were unexpectedly winning drug approvals worldwide, beating their global counterparts, were enough for them to substantiate that belief.
Lately, however, not many are convinced anymore that the successes of India's software and drug sectors mean that the country is strong in the broad field of science and technology as well.
The science edge the country had been taking for granted over the past decade is slipping rapidly as India has started facing its most serious challenge, not from the developed world, but from its rapidly developing neighbours.
"Science in India is dying," said C N R Rao, the scientific adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
"Unless India changes the scientific policies and practices that it has been following for the last five decades, its science could be dead in the next five years." He added that the country's scientific infrastructure is now crippled, and "there are only a handful of scientists left".
The roots of Indian science and technology go back as far as 25 centuries when the Rig Veda recorded that gravitational force holds the universe together, long before Isaac Newton put forth the idea.
The fact that Indian science is almost at a dead end indeed comes down hard on many. Although the world hails India's software prowess and a few of its pharmaceutical achievements, the fact is that the practice of basic science is falling apart.
A good indicator that India's performance in basic sciences is failing markedly both in terms of quality and quantity, according to Rao, is the number of research papers published by India's government and private-sector science establishments. China contributes 12% of the world's scientific papers, while India lags behind with a mere 3%.
The decreasing number of high-impact papers from India, which is less than 1% of the world's total, "is of serious concern" too, Rao said.
But what is more unnerving, "Even smaller countries, such as Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, have become global players and have overtaken India."
According to a Financial Times report on innovation in 2005, South Korea, which was way behind India in 1980, published more research papers (27,397) last year, while Brazil and Taiwan have also beaten India with 17,086 and 16,503 published research papers respectively. India produces about 15,000.
"For all its knowledge industry claims, India was not among the top 30 countries in terms of the number of patents applied for," the report said. "Countries like Brazil, South Africa and Israel are far ahead of a retreating India."
Rao said, "The problem is Indians have started losing interest in science. There were far more students willing to take up science a decade ago."
According to an analysis by the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, only a very small fraction of India's schoolchildren make it to the top so that they can make a significant contribution to the development of the nation.
"The brightest and best of them go abroad and become the part of the brain-drain," said center director Lalji Singh.
Like its economy, Indian science too needs reforms, and India is not doing much about it. "Science in the country has slumped into a state of mediocrity and needs a huge wind of reform to come out of that," said R K Pachauri, the director general of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a noted Indian think-tank. "But nobody [has] really carried out reforms of our scientific establishment yet. This is long overdue."
A good example of how lack of reform is crippling India's science infrastructure can be gauged from the outdated education system. Universities habitually lack funds, and the outdated syllabi drive students away from science toward disciplines and degrees that get them highly paid jobs in such industries as information technology and retail.
Consequently, "India may still produce a number of science graduates, but the quality and caliber of the students who come out of the present education systems are far below the desirable standard," said Pachauri.
Scientists say that as the Indian economy develops, it has to face increasing competition from other parts of the world to attain world-class standards.
"Science in India until now was developing but slowly. However, in the last four years competition has become severe; science by itself is more demanding today," said Rao.
"But even as a number of neighboring countries are investing heavily in basic science, in India the scale of investments is rapidly going downhill."
Through various measures such as tax policies, increased investment in research and development (R&D), and preferential policies for science and technology personnel, Asian governments now pump about 4% of their gross domestic products into science and innovations, whereas India's spends only a fraction of 1% of GDP.
The question of autonomy is another issue that raises temperatures where scientists gather. Many say that although scientific institutions and universities are autonomous organizations on paper, in practice archaic government rules are forced upon these organizations with scant respect for their autonomy.
"Because of this practice, scientific organizations end up following the government rules, compromising on what they should do, how and when," said Lalji Singh.
Added Rao: "The contribution from universities is hitting an all-time low.
Even the top institutions are not performing well in terms of research papers and the number of research students they train."
Nevertheless, they agreed that it is not difficult to reverse the current state of Indian science. "One the easiest steps to arrest the decline would be to direct a substantial part of what the government spends on science toward the privately managed scientific establishments that conduct goal-oriented research," said Pachauri.
Rao argued that the country could triple its spending on R&D by drawing on the resources of private investors.
Currently, 90% of the funding on the country basic scientific research comes from the government.
The good news is that the government has already laid down much of what needs to be done, in a science and technology policy document formulated in 2003.
According to the document, the government would be committed to raise the level of investment to 2% of GDP, and instructs industry to increase its investments in R&D steeply.
The policy's other important features include strengthening the infrastructure for science and technology in academic institutions, providing new funding mechanisms for basic research, nurturing and attracting talent, and enhancing international science and technology cooperation.
However, the government seems to have put away and forgotten the policy document soon after its formulation.
By courtesy : Asia Times On-line. The writer is a Kolkata-based