India: The Fight to Become a Science Superpower
Thursday, May 14, 2015
With her jeans, T-shirt and spirited attitude, Tapasya Srivastava could pass for a student as she works in her brightly lit cancer-biology lab on the University of Delhi South Campus. Srivastava, who oversees a team of eight researchers, is thrilled that she earned “a small research space of my own” in 2010, while still in her thirties. “With a decent list of publications under my belt, I am one of the few who have studied and undergone training entirely in India,” she says.
Eight kilometres away, in the chemical-engineering department of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, Shalini Gupta’s team is developing sensors to detect early-stage sepsis and typhoid. Gupta did her doctorate in the United States but returned to India to focus on its needs: “I am more connected to society and its challenges,” she says.
Srivastava and Gupta are part of a wave of young Indian scientists convinced that they can do high-quality research at home rather than having to move abroad. Such optimism reaches all the way to the top: in January, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told an assembly of scientists to “dream, imagine and explore. You will have no better supporter than me.”
India has much to be proud of. Last year, it became the first to reach Mars on its initial attempt. It boasts a thriving pharmaceutical industry that produces low-cost medications that are desperately needed by the developing world. And in his first year in office, Modi launched an ambitious plan to make India a leader in solar power.
Such successes cannot hide the huge challenges facing this country of 1.3 billion people, which leads the world in tuberculosis incidence and maternal deaths, and lacks electricity for one-quarter of its citizens. India is expected to become the world’s most populous nation within a generation, and it will require a robust science and technology sector to supply the needed energy, food, health care, jobs and growth. Yet researchers in India and abroad say that the country has a relatively weak foundation in science and engineering.
Indian research is hampered by stifling bureaucracy, poor-quality education at most universities and insufficient funding. Successive governments have pledged to increase support for research and development to 2% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP), but it has remained static at less than 0.9% of GDP since 2005. Despite its huge size, India has a relatively tiny number of researchers, and many of its budding scientists leave for other countries, never to return. Only by tackling its systemic problems can India compete with other emerging powerhouses such as Brazil and China.
“The density of scientists and engineers in India is one of the lowest in the world,” says Sunil Mani, an economist at the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, who is assessing Indian science and engineering for an upcoming report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “There are very many important areas where we are not able to do research.”