Column : The art of science

Written by Sunil Jain | Updated: Oct 4 2010, 06:19am hrs
Unlike many other countries, India has an official India Science Report, which details the quality of Indias workforce, the public attitude towards science, and so on. Some of the numbers are interesting, some are not. That 4.5% of the population comprises graduates today, as compared to 2.4% in 1991 is certainly a good thing, more so keeping the rise in population. That 95% of post-graduates have access to electricity, similarly, is a pointer to future public policy.

Yet, as the taint of plagiarism on the report of the six premier science academies on Bt-brinjal shows, the shape of Indias science establishment isnt too great. Interestingly, the India Science Report, funded by the Indian National Science Academy, one of the authors of the Bt-brinjal report, says little about the quality of science or the scientists themselves. A critical lacunae, it would appear, at least in retrospect.

We hear, from time to time, of how Piramal Life Sciences has developed a new cancer drug thats in the process of being tested, of how the CSIR labs have done some great work, of how it costs a fifth (or is that a tenth) to develop a new drug in India, of how Shankar Netralaya has dropped costs of eye operations by using a McDonalds style assembly line style of operations the list goes on. The big question, though, is when does this translate into gains, or the productivity hikes that are associated with this. Various assessments, from the OECD and others, point out to the fact that a very large proportion of economic growth takes place due to increased R&D-linked productivityan OECD study, for instance, found that a 1% hike in business R&D resulted in a 0.13% hike in productivity growth. Another study, by the World Bank some years ago, decomposed the almost 12-fold difference in the growth of Korea and Ghana and found 60% of the difference was attributable to the difference in knowledge.

While the data shows a hike in R&D expenditure in overall terms, and especially in industries like pharmaceuticals, making statements about the state of Indias science and technology is a big leap of faith. Interesting, in this context, is a study by the World Bank, called the Knowledge Assessment Methodology (KAM). The Bank keeps updating this from time to time, using parameters like school and college enrolment, use of the Internet, and so on. There are two indices, the Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) and the Knowledge Index (KI)the KEI also takes into account economic incentives and includes parameters like tariffs and trade as a proportion of GDP. These, of course, go beyond just science and look at knowledge creation in other fields as well.

It is not unusual for India to be outstripped by the growth in other countries, though this has changed of late, given the surge in GDP growth. In the KAM ratings, however, India has not only slipped vis--vis other countries, it has slipped vis--vis itself. Indias KEI score has fallen from 3.56 in 1995 to around 3.09 today while Chinas has gone up from 3.93 to 4.47 and Brazil from 5.23 to 5.66. Running slower than China and Brazil is bad enough, Indias latest score is lower than that in 1995.

Decompose this into its elements and you find that while Indias innovation index is up from 3.7 to 4.15 (remember 3 Idiots!), there are very sharp falls in the education index (from 2.56 to 2.21) and that in ICT (from 4.5 to 2.49). Remember all these numbers are normalised using population growth, so what this means is that while there have been gains in the raw numbers, they are not enough to keep up with the demands of populationIndias stupendous growth in telecom shouldnt hide the exceptionally poor performance when it comes to the Internet or the number of computers per 1,000 persons.

When it comes to hi-tech exports as a proportion of total exports, Indias number is 6% versus Chinas 29%, and over a base thats so much larger. Chinas R&D expenditure to GDP is around 1.5% as compared to Indias 0.8; China had 1,071 people engaged in R&D per million population in 2007, India was just 137 in 2005; not surprisingly, China had 1,94,579 patent applications in 2008 versus Indias 5,314 according to the World Development Indicators.

All of this, of course, flows from the fact that Indias university system is all but dead. Of the top 500 universities in the world this year, India has two while China has 34, four of which are in the top 200the ranking takes into account the Nobel Prizes won by the alumnus, the Fields Medals, the number of research papers in various citation indices, and so on. In 2005, China had 18 (two in the top 200). India had 3in the last five years, the University of Calcutta dropped out of the list.

So, whether or not Indias top science academy is guilty of plagiarism or whether, as INSA president Prof M Vijayan says it was just a slip in terms of giving a citation and has no bearing on the findings, it does appear that Indias ancient knowledge system is going nowhere. And here we are fighting just to restore an ancient temple. Some symbolism.