Looking Beyond Turf Wars In The S&T Arena

Written by Malcolm Subhan | Updated: Feb 28 2004, 05:30am hrs
Turf wars seem to have held up co-operation in science and technology (S&T) between India and the European Union (EU) at the official, institutional level. Otherwise, how does one expl-ain the long delay between the signing of the India-EU agreement on S&T cooperation and the first meeting of its steering committee. The agreement was signed in November 2001 by President APJ Abdul Kalam, while the steering committee will meet here next Wednesday.

The delay is regrettable on a number of counts. India alre-ady has a reasonably good track record of scientific collaboration with the EU, which has contributed 42.5 mn euro to some 55 joint research projects.

The collaboration now on offer to Indian scientists and scientific establishments is in the key areas of research, like nanotechnologies and nano-sciences; genomics and biote-chnology; information society technologies; aeronautics and space etc. The aim is not simply the advancement of knowledge; but also to promote faster economic growth.

Research is necessary, but not enough. We need more knowledge (but) that knowledge must be used, absorbed by industry, and converted into new products and production processes, according to a German member of the European Parliament, Rolf Linkohr, in his report to MEPs on an action plan for the creation of a European Research Area.

And, believe it or not, the EU is seeking Indias help in this research. As always, there is a tendency here to contrast the alacrity with which China is prepared to co-operate with the EU, even in areas like youth and sport, and Indias apparent reluctance. Take Galileo, the satellite-based radio-navigation system that the EU is setting up to compete with and complement the American GPS. Chinas decision to join the EU was embodied in an agreement last October. Indias decision to follow suit was welcomed by Romano Prodi, President of the European Comission.

The Galileo project has huge potential, and India has made the right decision in coming on board, he told a conference in the Ficci auditorium last November. But New Delhi has yet to concretise its decision.

If the EU wants Indias help in conducting scientific resea-rch it is because this help is badly needed. While R&D spending in the EU is roughly equal to expenditure in the US and Japan (as a percentage of GDP), European industry spends much less on R&D. Worse, some 40 per cent of European private investment in research is in non-European countries, especially in the US!

The explanation Says Mr Linkohr: Europeans are reluctant to take risks. Technology scepticism dominates among them. The scant interest (in the EU) in scientific and technical subjects is due in part to the modest pay and uncertain career prospects, he adds. The result: a brain drain to the US.

He says Oracle is planning to raise the number of its software experts in India from 3,200 to 6,000; Microsoft was recruiting 500 more software designers in India; Accenture has already has 4,400 specialists on its payroll in China, India, Russia and the Philippines.

Go with the flow, is the message. A European Parliament resolution has called on the EU to be open to scientists, engineers and skilled technicians from all over the world.

And the EU is doing just this, by funding the co-operation forum on the Information Society Technologies, to be held in New Delhi from March 24 to 26. A key aim of EuroIndia 2004 is to give Indian and European companies an opportunity of working together.

But the most promising prospects for India-EU cooperation are offered by the EUs sixth research framework programme. The four-year programme (2003-06) has a budget of 17.5 bn euro. A total of 600 mn euro has been set aside for joint research projects involving researchers, teams and institutions from non-EU countries, including India.

Technically speaking, there is nothing to prevent interested Indian universities and resea-rch institutes from submitting proposals. In fact, the EU has already received between 30 to 40 proposals from India.

But major players apparently are missing. Hence the importance of next Wednes-days meeting.

India is fielding a powerful seven-member delegation for the first steering committee meeting. It will be led by Prof Ramamurthy, secretary, ministry of science and technology. Other members are Bikash Sinha, director, Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics; Samir Brahmachari, director, Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, and Kota Harinarayana, vice-chancellor, University of Hyderabad.