Act fast, India’s science talent pool is drying!

By: |
December 25, 2020 5:15 AM

...govt must step up education/R&D spending; regulatory control, pedagogy, etc, need relooking

The government has launched various schemes—from the Atal Innovation Mission to the Prime Minister’s Fellowship for Research—to draw talent to science across levels of education.The government has launched various schemes—from the Atal Innovation Mission to the Prime Minister’s Fellowship for Research—to draw talent to science across levels of education.

The prime minister flagged an important concern for the country when he spoke of the need to attract and retain youth in Science; at the inauguration of the India International Science Festival (IISF), he said this was a crucial long-term challenge. The facts on the ground bear this out—as per the All India Survey of Higher Education 2018-19 (the latest AISHE report available), undergraduate enrolment in Arts was twice that of Science. Post-graduation enrolment in science subjects that year was half the number that graduated that year, while the PhD enrolment number was a fifth of the post-graduate out-turn. The only solace was that Science’s share in the PhD out-turn was the highest that year—but at 10,023, it was less than a third of China’s nearly 34,000 doctoral graduates in Science in 2018.

The government has launched various schemes—from the Atal Innovation Mission to the Prime Minister’s Fellowship for Research—to draw talent to science across levels of education. However, the fact is that India will need to do much more to earn a pole position in the global leadership race in a STEM-led future, given STEM will be key to meeting emerging challenges such as climate change impact, increasing automation, etc, as also capitalising on opportunities in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, etc. To that end, India needs to take a cue from China on spending on STEM education and research—the country has pumped in billions of dollars into positioning itself as a STEM powerhouse.

R&D spend being one indicator of policy commitment to leadership in a STEM-led future, China was a close second to the US in terms of R&D spending by a single-country in 2015—while the US spent $496 billion, China was spending $409 billion. India’s R&D spending in 2016-17, in comparison, was a mere $14 billion, or just 0.7% of its GDP. But, more important than the absolute figures is the growth-trend in Chinese R&D spending—against the US’s 4% annual growth in such spend between 2000 and 2015, China’s was 18%. At that rate, it was predicted by the US’s National Science Foundation to have well overtaken the US’s spending on R&D by 2020. No wonder, then, that China is the largest producer of peer-reviewed science and engineering articles, or PSEAs—a 19% share compared to the US’s 18%—largely on the back of Chinese PSEAs growing by 8% annually between 2006 and 2016 versus the US’s 1%. While the US still tops the list when it comes to the number of globally respected scientists—as a recent Stanford analysis shows—China has been growing its numbers. India has scant presence in top 10,000 and has merely six in the top 1,000. China’s dedicated research universities, with dizzyingly high spends and large incentives for researchers to produce high-quality research work have been a key element of its STEM march.

The new National Education Policy (NEP) is expected to give science education, right from the school level, a big boost. As much as China-type spending will be key to this—the government intends to bring up public spending on education to 6% of the GDP versus the current 4.4% “at the earliest”—retaining talent in Science will need a host of interventions, from reimagining pedagogy to facilitating private sector/industry engagement in shaping the course of R&D and STEM spend and policy. The government also needs to realise that autonomy for top-rung institutions—delivering both STEM and non-STEM education—is key; you can’t have an IIT or IISER forced to implement reservation and expect to retain talent in Science.

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