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Is scientific research in India on a downslide? The diminishing number of scientific papers published by Indian scientists seems to point that way. The Indian scientific community, getting ready for yet another edition of the Indian Science Congress — this time in the science city, Bangalore — is worried by the portents.

Experts estimate that India has witnessed a drastic drop — about 20 per cent — in the number of research papers published during the last two decades: from a reasonably good 14,983 in 1980 to 12,127 in 2000. India’s ranking in terms of publication output has slipped to 15th position in 2000 from the eighth position it enjoyed in 1973. In 1973, India had accounted for almost half the papers published by scientists in developing countries.

China — not even in the reckoning two decades back — has now overtaken India. In 2000, South Korea was also waiting to edge India out of its current position. Brazil, with a mere 2,215 science papers in 1980, has recorded an impressive 430 per cent increase in just 20 years. “Korea and Brazil have focused on improving both their soccer and their science,” said P Balaram, editor of the journal Current Science, and biophysicist at the Indian Institute of Science (IISC), Bangalore, in a recent editorial.

But is the number of published papers an adequate index of a country’s scientific enterprise? Opinions vary. “Both the quality and quantity of Indian science are matters of serious concern. Indian science is in a low-level equilibrium groove that has not changed in a decade. A little tinkering here and there won’t help,” says Roddam Narasimha, director of National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore (See: ‘Alarmingly poor’; Down To Earth; Vol 11, No 15; December 31, 2002). Balaram also agrees that sheer volume of published papers is important in an assessment of academic science, especially those not part of the so called well-defined ‘missions’ in the fields of missile, nuclear and space technology.

For over three decades after independence, academic science remained a low-key activity, attracting little support from the government. Then the 1970s and 1980s saw it developing into a thrust area. During this period, state funding for science increased steadily, levelling a little in the late 1990s.

“Ironically, the decline of scientific productivity coincides with enhanced inputs into scientific research,” states Balaram. India’s investment in research and development (R&D) increased from a mere Rs 760.5 crore in 1980 to about Rs 13,000 crore by 2000. He points to causes for the slump: political interference, declining faculty quality, a rapid deterioration of the academic ambience and the declining contribution of Indian universities to the country’s scientific output. In a similar vein, Narasimha stresses on the need to reform the university system in the country. M S Valiathan, president of Indian National Science Academy (INSA), New Delhi, agrees. “We need to do much more to make our universities the powerhouses of new knowledge.”

Valiathan points out that India’s investment in education hovered around four per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP), despite the fact that the Education Commission (1964-66), under chairpersonship of DS Kothari, nearly 40 years ago, recommended six per cent investment in education. “Paradoxically, now ‘experts’ say that higher education, being a ‘non-merit good’, needs no government support. This way, what little remains of the science departments in our universities would disappear to the detriment of the next generation,” says Valiathan.

Former director of IISC G Padmanabhan concurs. “I wonder whether the perspective and ethos of these universities will change in the absence of political will.” He believes that the frequency of papers (in life sciences) published in major international journals has increased due to support from the department of biotechnology, department of science and technology, New Delhi-based Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and other agencies. “It would be worthwhile to analyse the papers published from India in two-dozen top representative journals, and compare them with Chinese and Korean papers,” he says.

And the problem is not confined to the basic sciences. Science and Engineering Indicators, a compendium brought out by the US National Science Board shows that fewer engineering graduates from India are going on to complete doctoral studies. As against 629 in 1982, India produced 298 engineering phds in 1999. The possibilities of a lucrative career immediately after graduation could be a reason. In contrast, there has been dramatic increase in doctoral engineering degrees in countries like Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan.

The writing on the wall is clear: unless there is a concerted effort to pull it out of the present stupor Indian science, dangerously moribund, will settle into stagnation.

Down to Earth