Challenges facing India’s bid for science ‘superpower’ status

India hopes to persuade millions of school students to consider science careers Copyright: Flickr/karethepirate

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India is well-placed to push ahead with its bid to become a scientific powerhouse — but there are hurdles ahead if the dream is to be fully realised, according to an article published in Science.

During India’s Cold War alliance with the former Soviet Union, Western sanctions forced researchers to grow their own civilian nuclear power industry and space programme.

Following a landmark civilian nuclear deal with the United States in 2008, India shook off its sanction era limitations, and has invested heavily to enable other disciplines to mimic its stellar achievements in rocketry and nuclear science.

Last month Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that R&D expenditure would nearly triple — from US$3 billion last year to US$8 billion by 2017 — and that the private sector would receive incentives to add to that investment.

The government has also established a National Science and Engineering Research Board, modelled on the US National Science Foundation, which is expected to fund its first competitive grants this year.

But obstacles remain, including the challenge of navigating India’s complex bureaucracy.

"Even the best of intentions can disappear without a trace in the quicksands of officialdom," says Padmanabhan Balaram, director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

Many universities have also been slow to benefit from the extra available cash, because of poor facilities, limited opportunities for younger academics, and issues with corruption.

Rather than upgrade India’s universities, the government has — somewhat controversially — chosen to expand the education and research system on an unprecedented scale.

New institutes of scientific education and research have been created, and millions of high school students are to receive one-off grants to encourage them to consider careers in science.

To further boost capacity, the government is also setting up fellowship programmes to persuade Indian graduates not to follow the well-worn path of a stint in an overseas laboratory and to entice those living abroad to come home.

"There’s a concerted movement to bring people back," says Savita Ayyar, head of the research development office at the National Centre for Biological Sciences.

"Now we’re able to create an environment and mechanisms for postdocs to stay here."

And as India’s economy roars, while Western economies struggle, the current trickle of returning scientists could turn into a flood.

Link to full article in Science