India should heed but not fear China’s science

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India must not fall into a ‘China Syndrome’ trap but set and implement its own science and technology priorities, says Ved P. Kharbanda.

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warned, at the January 2012 Indian Science Congress, that China had overtaken India in research and development, he was echoing statements his scientific advisor, C. N. R. Rao, has been making for years.

India needs to be more proactive in its science spending and policy initiatives, rather than getting trapped in a ‘fear psychosis’ over China.

China races, India plods

The Chinese dragon is rapidly strengthening its innovation capabilities, having increased research and development (R&D) spending from US$2.65 billion in 1985 to US$10.70 billion in 2000 and US$104.48 billion in 2010. That translates into 0.71 per cent of gross domestic product in 1985, 1.01 per cent in 2000 and 1.76 per cent in 2010. Its science and technology (S&T) manpower also increased from 33.80 million in 2001 to 49.6 million in 2008.

In contrast, the lumbering Indian elephant is struggling to achieve a threshold level in its R&D spending, which increased from US$1.38 billion in 1985 to US$3.68 billion in 2000 and US$9.45 billion in 2007. Its S&T manpower increased from 21.4 million in 2001 to 31.4 million in 2007.

Further, while China’s scientific papers rose 15 times from 6,509 papers in 1990 to 94,800 in 2007, India could only increase output from 10,103 papers in 1990 to 30,000 in 2007. India also lags far behind China in the number of patents granted: in China patents increased from 12,683 in 2000 to 93,706 in 2008, while in India they rose from 1,318 in 2000 to 7,539 in 2006.

Strengths and weaknesses

However, as far as acquisition of indigenous technological capabilities is concerned, these figures do not reflect individual strengths and weaknesses.

Chinese research publications are wanting in quality as shown by a report from Science Watch, which says China has 0.5 per cent of the top one per cent of the most cited papers in all fields [4]. In comparison, the US has 1.87 per cent, the UK 1.53 per cent and Germany 1.27 per cent. The Global Innovation Index ranks China at 43 — far behind the US at 11 and the UK at 14 [5].

India is ahead of China in the quality of its scientific papers, which is determined by the number of citations per article. This has gone up from 2 to 2.7 over the past five years for papers from Indian scientists, in contrast to Chinese scientists having citation factor of 2.2 [3].

China, thanks to S&T reforms in 1985, has strengths in nuclear energy, space, computers hardware, micro-electronics, telecommunications, instruments, heavy industry, machine tools, new materials, petrochemicals, and biotechnology. But China lacks highly educated S&T manpower. China is now recruiting scientists and technologists from abroad, and reversing the brain drain by wooing back its young scientists to lead specific projects/laboratories and institutions in the home country [1].

India’s advantages lie in a strong foundation in basic research and S&T manpower, particularly in the areas of biotechnology, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, nuclear energy for civilian use, information technology and business management. Its weak point is primarily the translation of research results into innovative and value-added products — a problem shared with China. India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and Indian Institutes of Technology are doing great research, but lack the push.

Different political systems

India and China are two different political systems. China’s centrally controlled political system brooks no controversies over implementation of programmes, while India appears to suffer from "too much democracy" as former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Bin Mohamed observed, during a visit to India in December 2011. This hampers quick decision making, particularly in areas likely to be controversial. For example, where China has increased the area under GM cotton from 0.034 million hectares in 1997 to 3.7 million hectares in 2004 [2], India managed to raise it to just 1.26 million hectares by 2005 from 0.038 million hectares in 2002.

Spend more but wisely

R&D budgets, as well as the number of scientific papers published or patents won, are important indicators of a country’s progress in science, but they are not the only ones that matter nor are they a satisfactory index of a country’s innovative progress. This depends on how efficiently funds are utilised, and in the required direction.

India must develop inclusive technologies, for example, clean water and air technologies, as well as education, employment and infrastructure development, agriculture, rural non-farm growth, promotion of technology innovations in small scale enterprises in the rural areas, home to 72 per cent of India’s 1.1 billion people. Science policy makers need to look at the entire picture.

Ved P. Kharbanda, is a former senior scientist at the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, New Delhi, and has been engaged in science, technology and society policy studies on India and China since 1980.


1. Kharbanda V.P.: Academician to Entrepreneur: Impact of Globalization on Science and Technology Policies in India and China. Journal of Science and Technology Policy in China, 2011, 2 (1) 7 – 26
2. Huang, Jikun; Hu, Ruifa; Pray, Carl E. and Rozelle, Scott: Genetically Modified Crops in China: A review of Agricultural Biotechnology, In: Agriculture: Tradition, Modern Technology and Globalization in India and China, edited by V.P.Kharbanda and Pei Guo. New Delhi; NISTADS, 2009, p79 – 108.
3. India ahead of China in quality of scientific papers. 6 January 2012. The Hindu. (0nline) http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article2778366.ece
4. Which Countries Publish the Most, (2007), Science Watch (May/June)
5. CII-INSEAD Innovation Index 2009-10, (2010), The Economic Times, 24 June, p6.