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Science panic in India

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August 03, 2006

Science panic in India

Bruce Einhorn

Indian outsourcing companies like Infosys, TCS and Wipro are getting bigger and bigger, and Indian pharma companies like Ranbaxy and Dr. Reddy’s are expanding in the West. But not everybody in India is buying the hype that success stories like these are paving the way for the country’s inevitable rise as an economic and scientific power. I wrote recently on the BW Asiatech blog about a report showing that India’s scientists lag far behind those of China in publishing papers.

There’s no shortage of Indian experts sounding the alarm. Consider this story from the Times of India last month, “Science is on its deathbed.” That dire diagnosis is from the Prime Minister's own science advisor, CNR Rao, who warned his boss, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that "Indian science will be finished in the next five years. Our universities have dried up.” Vipul Mudgal, writing in the Hindustan Times, argues that “India’s science policy is falling apart just when its software prowess is being recognised and made-in-India cars are being exported to the West.”

Even somebody trying to look on the bright side can’t help but point out all of the problems. For instance, Mayank Vahia, professor of Astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the other day came out with a story in DNA India that tried to be upbeat about India’s potential. But Vahia also couldn’t help but point out that “What is of immediate concern is the status of education and research in Indian universities. They are riddled with mediocrity and excessive bureaucratic stranglehold. Unwarranted political interference and endemic corruption in the system are other serious problems.”

Meanwhile, China is pouring money into its universities. In June I visited two provincial capitals, Wuhan and Nanchang, in China’s interior. These aren’t coastal boomtowns like Shenzhen and Shanghai, but there are gigantic new university campuses under construction on the outskirts of these inland cities. One university in Nanchang has a huge new campus in order to accommodate its 85,000 students. That’s no typo – 85,000 students in one university. Size doesn’t guarantee quality, but China’s elite schools in Beijing and Shanghai are getting more support too. Expect the anxiety level in India to keep on rising.

07:18 PM


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Science panic in India by Bruce Einhorn:

Mayank Vahia, professor of Astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the other day came out with a story in DNA India that tried to be upbeat about India’s potential. But Vahia also couldn’... [Read More]

Tracked on August 17, 2006 11:34 PM

The declining trend in the no. of students opting for Science careers is decades old. The best students have been going for Business management and IT careers, in contrast to the sixties and seventies when the best from the different Exams were opting for Physics and Technology careers. Not many go in for a Ph D in Physics, Chemistry etc. Those who wish to do so go to USA or Europe etc. who are very few in numbers. The Universities donot attract talent , as there has been no investment in the laboratories or training of the Faculty. The priorities and approaches in Universities are not decided by the Professionals. There are hardly any Research Projects in an average University which are recognised and can attarct young persons to join. So they all go to non-Science disciplines including All India Services in Administration, Engineering Management etc. In today's times with the Web Based approach integrating with the Class Room instruction, a massive effort is required to upgrade the faculty and the academic infrastucture in the Universities and National Laboratories to to achieve movement of young talent to Science.

Dr P N Gupta

Posted by: P N Gupta at August 4, 2006 01:30 AM

... while the state of the universities is indeed a factor, the dynamics of India are such that an academician's life is not exactly fulfilling from an economic perspective.. practicality forces a lot of people to get into a professional stream that ensures good pay...

Posted by: manuscrypts at August 4, 2006 03:09 AM

I beleive it the highly glamorised pay packages being offered by IT industry at an early age, say approx.24 years, coupled with the hard work during PhD and uncertain carreer with entry level salaries being too low, are primary reasons for the decline. On the whole, society has started honouring only those with money, irrespective of the source of it, and in the process the socital respect of academics has diminished. These issues are to be seen in a holistic manner if we wish to keep an edge in science. As our rural & small towns used to be prime provider of scientific manpower, declining standards of education in towns are also a factor in this situation.

Posted by: Dr D K Dikshit at August 4, 2006 03:11 AM

I agree with you Bruce...

The real problem is the govt. stronghold over education and the institutes of excellence.

What needs to be done is push private capital in the education sector and build an industry-academia partnership...

Posted by: mojorocks at August 4, 2006 04:58 AM

Yeah, very true.Indian students these days look at only technology, manufacturing and a few other streams as the future. Science is not the top priority and research is a fading phenomenon. The reason is that science students don't get good jobs after graduation but engineers do get handsome salaries. The Indian government does not spend much in research which de-motivates the science people to stick to research etc. Moreover, the government has implemented a quota system in higher education which means a person with merit won't get a seat in university but a person with a particular caste would get it. There is no consideration given to the economic condition of the candidate so meritorious candidates opt out of research or they go to the West like the U.S., where more than 25% of scientists in NASA are Indians. So talent is not lacking, the will of nurturing the talent is not there in our national leadership. You guys call India the biggest democracy but it is chaos as a system.

Thanks and Regards

A Proud Indian

Posted by: Puneet Batra at August 4, 2006 05:36 AM

Indian College professors make 1/4 th to 1/6th the salary of a 'software coolie' with similar experience. We pay 1/8th to teachers, police and other important members of the society cannot afford rents with the kind of 'growth' Indian cities have been facing.

The bright teachers go into 'call centres', transciption, documentation and 'language institues' leaving the rest to teach our kids. The future does not look so bright for our kids. One more thing, only 20% of the college seats are available for my kids, the rest is @!#$ reserved. Jobs too will be soon reserved in private companies.

If Indian government could encourage material sceince and risk taking in startups, I would feel better about India as a global power. Software focus, though good is too one-sided. Till then the herd moves on to become coolies of a new kind.

How can coolies become greater than their masters? (even if they work on a laptop)


Posted by: Sameer at August 4, 2006 10:28 AM

There is nothing like absolute superiority in science. Science is usually an enabler of economic wealth. Currently there is an over supply of scientists round the world anyway.

The first step of being rich is gathering wealth, then strive to improve it. The companies in India right now needs people to grow. For them to reach the next level they might need science.

The best thing is to allow market forces to come into play. Let the people do what they like to make themselves rich.

Posted by: Harish at August 4, 2006 12:24 PM

Couldn't agree with you more.

If Indian goverment wants to take India to new heights, then they need to come out of Reservation/Corruption. These are most disgusting factor of our education system. Indians are shining everywhere except in india. This means that we don't have proper enivornment to nurture/support them.


Posted by: Arun at August 4, 2006 02:14 PM

I tend to disagree with your views about government sponsored universities being "the" solution for education. We have a lot of private colleges that have sprung up. For example, in Tamil Nadu alone, there are over a 230 engineering colleges, and counting.

Each of these typically enroll a couple of thousands of paying students. A few percentage of those students are sponsored by the government. They may not be of the best quality, but that constantly changes, for the good, with time.

See this article from Oxford University magazine where the following quote mentions about these figures.

"Most Indian students go to one of 16,000 or so colleges loosely affiliated to giant universities that administer examinations and distribute degrees. These colleges account for 89 per cent of undergraduate students, 66 per cent of postgraduates, and 82 per cent of faculty. The system was designed to allow a relatively small number of prestigious universities to supervise the education of large numbers of students. Thus Bangalore University has 400 affiliated colleges; Mumbai University more than 300; and Delhi University 80."

Most of India's students are paying students and after education they get jobs which also pays on its own. Does not depend on government intervention. Does not depend upon its control of economy. Its a self sustaining system. Whereas the day freedom and revolution strikes in China, most of these government sponsored institutions there would be at a huge risk.

Another Proud Indian.

Truly Proud.

Posted by: Alok at August 4, 2006 06:53 PM

At a macro level, the relevant debate is "will india become more prosperous than she is today?" as against "will indian engineers beat the chinese ones?"

If students are moving away from Science to other streams, that means that market forces are alive and well in India. I chose Economics and later Business Management for a simple reason - thats where I "saw the money" (to paraphrase 'Jerry McGuire'). (And i was crap at physics).

I think the whole premise of the 'government should fund everything' is very strange, and very 1950s - for 2 huge reasons:

(1) after they pay themselves, meet the defence budget and other sundries they dont have a great deal of money to play with;

(2) history has shown that whenever you stick the GoI in anything, corruption happens. The IT/ software boom happened despite the GoI, remember?

Given a choice, I'd rather the GoI did LESS than did anything more where something as vital as education is concerned.

My '2-anna' solution:

1. An autonomous body to set standards and that gets funding through tax-deductible donations, and the entire Dept of Education's budget. Heck - take out an IPO if you can find a way to make that work. Show people the money, and voila - you find talent and brains. An American way, perhaps, but one that works wonders in India.

2. Corporations are offered tax-breaks if they 'adopt' schools and universities, or better still - set up more schools & universities - the more remote the school/investment, the bigger the tax break. Corporations are, however, also responsible to ensure that the schools/universities under their care strive for an 'excellence' rule in the quality of graduates. Big Business has a big stake in the country's education - if they're going to make lots of money from the brains of the kids and the ideas they receive at school and uni, they may as well do something about making sure that future generations continue to make money for them.

3. Develop a pool-funded high-achiever's program, and a way of identifying bona fide geniuses when they are still young. Offer scholarships and even the opportunity to study at the best universities abroad.

Till that happens (lets be realistic: never) self-interest/ marketforces will (and should) decide the choices students make regarding their careers. The bureaucrat, however, can (and should) try to ensure that the student has the choice.

Posted by: eggs at August 5, 2006 02:36 AM


It;s good warning bell on the time needed most...But what the author failed to understand the Indian Education model...It's this absolutely competitive environment churns out most meritorious student.Have you ever witnessed a student scored 97% still go seatless....On research front India was always a laggard..But what is fresh air circulating is the IT outsourcing..where employees are forced to work in R & D(which was always a taboo in college)...Recent development in OPD(Outsorced Product development) or in Engineering services where companies are more than willing to outsource to design... I guess this is the foundation Indians lacking & the impetus had come in right time.You would see more innovation in india contrary to your prediction provided inida strengthens its IPR & Patent Protection.

CV Arun

Posted by: CV Arun at August 5, 2006 03:44 AM


Why do you always right negative about India, anyhow what ever your doing will only benefit India. We are a better people then chinese and we have shown the direction to the world from the beginning and we are still great inspite tons of negative things,India(Bharat) is a Spiritual Superpower and no one can question us.

May God Bless all

Posted by: Chandra at August 5, 2006 02:01 PM


Very thought provoking article. The faculty are paid a pittance, even at IITs, that it does not attract top talent. Contrast that with faculty here in the US who make less than industry but still earn good salaries. It is hard to mobilize anything in India because of the huge bureaucracy and the uneducated politicians.



Posted by: RKS at August 5, 2006 05:25 PM

It is unfortunately very true that many of the fresh graduates in India do not consider research as a lucrative option.WWIth an outdated patent regime and the red tapism associated with filing patents,very few are encouraged to takje up research in Indian Universities and Institutions.And those who are interested in research go abroad.

With a rapidly shrinking talent pool in research and allied activities .it's never been so bad.An added distraction is the lucrative career option called the IT industry ,where filing a patent is facilitated by the IT firms.

Unless a liberalisation of higher education takes place ,more and more Indinas are going to get disillusioned andmove abroad or take up jobs in the private sector.

Posted by: Harshavardhan at August 5, 2006 10:15 PM

One country's economic status is not measured by how tiny over-educated minority perform. It's the poor majority! India is lacking in this aspect. Although outsourcing business may benefit the country, but poor will stay as they are. World will see that way.

Posted by: OHC at August 6, 2006 01:48 AM

As a Chinese, I don't understand why westerners, Americans particularly, keep comparing India to China. India has its own path to walk on, and so does China. Diversity in development is a good thing. Both countries have a very intelligent population with a long historical and cultural background. Americans really need to learn to accept and maybe even embrace diversity for a change, instead of lecturing the whole world all the time. If you look more closely, China's politcal and human rights situation is probably not as bad as many in the west would like to believe, and its economic progress isn't as amazing and threatening as the press would have you believe. I have not been to India so I can't really say much about it. But I know that India is a great country with many achievements who has been colonized and oppressed economically by the British for over 200 years. If one were to compare, then consider that unlike China, India has only been truely able to define and tread its own path to its own destiny for merely 60 years out of the last 300 years of its history. I believe in India's path to success just as much as China's.

Posted by: ChineseView at August 6, 2006 03:03 AM

What Dr. Gupta said was appropriate. Keeping aside the state of conditions and the status of scenario, let us consider the economics behind the development of scientific research in India. From early 1950s to late 1980s, the economic planning in India was focused on agricultural sector and rural development. Consequently, the scientific research was aimed to develop products and technology for these sectors. As a result, hybrid seed varieties, intensive farming methods,locally produced farm implements, multicropping methods, etc. were developed. Therefore, the agricultural sector was able to rise productivity from 56 million tonnes of foodgrains in 1950s to 200 million tonnes of foodgrains now. However, the scientific institutions were poised to rise the agricultural production further to meet the future demand. Apart from agricultural and rural development, the scientific institutions in the country were geared up in those times, to support defence forces to counter external threats. Scientific research was carried out by centrally funded premier institutions and the universities provided basic training to the students. Post 1991 saw changes in the economy. Joining WTO and opening up of the economy. A sudden rise of middle class power. Rise of consumerism. These challenges the scientific community could not foresee. The economic planners could never provide a suitable policy for the scientific research. A swith from socialistic planning to market economy requires related changes in scientific research. Unlike Japan, South Korea and China, India never planned to rival western economic power. Perhaps the government do not know what to do in the changing scenario.

Posted by: Jagannaadh Biradavolu at August 6, 2006 03:31 AM

India is a great country but if allof us are given equal oppurtunities and political will is un-biased. By encoraging small and medium enterprising, we can make our country more cost competitive. Large corporate houses must be made accountable for R &D, and more tranparent policies, regarding allotment of lands and mines etc. as these are scarce. By tying up with research based institutions (abroad), in health care and infrastructure. 2020 will be India's.

Posted by: nand gopal at August 6, 2006 01:43 PM


I'm afraid that although your thoughts mirror a general perception in some quarters, they are way too strongly worded in nature and paint a rather exaggerated and grim view of things. It is this same educational system that produces the second largest scientific workforce in the world. And we do have institutions of world repute like ISRO, IISC and IIT's which compete with the best in the world. Probably the only thing lacking is the lack of infrastructure to do extensive research. To that extent you are right but I guess this country needs just a little more time. The research aspect is bound to pick up in due course of time.

Posted by: A neutral Indian at August 6, 2006 07:01 PM

I think what india needs is a more

industry driven R&D. Indian

companies tradianally haven't invested

much into R&D (e.g. Amabassdor

car by Hindustan motors. The company kept producing the same model alive for 30-40 years witout making 0 design or engine

changes. Ofcourse they were blown out of the water once indian markets opened up). That is now changing because compnies understand that they must do so in order to survive in the global age.

However I think what we need in india is a business driven R&D effort upto a university level. In the US lot of important inventions are done at the university level with a grant from different companies/government. I think india should go with the same model. It's not that indians ain't good in R&D, but they most definately are. A large number of inventions in the US are done by indian scientists (e.g. catalic converter to name one). If similar environment is provided in india, then india can really shine.

Posted by: indo_american at August 6, 2006 07:04 PM

The main reason for the current scenario of Scientific decline is more coupled to smaller families and materialism. In my time with big families, many with the same 90% and above if they can't get into one Engineering college of their choice never bothered and took happily to B.Sc. Physics, Chemistry without any regrets and later went onto do M.Sc and Ph.D abroad or in India.....Sudden change in this attitude was seen only from 1986 even in people doing for many shorter times and quick access to big projects and money was the criteria......IT onsluaght after 1995 changed even that, and all people now want with one or two kids is to do B.E. without knowing if they live in abroad each company wants only two or three Engineers as specialists to do everything for the company including R&D. In India with MNC's dominating they feel it is better to entertain many B.E's as they find it easier to give more money to keep these Engineers in their pay-roll for all jobs....and with money as a criteria these Engineers also hop from job to job......with no affinity to any company, field of specialisation. This party can't go on forever and again the interest in Science will automatically come...Till that time I agree it is dark. In my times IIT's had to refuse Reserach scholars as Professors can't accomodate more than 6-8 scholars.....Now I find that one student is sought after by 5-6 Professors which is a sad reflection of changes in our society.....With smaller families, parents also could afford to throw all their money into private colleges whatever is the fees.....Earlier that wasn't the case and we also felt we shouldn't trouble the parents....Now even girls they don't hesitate to send to B.E. anywhere for any fees.....This is an unwanted obsession to B.E......

Posted by: Dr.N.Ganesan at August 7, 2006 04:04 PM


I think the current scenario of ppl not pursuing science is a bad one for INDIA. But the silver lining i see is that lot more companies are willing to invest in R&D. And sooner or later, they will collaborate with Universities for the same. At that time, when u see money flowing in the education system, people will get attracted and will come back.

So true that IT will its high pay packages have lured the best of the latents from everywhere.



Posted by: Kaushal at August 7, 2006 11:38 PM

The current state of primary as well as higher education in India can be attributed to our governments inability of framing a policy that would nurture and nourish basic science research. Instead bureaucratic stranglehold and red tapism are destroying our seats of higher education especially IIT's and IIM's. Add to that is corruption and quotas. What i would suggest is:

1)Frame a policy for greater public-private partnership in primary education which would enable checking corruption and mal practices.

2)Enable greater industry-academia interaction.

As in case of US universities most of the research is done in universities funded by big corporations unlike in India where scientific research is done by independent entities like CSIR,ISRO et al. which are under bureaucratic control and have to depend on govt. grants.

3)Provide tax concessions for big corporate houses for partnering in research as well as providing primary education at subsidised rates in rural areas.

4)Create autonomous bodies consisting of eminent academicians and educationists for framing policies without any political interference or bureaucratic stranglehold.

Posted by: Dibya at August 8, 2006 12:17 AM

Come on guys! We may naively wish that the dmocratic India can outdo China economically. The cold fact is that India will never catch China because China's national average IQ is more than a SD higher than Indian's national average IQ. China's national average IQ is 105 whilst India's national average IQ is at 81. Check @google for "IQ and Wealth of Nation" for stats on that. It is just a pipe dream for us to wish India can counter balance the rise of China.

Posted by: Tom Simth at August 8, 2006 03:11 AM


IQ measurements are notoriously flawed - see for example "the Mismeasurement of Man" by Stephen J Gould. However that said, I am sure the average Chinese IQ right now is higher than India's becasue they have managed to provide for more widespread education. India's education record is closer to sub-Saharan Africa. All the more reason to appreciate the few Indians who did pull up the average for the uneducated masses.


Posted by: Sot Mmith at August 14, 2006 08:33 PM

In spite of a general view that the present situation of science and technology education in India needs major improvements, we must not forget that good facilities are also available in India. About education, novel research is important to meet the new challenges because only novel research can transform industry and society. Appropriate decision making by proper athorities for higher education, giving weight to the talent that is inherent and hidden in Indian students, faculty and researchers, is required. In addition to adequate/desirable infrastructure, essentially the faculty and students' efforts must be given due weight. Policies regarding utilization of manpower that is available in science engineering and technological universities must be reformed. Efforts made just for examination need to be reduced drastically, which is consuming almost 3-4 months per year in any of the University affiliated institutions. Instead, examinations in an autonomous environment could be given thought. Seriousness must be there about every decision that an educationalist/researchers take. A professor can not be simply be an employee, but he or she is likely to be the architect of the tomorrow's India. Need is to empower the people working in education sector. In fact, it is necessary to convey much to public in general to understand the importance of education and teachers. Definitely, it is necessary to change from the present situation. I feel, insteade of comparing the institutions infracturewise across the world, potential among Indian faculty members must be considered, then automatically the infrastructure part will also appear and follow it. Creativitive minds must be encouraged and provided with necessary support. Our decisions are important.

Posted by: Prof. Ajay Deshmukh at August 14, 2006 08:56 PM


We are a great nation. I have my personnel comments on Prof.C.N.R Rao’s open letter to PM on science scenario in the country. In reality, the changes in India’s R&D sector during last 5-6 years are profound. Over the past couple of years more than 200 IT and science-based firms have located R&D labs in India. These are not drudge jobs: high-tech companies are coming to India at a fast pace to find good class scientists. They appoint young graduates from universities and elite institutes; also they see India as the place better than Europe and the US. The knowledge revolution has already begun. As far China is concerned, while IT and services are helping India log 6 per cent year-on-year increases in GDP, China's vast manufacturing base is raising its GDP by around 9 per cent a year. Even in India's strong suit of knowledge-based industries, China could still steal the march on it, not least because its Communist government can command change, while in India the democratic government can only guide national development. Nevertheless, the rewards for India of a thriving science-based economy could be huge. The investment banks estimates that if India gets everything right it will have the third largest economy in the world by 2050, equal to China and next to the US. India is not yet a knowledge superpower but it stands on the threshold.

Good Luck

Manu Sharma

Posted by: Manu Sharma at August 25, 2006 02:15 AM


On science panic in India, I agree with Manu Sharma's comments. We are on a fast path of progress and our scientists are respected not only in the country but abroad also. They do deserve better facilities, perks and congenial atmosphere in order to work with more freedom.


Posted by: Kavitha at August 31, 2006 12:28 AM

hello frnds,

am a research scholar in physics frm a top institute in india. am planning to switch over to IT job. such is the pathetic condition here. indian government should recognize that and take necessary steps by increasing the stipend and attracting the young talent into research. no student should think of future during research nor should he think whether to come to research or some private job after his postgraduation.

Posted by: srujana at November 24, 2006 01:49 PM

Realistically, India can't compete against China in high value-added services, e.g., R&D and engineering services outsourcing.

In ITO, the gap between India and China is widening. I speak with first-hand experience: I was the VP, Bizdev for two of the largest U.S.-focused, China-based ITO firms. In BPO, for English-speaking countries and customers, China doesn't have a prayer: English speakers can, almost easily, get much better jobs than working in a call center or processing checks.

But in R&D and engineering services outsourcing -- the highest level of the outsourcing value chain -- China will kick India's butt. There's no comparison. All the best Indians are in the States. Good for the States!! What's left behind in India simply can't compare to what China has.

Frankly, I'm not too impressed by sea turtles, i.e., Chinese nationals that have returned back to China. Most have held low-level positions in the States. Check their CVs; trust me, you won't be impressed. Mid-level management at best (and this is rare). This is one reason the top management ranks of so many China-based firms is held by Taiwanese and Hong Kongnese: The mainland doesn't have experienced talent.

But this doesn't necessarily matter for basic research and in areas like experimental activities. Besides, it's questionable how close to actual product development U.S. firms may be comfortable in outsourcing -- to either China OR India.

Posted by: David Scott Lewis at January 13, 2007 09:37 AM

India needs to encourage researchers and scholars. It needs to make policies as flexible as possible. I my self have seen why many students give up on research. My wife was denied admission for PhD in IIT-Kh because they felt she was a married woman and cannot finish her research, when she took admission for MTech when our son was 1 year old and she passed out with 75%+ through out and came up as a topper in one of best indian engineering college.

She simply dont want to even think of research, as she has lost her interest and this is after scoring good marks in GATE exams.

Something is very limiting and needs to be changed if we in India ever think of getting in global science field.

Posted by: vijay kurhade at February 10, 2007 06:23 PM

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