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.

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