Cure needed for Indian science

Bruce Einhorn

India’s most important scientific conference has gotten off to an inauspicious start. Over 5,000 people, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, are attending the annual Indian Science Congress in the southern town of Chidambaram. At a time when many Indians are worried about the country’s scientific output falling behind that of China and other countries (for instance, see this Asiatech item from last August), the meeting is an important opportunity for India’s science bigwigs to show that they have a plan to reverse the decline. So it’s especially unfortunate that the big news on the eve of the congress was illness – specifically, an outbreak of food poisoning at the site of the meeting. According to the Hindu, “twenty-seven people, including three scientists, were taken ill after consuming food from the Indian Science Congress (ISC) venue at the Annamalai University here.”

In his speech opening the congress, Singh acknowledged the poor state of health of Indian science. “I am deeply concerned about declining enrolment in schools and colleges in basic sciences," he said. (See transcript here.) "There is also widespread concern about the decline in the standards of our research work in universities and even in advanced research institutes. The university system needs upgrading in a massive way."

Good for Singh. The prime minister went on to say that “the time has come, however, for a new thrust and for renewed investment in basic sciences." Tooting his own horn, he lauded the government for opening three new institutes for advanced research of research in 2006. Singh also pledged that the government will spend more on R&D, growing from the current 1% of GDP to 2% five years from now. Admirable goal, but I have my doubts that India can manage such a big jump in such a short amount of time. As in so many things, China has a head start over India in this, since the Chinese government has been pouring billions of dollars into R&D over the past few years. But for all that, Chinese R&D spending is still only at about 1.3% of GDP. (See this BW story for more.) Still, it’s good news that Singh recognizes that the Indian government needs to do something to solve the health woes of India's scientific community.

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