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Science Struggles in India

Forget all the claims about inventing planes and plastic surgery. In reality, India is falling behind its peers in scientific research.
An early nose job, according to Modi.

An early nose job, according to Modi.

Photographer: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

Last September, India put a spacecraft into orbit around Mars. Since then, boasts about the country's scientific prowess have grown outlandishly. In October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed to the half-human, half-elephant Hindu god Ganesh as evidence that ancient Indians had pioneered the art of plastic surgery. Over the weekend, Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vadhan told delegates to the Indian Science Congress -- an annual gathering of the country's top researchers -- that Indian mathematicians had discovered the Pythagorean theorem and graciously allowed the Greeks to take credit. Other speakers claimed that bacteria in cow dung could turn objects into solid gold, and that 7,000 years ago, Indians were flying huge airplanes "from one planet to another."

As ludicrous as these claims are, what should really worry Indians is the current state of the country's research sector. Despite high-profile successes such as the Mars mission, and its well-known prowess in information technology, India lags badly in technological research and development. Forget 7,000-year-old planes: After more than 30 years of trying, the country still hasn't been able to develop an indigenous fighter aircraft -- technology for which is widely available globally. India spends less than one percent of its gross domestic product on R&D. China spends 2 percent, the U.S. 2.8 percent, Japan 3.4 percent and Korea 4 percent. India’s share of global R&D stands at a dismal 2.7 percent -- compared to 30 percent for the U.S. Even China now accounts for almost 15 percent of such spending, having doubled in total between 2008 and 2012.