UK, France vie for research collaboration with India

Britain and France announced a host of higher education and research joint ventures with India during high-level visits to the country last month led by British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande. Both leaders were accompanied by their higher education and research ministers.

Cameron’s 18-20 February visit generated more excitement and media coverage in India than Hollande’s presence a week earlier, but experts felt that India was in a win-win situation in relations with both countries.

With a number of letters of intention and other agreements signed by their respective higher education ministers, Geneviève Fioraso and David Willetts, France and Britain announced several big-ticket collaborations.

A joint statement by India and France released on 14 February announced “an ambitious education plan, including twinning of higher education institutions, mutual recognition of degrees, research collaborations and training of teachers”.

The UK now boasts research collaborations with India valued at a total of £100 million (US$152 million) compared to £1 million just five years ago, it was revealed during Cameron’s visit.

New deals

New deals announced during the British visit included a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the Indian government to establish a new Chemical Biology and Therapeutics Institute in India, investing some £11 million (US$17 million) over five years.

There are also major collaborations on neuroscience, research partnerships in energy, medicine, business and manufacturing, and English language training for 1.5 million teachers in India by 2017, according to the UK government.

“This impressive range of announcements makes clear the breadth and strength of the UK and India’s education and research links,” said Willetts.

Warwick Business School, the London School of Economics, Open University UK and the University of Southampton are some of the British institutions to have signed joint programmes with Indian institutions.

Among the French agreements signed in New Delhi were research collaborations in the space sector, and expanding ongoing collaboration in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy – France is one of the largest suppliers of nuclear fuel to India. The agreements include development of products and services in the fields of nuclear fuel, nuclear reactor design and construction.

Seventeen university collaborations were also signed including exchanges of doctoral students, and collaborations between: Delhi University and SciencesPo, Paris; the French research agency CNRS – Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique – and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; École Centrale de Nantes and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur; and ParisTech and a consortium of seven Indian institutes of technology.

The collaborations cover student exchange programmes, scholarships, mobility for researchers to promote joint research, renewable energy and energy storage for deployment and industrialisation, cancer research and public health.

UK vs France

But the UK, with its much longer list of eye-catching announcements, caused experts to wonder whether that country had now become a preferred partner for India compared to France and other European countries.

Commenting on the India-UK collaborations Kirsten Bound, a policy advisor at the non-profit National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) in London, described the UK’s flurry of announcements in India as “an explosion of activity”.

“The scale of the road show and the range of cities visited was impressive,” she said, noting that the scope and size of energy research collaborations particularly stood out. Those announced during the visit include energy grids and energy storage worth £10 million, and bio-energy research projects worth another £10 million.

James Wilsdon, a professor at Sussex University’s Science and Technology Policy Research Unit, agreed that the list of collaborations released during Cameron’s visit was “impressive” – although the UK was increasing funding for science collaboration with India “from a very low base line just a few years ago”.

He added that compared to countries like France and Germany, which had a lot of ‘top down’ state-funded research organisations, research in the UK was conducted very much at the university level.

“We have to be very cautious about only looking at the managed direct funding programmes rather than the much strong pulling power of Britain’s higher education system relative to France’s and Germany’s,” he added – a reference to the large number of doctoral students and researchers drawn to the UK.

NESTA’s Bound said that the success of the UK’s collaborations in particular would depend on how well Indian and British universities worked together on the ground.

Courting India

Neeta Inamdar, head of the Manipal Centre for European Studies, said there were strong economic reasons behind the UK’s aggressive push for partnering with India.

“UK higher education institutions need foreign students and they are aggressively pursuing this agenda. But with a lot of funding cut, they are also looking at collaborations to support university research and simultaneously attracting the best Indian brains,” Inamdar said.

On the other hand, France was using this opportunity to exercise soft power, she said.

Others have suggested that research and higher education collaboration could pave the way for collaborations in other areas such as industry or defence, helping France to secure lucrative contracts in India.

Alain Lecavelier des Etangs, a researcher in astrophysics at CNRS, disagreed. “This type of collaboration will definitely provide benefits in all aspects of the relations between France and India. However, it would be an extremely short-sighted perspective to place this in the spirit of improving, for instance, commercial and defence relations.”

In terms of soft power or other impacts, Lecavalier said that for research collaboration “the benefits would be long term, and they are by nature difficult to foresee”.

But there are other strategic reasons for France to turn to India, including a general push by the European Union (EU) to set up research collaborations globally and make EU higher education and research initiatives better known in India and other countries.

India is seen as a country of opportunity for science. It is estimated that the country spends around US$13 billion on all forms of international education and its spend on research is expected to double over the next five years.

European countries also want to tap into India’s large body of research talent and hitch it to its own major research initiatives.

European aims

The harmonised European Higher Education Area, also known as the Bologna process, has contributed significantly towards globalisation.

But nothing much is known in India about the EU’s higher education and research initiatives, according to Inamdar, who believes that the European agenda is not just economic but also to push its own higher education and research integration process forward.

Lecavelier said that in France, unlike countries such as the UK and Germany, relations with India, particularly research collaborations, had in the past “looked less important and with less expected returns than relations with other countries like China”.

France had concentrated on research collaborations with China and French-speaking countries, including in Africa, while research collaboration with India was much further behind. “This is slowly changing,” Lecavalier said.

Irrespective of the number of collaborations and their value, both French and British institutions need India’s human resource as much as India needs their expertise, according to Deepak Pental, a professor in Delhi University’s department of genetics.

“The West has always had great access to science and technology. But there is a limit to how much they can add to existing technology and research. Funding is also a problem in these cash-strapped economies. So tapping into India’s vast human resources and hunger for knowledge will help them keep their science alive,” Pental said.

Others have pointed out that partnerships are easier to announce than carry out, and many challenges face the increasing number of collaborations and partnerships.

According to one French expert in Paris, who spoke on condition of anonymity, a project that would see France providing some financial assistance and technical support to the new Indian Institute of Technology in Rajasthan state has hit various obstacles, and the funding had still not materialised from France, despite an agreement being inked several years ago.

According to Inamdar, only the tip of the iceberg that is India’s education and research ecosystem had been explored.

“We have hundreds of state universities and institutions who do not know that these collaborations are taking place. Partnerships have to move beyond the biggest cities and elite institutions, and reach out to students and researchers doing innovative work in smaller cities and towns,” she said.

Pental also warned that India should use the output from collaborations to its advantage. “Joint research means that intellectual property is shared between India and another country. We can develop a technology with them but we should ensure that technology is used to benefit India and is not bought by some foreign company,” Pental said.