Looking back and ahead: How India can meet its R&D targets

India gained independence from British colonial rule on 15 August 1947. After 75 years of independence, it is important to assess what India has achieved and still needs to accomplish in science and technology, given that science and technology are considered the engine of economic growth of any country.

Over the past decades, the Indian government has formulated and passed the following four main policy documents to boost its science and technology performance:

• The 1958 Science Policy Resolution
• The 1983 Technology Policy Statement
• The 2003 Science and Technology Policy
• The 2013 Science, Technology and Innovation Policy.

The draft of the fifth National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, released on 1 January 2021, seeks to make India’s science, technology and innovation ecosystem globally competitive by identifying its strengths and weaknesses and by addressing any shortcomings.

This draft contains several bright ideas which could help India to meet the objective of becoming one of the top three scientific superpowers of the next decade and boosting its economic growth and development.

Research benefits

Science and technology research in India is carried out by India’s 1,026 universities, its 161 research institutes, including the Indian Institutes of Technology, the National Institutes of Technology, the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences, the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, and a host of others.

It is also conducted by national institutes supported by government-funded organisations and agencies, including the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and by private sector companies.

The main benefits and achievements of the research carried out in these public and private research institutes after India’s independence include self-sufficiency in the production of food, drugs and vaccines, the launch of satellites by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and defence developments, with regard to the country's nuclear capabilities.

One can also count as achievements the production and application of various strategic and tactical missile systems, developments in communication and information technology and in DNA fingerprint techniques, space missions, and the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

There is no doubt that India’s achievements in the field of science and technology are impressive, but they could have been even more so had we paid more attention to improving the quality of the research we produce. This is still not up to the mark in most of India’s laboratories, especially those associated with state-run universities.

Research quality

The quality of research is directly related to the quality of researchers, their number and the infrastructure of research laboratories. These are directly dependent on public and private investment.

There are four important and useful criteria for determining the relative status of a country when it comes to science and technology: the intensity of research and development (R&D), the total number of R&D personnel, the number of scientific publications, their citation by others and the number of patents that are registered and granted.

Publication data drawn from the Scopus database between 1996 and 2006 shows research publication growth in India, but not to the same degree as in the United States and China.

A 2015 article in Nature reported that India ramped up its scientific production at an impressive rate and led Russia, France, Italy and Canada in terms of yearly publications by a healthy margin.

The same report commented that India’s publications generated fewer citations on average than those of other science-focused nations, including emerging countries such as Brazil and China.

As per data compiled by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), India had an average annual growth rate of publications between 2008 and 2018 of 10.73% and occupied third position globally after China and the US.

According to the Scopus database, China and the US accounted for 23% and 16%, respectively, of global publications in science and engineering in 2020. The US, UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland are among the countries producing highly impactful research papers.

As per the same database, highly cited articles from China grew dramatically. In a report for the years between 2014 and 2017, Elsevier, a Netherlands-based publisher of scientific articles and journals, placed India in the fifth position for scientific research.

The report on scientific research listed the 10 top countries in the following order: US, China, Britain, Germany, India, Japan, France, Italy, Canada and Australia. The same report noted that, despite the number of publications being high, the citations per publication for India were the lowest among the top 10 countries. It should be noted that a high number of citations indicates the quality of research.

Investment in innovation

One of the important indicators for measuring a country’s progress in science and technology is the number of patents registered and granted over the last 10 years. According to the Economic Survey of India 2021-22, the number of patents filed in India increased from 39,400 in 2010-11 and 45,444 in 2016-17 to 58,502 in 2020-21.

Over the same time period the number of patents granted also increased from 7,509 and 9,847 to 28,391.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, the number of patents granted in 2020 was 530,000 for China, 352,000 for the US, 179,000 for Japan and 135,000 for Korea.

Far fewer patents were granted in India over the same period, according to the Economic Survey of India. This has been attributed to low expenditure (0.7% of GDP) on R&D in science and technology. This spending, according to a study conducted by the government think tank NITI Ayog and the Institute for Competitiveness, is among the lowest in the world.

Research and development intensity indicates a country’s global standing in science and technology. According to the government's India Brand Equity Foundation, R&D expenditure was targeted to reach at least 2% of the country's GDP. However, a 3.9% decrease in budget allocation to the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2021-22 tells a different story.

Despite low expenditure on research and development, India’s ranking in the Global Innovations Index has climbed from 81st place in 2015-16 to 46th place in 2021. There is also good news in the sense that an increasing number of patents have recently been filed by Indian residents rather than multinational corporations.

Government support to reduce educational institutions’ fees by 80% published in amended patents rules will definitely yield a positive result as far as filing of patents by university researchers is concerned.

The removal of procedural delays and other complexities in patent filing and granting must be a top priority for the government if it wants to boost a culture of science and technology innovation.

Investment for growth

Another barrier to India’s innovation success is the low number of R&D personnel. According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics there are just 253 scientists or researchers per million of the population. Moreover, the contribution of the private sector to R&D in India is less than 40% of Gross Expenditure on R&D while it is more than 70% in advanced countries.

For India to make its science, technology and innovation ecosystem globally competitive, and for it to emerge as one of the top three scientific superpowers in the next decade, science and technology policy-makers need to bring the private sector, start-ups, universities and research institutes together to enhance the quality of research so that useful patents can be generated.

To achieve this objective, both public and private sectors need to spend more on research and development than they do today.

Dr Aqueel Khan is a former professor and head of the university postgraduate teaching department of biochemistry at RTM Nagpur University, Nagpur, Maharashtra, India.