Wednesday, January 16, 2013

New Science, Technology & Innovation Policy

PRIME Minister Dr Manmohan Singh last week unveiled a new Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (henceforth STI for short) at the centenary-year Indian Science Congress in Kolkata. The STI Policy is conceived as the next important step up the ladder of S&T based development, suited to the demands and requirements of the early decades of the 21st century. STI seeks to build upon the three earlier major S&T policies namely the Scientific Policy Resolution adopted by parliament in 1958, an umbrella statement proclaiming India’s intention to promote and harness science for the nation’s development and modernisation, the Technology Policy Statement (1983) focusing on development of S&T self-reliance, and the S&T Policy of 2003 announced by the NDA government which stressed the need to integrate S&T research with socio-economic priorities and to create an innovation system.

STI argues that innovation is the key to national advancement in the present era but has not been accorded due importance as an instrument of policy, a lacuna which STI specifically addresses. With India having declared 2010-2020 as the Decade of Innovation, and having established a National Innovation Council, STI seeks to provide the necessary policy framework to position STI as “central to national development” and puts forward a new perspective towards this end, namely that whereas science, technology and innovation could always be promoted separately, only the integrated approach of STI will provide the desired multiplication effect to meet national challenges and inclusive growth, and enable harnessing of the country’s resources, strengths and capabilities.

No one will have any major complaints with any of this. The role of innovation in the contemporary technology intensive, dynamic and globalised economy is well-known, and the need for foregrounding innovation and integrating it with other developmental policy is also widely accepted. The significance of the STI policy for India will not, however, lie in the novelty of the idea, but in how the desired outcomes are proposed to be achieved. And here the STI Policy document  falls woefully short. In the absence of an analytical account of past achievements and current gaps, strengths and weaknesses, and implementation strategies and mechanisms, we are left with a policy that is high on rhetoric and intentions but weak in terms of ground realities and addressing implementation and monitoring issues. Regrettably therefore, as has so often been the case in India with so many policies, and particularly so in S&T, chances are that once again there will be a wide gap between targets and performance.         


The most serious weakness of the STI Policy is that it does not present at least a synoptic assessment or review of the achievements and shortfalls with respect to the three previous S&T Policies, and the reasons for the same. This is not finding fault for the sake of it, but points to a major flaw: if one does not know why certain goals were or were not achieved earlier, how are goals for the future to be set and strategies delineated in a manner so as to overcome weaknesses and build on strengths? Several new policy documents especially in recent decades have followed a trend of quite intensive self-critical analysis even if the new policies enunciated may not fully address the problems identified. But STI has not even ventured that far.

In the case of S&T Policy in India, many scholarly studies over the years have highlighted structural weaknesses in mostly State run research institutions, the university system and in industry which have stood in the way of quality research and innovation, or even the necessary enhancement of capabilities and the building of an environment that would encourage and support them. Shortage and low motivation of human resources in basic research expected to be conducted in a few academic and specialist research institutions, exacerbated by long-term dwindling of funding and support, is by now well recognised, as is the impact that low performance in basic research will have on applied science, technology and innovation. Separation of research streams and corresponding support systems into industrial research in national laboratories and basic or some applied research in universities and select centres of S&T excellence is also known to have contributed to this problem, while research in universities including the prestigious IITs has dwindled substantially to the extent they are largely confined to teaching.

STI sets targets to improve the caliber of Indian science publications and of papers published by Indian scientists, tacitly acknowledging their current low levels but putting a spin on this by saying performance has risen in the recent past and will be raised under STI. India’s share in global science publications may well have risen from 1.8 per cent in 2001 to 3.5 per cent in 2011 but, as STI admits, only 2.5 per cent of Indian publications figure in the top 1 per cent of impact-making journals in the world. The target of doubling the former and quadrupling the latter share may be laudable, but the bigger question is, will this truly signify a qualitative improvement in Indian science and a major shift? While the STI document enumerates the usual platitudes about fostering excellence and relevance in Indian science research, and encouraging collaborative research and participation in international “big science” projects, there is no indication of how future practices will differ from current ones.

Unfortunately what the STI document does not mention, analyse or confront is that large segments of the scientific research and university system in India today verge on the moribund. Exhortations and carrot-and-stick reward systems, as evidenced by rising numbers of papers published or patents filed, will only go so far. Most commentators would agree that, unless there are fundamental changes in both what is done and how it is done, rising numbers might only mean that the system is being gamed better, and that higher quantities of research output might not translate into higher quality of S&T research in India. A culture of innovation is a far cry, and would call for completely different institutional structures and autonomy, organisational systems and behaviour, scale and manner of research funding, and human resource development and management, than either what is prevalent or what the STI document suggests. To understand and correct the malaise of today, and open up to new horizons tomorrow, it will be necessary to examine structural problems facing Indian science, research institutions, universities and industry. STI has only kicked this can of worms down the road.


Perhaps due to the lack of an introspective and analytical appraisal, there is a tendency in STI to prescribe ab initio solutions, and also considerable confusion as to goals and what kinds of policies are required for them.

The most glaring of such disconnects is regarding funding. Accepting that India’s expenditure of 1per cent of its GDP on R&D, much lower than other developing countries and less than 2.5 per cent of global R&D expenditure, is highly inadequate, STI proposes to increase this to 2 per cent which STI itself admits is a very old dream! It seems destined to remain one! Because STI recommends that this increase in R&D expenditure come from the private sector! This would be laughable were it not so filled with dangerous consequences.

Again, many studies have shown that the track record of the Indian private sector in R&D and research expenditure has been very poor with a very few notable exceptions. All manner of government incentives, including 135 per cent tax relief, have not nudged corporates to invest in research. Reasons are not far to seek. Even large Indian corporations find it easier to enter into collaborations, or import or buy technologies, or even to take over foreign firms, all of which liberalisation has made simpler, than to be innovative and develop new products and technologies. Even the much acclaimed IT sector can boast of very few software products even while it performs vast quantities of back-office tasks for international corporations or coding for globally branded software developers. Indian corporations are content to be quite low down in the international division of labour even in manufacturing, leave alone in technology development and science research. Indian industry needs major re-orientation to develop self-reliant capabilities and master technologies, to leapfrog stages of technology development through scientific research, and to reach for global competitiveness by drawing on the strengths of the domestic market which must be expanded radically by reducing poverty and boosting mass purchasing power as China has done. But all this will call for a different vision of development, of Indian industry, and of political economy.

Saying that the additional R&D investment required will be generated through the private sector is tantamount to STI declaring that the State will not raise its R&D expenditure. The government of the day may be enamoured of the private sector and PPP may be the flavour of the month. But history tells us that no country, no matter how devoted to the capitalist path, has developed without massive State investment in R&D. If India has to depend on private sector funding of R&D to catapult the country into the 5th rank in global science as the STI document proclaims, the nation is in for sharp disappointment and S&T in India will continue to languish.


The policy document repeatedly emphasises that both economic growth and social good will be pursued through STI, and even speaks of the need to address the “pressing problems of energy and environment, food and nutrition, water and sanitation, habitat, affordable health care and skill building and unemployment”. Indeed, perhaps carried away with its own rhetoric, the policy document goes so far as to claim that “science, technology and innovation for the people is the new paradigm of the Indian STI enterprise.”  

There are two sets of problems here, firstly whether one can or should at all expect “big science” and especially private sector funded R&D to directly deliver social good, and secondly the role of science, technology and innovation in tackling social sector problems. STI appears to be riding two horses at once in terms of goals, global competitiveness and the developmental deficit within India, without recognising and addressing the quite different approaches and instrumentalities required for each.

Given the reluctance of Indian corporates to invest in R&D even in their own evident long-term self-interest, it is clearly unrealistic to expect private sector funded R&D to tackle problems of societal development. And even if they did, to believe that creation of economic wealth through STI will also result in generation of social good is only another form of the trickle-down theory.  Also, to hold that a generalised strengthening or revitalisation of Indian science oriented to climbing higher up the global innovation chain and economic order will somehow also result in improved technologies for societal development is a misunderstanding of how science works and how innovation takes place.

Indeed it is incorrect to put the burden of solution to societal problems on the shoulders of science and technology when, in fact, these issues fall squarely under the ambit of State social policy. Half the population of India suffers on all these counts not because of shortage of investment in R&D, or because of lack of S&T based solutions. If that were so, why does India lag behind other South Asian or even many Sub-Saharan countries on all these counts? S&T can undoubtedly make a significant contribution to these issues but only within a larger framework of social policy and distributive justice. The STI document correctly points to “the gaps between the STI system and the socio-economic sectors,” but to bridge these gaps will require far more than “developing a symbiotic relationship with economic and other policies.” It will need transforming these policies and a total overhaul of how innovation is supported and done in both governmental and non-governmental research institutions and universities, and how developmental delivery systems are restructured within a reoriented policy frame.  This requires a separate dialogue and the STI document does not even begin to discuss the complex issues involved.


It would be churlish not to acknowledge that the STI document contains several good ideas. Its central point about the need to emphasise innovation, and therefore the need to revamp Indian S&T so as to develop a creative culture and research eco-system, is a good one. The goals of raising the quality of Indian S&T, enhancing global competitiveness and generating innovative means to help tackle the gigantic developmental deficit of half the population, are laudable. Identifying select frontier areas of science to which extra attention could be paid, seeding high-risk S&T based innovations, enhanced Indian participation in global science projects, are all worth pursuing. But the STI policy does not come together as a whole, and the pathway to achieving the goals is unclear. 

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of STI which promises a “new paradigm” is that it follows the traditional paradigm of top-down policy formulation by a few wise men with everybody expected to pay biblical respect to each pronouncement. In fact, this very feature underscores much that is wrong with the S&T establishment in the country today, a paternalistic top-heavy bureaucratic structure in which creative thinking and contributions from peers are undervalued, dismissed or simply not encouraged. Any simple how-to book would tell you that this is precisely how innovation does NOT take place.

A beginning of new ways of working in Indian S&T could have been made with this policy by formulating it through a wide-ranging consultative process involving all stakeholders and taking on board the genuine concerns and the thoughtful suggestions that are sure to emerge. The STI document rightly points to the need for incentives in research and academic institutions to stimulate innovation, but in the past this has always been taken to mean more money. Better pay and benefits are undoubtedly welcome but a conducive and encouraging atmosphere, respect of peers, freedom to explore, and guidance rather than dictates of seniors are major constituents of a research and innovation eco-system.

If the government is serious about the STI policy and about bringing about such a transformation in Indian S&T, the present document should not be taken as cast in stone, but as an initiation of a longer dialogue on S&T policy in India and as itself marking a departure from the old ways of doing tings. Through widespread consultations, with stakeholders beyond the scientific community if developmental concerns are indeed to be taken on board, this document could go through many iterations leading to a new policy.

*Raghu People's Democracy 13 January 2013

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