India’s research and development sector funding for science, technology is stagnant: Quō vādis?

Towards the end of the year, there’s usually a lot of talk around research and development in the science and technology space – starting with the Nobel Prize announcements in October. As prestigious and aspirational as the Nobel Prizes are, they are not and should not be taken as reflections or metrics of research & development (R&D) in any country. This year, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry saw gene editing technology getting recognition, and offered some good lessons for the global, and Indian R&D community.

In a first, the Nobel went to two women —  Emmanuelle Charpentier from France and Jennifer Doudna from the US.

Charpentier moved around quite a few labs in the US and then Europe before she finally got a position where she could have her own technician and lab, but by then she had already published her pioneering work on CRISPR-Cas9. She had also collaborated with Doudna after a chance meeting at a conference. Doudna moved from academia to industry and back to academia before getting into her work on the CRISPR system. Together, they published their seminal work on CRISPR-Cas9 in 2012, wherein they indicated the tremendous potential of this system for generalised gene editing. Shortly after that, both spun off companies that could take forward the applications part of their basic science work, while they continued exploring and designing the system further in their academic labs.

 Indias research and development sector funding for science, technology is stagnant: Quō vādis?

The GERD has been increasing over the years, but the ratio of GERD to GDP is below 0.8.

It is difficult to even imagine these dynamics in India. R&D related to the sciences needs a social and cultural environment apart from funding, which obviously is also very important. The CRISPR-Cas technologies took off within a short duration of eight years. To take forward the ideas that these technologies promised, numerous companies sprung up in the US, China and many parts of the world, but not in India. As B R Ambedkar said in a different context, “An idea needs propagation as much as a plant needs watering. Otherwise, both will wither and die”.

The R&D funding Scenario in India

The recent statistics put out by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) provide us with a glimpse of R&D funding in India. The Gross Expenditure on R&D (GERD) has been increasing over the years. However, the ratio of GERD to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has remained below 0.8, whereas it was around 0.6 in the 1990s. This widely-used metric rose to around 0.8 in 2005, and has been more or less stagnant for the past five years. In comparison, the GERD to GDP ratios for other countries are — Israel 4.9, South Korea 4.3, Japan 3.2, USA 2.7, China 2.2, and UK 1.7.

The ratio is not the only problem, no doubt. But it would help greatly if India could target and achieve a GERD to GDP ratio of 2.0 in the next 10 years. For example, China from a ratio of 0.6 in 1996 grew to 1.1 in 2002 and became 2.0 in 2014. The ratio hides the actual absolute expenditure, considering China’s GDP in 2019 is 4.8 times that of India. Still, putting in more money can get more returns, provided it is done properly, with a long-term plan and not subject to the vagaries of the socio-political system.

Contributions of all involved

From 2017-18, the GERD was mainly driven by the Government sector, comprising the Central Government (which spent 45.4 percent), business enterprises (which spent 36.8 percent), State Governments (which spent 6.4 percent), Higher Education (which spent 6.8 percent) and Public Sector Industry (4.6 percent). The contributions from Business Enterprises and Higher Education sector to the GERD is just half that of the USA.

As the 1965 song from Seekers goes, “Open up them pearly gates”, for these sectors need to pitch in more in expanding India’s R&D capability.

Even in the Central Government GERD, 93 percent GERD contribution of Central government was incurred by 12 major scientific agencies, of which the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) accounted for the biggest chunk. (31.6 percent). This was followed by:

  • Department of Space (DoS) accounting for 19 percent
  • Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), 11.1 percent
  • Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), 10.8 percent
  • Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), 9.5 percent
  • Department of Science and Technology (DST), 7.3 percent
  • Department of Biotechnology (DBT), 3.7 percent
  • Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), 3.1 percent
  • Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), 2.3 percent
  • Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), 0.8 percent
  • Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), 0.5 percent
  • Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), 0.1 percent.

As Marcellus tells Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Something is rotten in Denmark”.

Looking at some of India’s modern challenges such as farm productivity, public health (which has recently been exposed to a great extent by the pandemic), the rising demand for renewable energy — on top of dangers posed by climate change — something is not right if the departments involved in these matters are contributing only a quarter of the already low GERD to solutions. India’s priorities and emphasis need to change with evolving scenarios.

So is there nothing to be done other than twiddling thumbs and waiting? To paraphrase Mao from a different situation, “What matters the colour of the cats as long as they catch the mice?”

India could borrow from the success of the Cuban biotech industry, which has a global reputation for producing innovative biotech products for their health care system. Cuba has a GERD-to-GDP ratio of about 0.8, like India, but throws heavy punches at the level of several developed countries including the US. Analysts identified three main factors for development of such a high-tech industry that yields both innovation and economic development:

  1. Long-term financial commitment (with the state as investor, as in Cuba),
  2. Organizational integration, and
  3. Strategic control over the allocation of resources.

The same strategies allowed Korea to ride high in the semiconductor industry.

Similar approaches have enabled the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to become globally competitive in space technologies. So if India plays the game right, it could well be possible to get a bigger bang for the buck until the time there is an upgrade in the country’s socio-economic environment.

The author is a retired Professor of Bioinformatics from the School of Biotechnology, Madurai Kamaraj University