Fabricated claims by Indian intellectuals cast a shadow over its scientific achievements

India stands as the third-largest destination for imported research and development and boasts the sixth-largest research and development expenditure globally.

With an election underway in India, it was not surprising to see an eminent historian and a Leftist political scientist, the eco-chamber intellectuals, cook up opinion pieces on India. However, the choice of their topic – the future of Indian science – was a bit off! While Ramchandra Guha argued how Narendra Modi has undermined the practice of science in India, Yamini Aiyar advised from her ivory tower that encouraging research and critical thinking should be a priority for the new government.

This bogus propaganda stems from the declaration and resolution of the All India People’s Science Network of the All India People’s Science Network in Kolkata, West Bengal. Signed by 109 esteemed scientists and intellectuals, the declaration highlights the alarming rise of socio-political movements in India that undermine scientific integrity and the collective pursuit of universal knowledge grounded in widely accepted methods and principles. Funnily, the signatories of this declaration hide their designation and association!

Building on this declaration and using “two distinguished academics, directors of top-ranked centres of scientific research,” Guha paints a rosy picture of India under Congress. He says that in 2009, there was a noticeable shift in the flow of scientific talent, with more researchers educated abroad returning to India for work, attracted by improving research opportunities and social conditions. Further, many eminent scholars returned to India because of increased investment in research and the freedom to pursue research by the Congress government.

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However, no surprises here for readers who are now familiar with Guha’s writings, the situation has deteriorated since 2014 under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who shows little interest in promoting scientific research and has allowed ideological interference in academic institutions. This politicisation threatens the integrity of scientific research in India and undermines the morale of scientists. Guha goes ahead and even draws parallels with how political ideologies hampered science in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, warning of similar consequences in India. For Guha, therefore, the subordination of science to political and religious interests, Hindutva obviously, raises concerns about the future of scientific progress and the retention of talented researchers in India.

For Aiyar, you guessed it right, India’s academic freedom has steadily declined over the past decade, as evidenced by its low ranking in the 2024 Academic Freedom Index produced by V-Dem. Aiyar doesn’t talk about science but is kind enough to expand our knowledge regarding growing restrictions on international funding by tightening regulations under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), difficulties in obtaining visas for foreign researchers, and withholding of crucial government data impeding objective analysis in fields like development and social policy.

Her solution to combat draconian regulations undermining (political) scientific freedoms is for researchers to defend academic freedom publicly and engage with philanthropists and civil society to preserve civil discourse.

In the realm of advancing productivity and sustaining economic growth, India, akin to Australia, heavily relies on science and innovation. Contrary to the expectations of both Guha and Aiyar, India stands amongst the leading nations in basic research and is emerging as a pivotal global centre for research and development (R&D).

Perhaps these two distinguished scholars are unaware of India’s remarkable transformation into a global research and development powerhouse, particularly in advanced sectors such as network equipment, medical technology, aerospace, automotive, biotechnology, and computation.

Last year, the Indian Parliament passed the Anusandhan National Research Foundation Bill, laying the groundwork for establishing a key apex body aimed at guiding scientific research in line with the National Education Policy (NEP). The budget announcement in February 2024, introducing a scheme to bolster scientific research, has garnered praise from India’s scientific community, igniting hope for increased investment in applied science over the next five years. Many scientists in India are hopeful that the next five years too would bring greater spending on applied science.

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They believe Indian PM Modi’s slogan ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan Jai Vigyan and Jai Anusandhan’ has effectively showcased his ambitious vision for revolutionising the Indian economy through self-reliant scientific initiatives. These initiatives and collaborations aspire to establish India as the premier destination for future pioneering technological innovations.

Currently, India stands as the third-largest destination for imported research and development and boasts the sixth-largest research and development expenditure globally, surpassing nations like France and the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, with close to 800 multinational corporations establishing research and development centres in India and over 127,000 startups recognised by the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) as of April 2024, India’s innovation ecosystem presents a significant opportunity for global players.

The number of patents granted in India has surged eightfold from 5978 in 2014-15 to 47735 in 2023. It also holds the third position among the most appealing investment destinations for technology transactions globally. Additionally, India has climbed to the third spot in terms of publications in SCI journals, up from sixth place in 2013. Furthermore, India ranks third in the number of PhDs awarded in Science and Engineering, with nearly 25,000 recipients, following the USA and China.

Despite India’s public spending on research remaining relatively stagnant at around 0.8% of GDP for over a decade, the country has made significant strides. From ranking 81st in the Global Innovation Index in 2015, India proudly holds the 40th position out of 132 economies in 2023. This progress is primarily fuelled by increased investment from both government and private institutions, leading to enhancements in data capture and utilisation.

In 2023, following the successful landing of Chandrayaan 3 on the Moon, Prime Minister Modi convened with scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) at ISRO’s Telemetry Tracking & Command Network Mission Control Complex in Bengaluru to extend his personal congratulations. During the meeting, he specifically lauded the significant contributions of women scientists who played pivotal roles in the Moon mission. Additionally, Prime Minister Modi announced that the site where Chandrayaan-3’s Lander Vikram touched down will be named ‘Shivshakti’.

Dr Om Dwivedi, writing on the rise of scientific temper in India, observes that when one scrutinises the relevance of initiatives like “Make in India” (2014) and “Aatmanirbhar Bharat” (2020), it becomes apparent that ISRO has spearheaded a surge in launches under the Modi administration, surpassing the achievements of all preceding governments. Since 2014, ISRO has executed 47 launches, each accomplished at a notably reduced cost compared to launches conducted by other nations.

Further, the India Semiconductor Mission (ISM) aims to establish a flourishing semiconductor ecosystem, positioning India as a global hub for electronics manufacturing and design. Confident, with space tech, semiconductors and 5G, India is also launching an AI Mission to bolster startups and innovators with increased computing power, enabling them to address challenges in crucial sectors such as healthcare, agriculture, and education.

In fact, the Australian government is hopeful that it stands poised to gain immensely by aligning its interests with India’s scientific prowess. Combining Australia’s strong research and development infrastructure with India’s vast scale and proven history of frugal innovation could yield substantial dividends. Such collaboration not only fosters deeper engagement across diverse sectors of the economy but also drives mutual growth and advancement.

For Guha, it may come as a surprise that it’s not the political party or dynasts or foreign-returned entitled eminent directors but rather the ingenuity of Indian people and the robust research ecosystem that has been created in the last decade under PM Modi that attracts multinational corporations. Factors such as ease of access to technical talent, competitive wages, innovative solutions, and proximity to Asian markets make India an attractive destination for foreign players and the diaspora alike.

Similarly, for Aiyar, the realisation may dawn that it’s not any policy research centre but rather NITI Aayog that spearheads the drive to harness science and technology for building a robust innovation sector. Through initiatives like incubation facilities and quality higher education, NITI Aayog is committed to nurturing India’s innovation landscape.

India, once reliant on foreign technology for its space and innovation programs, is now emerging as a self-reliant nation in all scientific domains. However, India, just like Sudama, the childhood friend of Lord Krishna, is not selfish and generously shares its research and innovation with the world. Recognising that other nations also encounter common challenges in enhancing productivity, sustainability, energy efficiency, and public health, India understands the importance of leveraging each other’s expertise. It is through this collaborative effort that new innovations and applications can be developed to address global needs effectively.

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