Scientific Capability And The Wealth Of Nations

EVERY school of thought accepts that if a country wants to become a global player, Research and Development (R&D) is vital. Copying, body shopping, selling other people’s products and technology can work for some time. But not for long. The ability to develop technology innovations continuously is what distinguishes technology leaders from followers. This means the ability not merely to copy innovations done elsewhere but to also to develop the next generation of technology. Just following behind the Joneses may have worked in a world where technology remained relatively stable. But not today, where computational power of a chip doubles every 18 months.


Scientific capability and technology innovations are therefore the prerequisites to a country’s development. In a recent paper, David King “The Scientific Impact of Nations”, Nature, VOL 430, July 15, 2004) has plotted the scientific capability (citation index intensity) of a nation against the GDP intensity (per capita GDP) of 31 nations. The citation intensity is simply the number of such citations divided by the GDP of the countries. The wealth intensity of the countries is also a simple measurement: it is the per capita GDP of the country. It shows very clearly the importance of scientific capability for a nation: the citation intensity correlates very well with the wealth intensity of countries. More the citation intensity, wealthier the country. Of course, one can also argue that if a country is wealthy, it can devote more to research and therefore its citation index goes up. But if we look at the per capita GDP of many countries, for instance oil-producing countries, we will find that though their GDP is high, their scientific output is low. If we exclude the countries that are rich due to some primary product or a finite natural resource like oil, then the driving factor for wealth of a country does emerge as its capability to produce scientific and technological innovation

While how to measure scientific capability is still being debated, some indicators are agreed upon as a basis for some form of ranking. The most common ones are amount of research papers produced and how many times they are cited by other authors: the citation index of the papers. While the number of papers that a country produces, may provide an indication of the quantity of its output, the citation index is supposed to reflect its quality. It is true that a simple analysis based on just citations is open to various distortions – papers in medicines are quoted more than papers in mathematics, papers in English are quoted more than in other languages, etc, – nevertheless, the citation index does provide a rough and ready reckoner for quality of the research produced by a country.

How does India fare on this measure of citation index and citation intensity? The good news is that India and also China are still in the league of countries with significant science and technology capability. The bad news is that our quality is well below its quantity. The citation rate per paper puts us in the 29th position, well below that of countries such as Luxemburg, Israel, Singapore. For all publications in the time period 1997-2001, India had 2.13 per cent of all publications but a citation index of only 0.86 per cent. Countries at the top end have a reverse ratio; with a smaller number of papers, they have a higher citation index.


Citation index is what King has used is one measure of scientific capability. There are others, which have been constructed. One of the better known one is the one by the Institute for Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) in China.  SHTU recently carried out an exercise to rank the world’s universities, using an index of five criteria: the number of people who won a Nobel Prize (or Fields medal, its equivalent in mathematics), the number of highly cited researchers, articles published by university staff in the leading science journals Science and Nature, the number of articles included in the Science Citation Index and Social Science Citation Index and the average academic output of a faculty member. One can question the weightage and the methodology: after all Nobel prizes are given long after the people have done their actual work. However, even if one takes the ranking, not at its face value but just an indicator of broad trends, the picture that emerges for India is not very flattering.

Amongst the first 500 top universities in the world, India has only 3. Even worse, there are only 3 universities from India in the top 100 Asia/Pacific universities. In 2003, the three universities/institutes were Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc.), Bangalore, IIT Kharagpur and IIT Delhi; this year it is IISc and Calcutta University. To quote the editor of Current Science, P. Balaram, “Sadly, the real universities in India are limping, research consigned to an unimportant role. Even as funding has increased for many of UGC’s ‘five star’ universities there are evident problems, with faculty disinterested in research clearly outnumbering those with an academic bent of mind.” (Current Science, VOL. 86, NO. 10, May 25 2004). This only reinforces what we have already noted, that Indian science is producing poor quality research, with its universities currently in decline. Even the specialised institutes that are supposed to have concentrated on research have yet to make their mark internationally. And if our institutes of higher learning do not deliver on building the right kind of skills, we cannot deliver innovation to the industry as well.


The decline of the universities has taken place in a number of ways. The key has been the UGC denying funds to the university. While funds for the universities have declined, a number of newer institutes have sprung up, which are cornering the bulk of the funding for higher education. While this is a worldwide trend, the degree to which the top universities of India are being denied funds is perhaps unparalleled elsewhere. Even worse, there is a theory that while school education could be supported, the state should get out of funding higher education: the students should pay the true cost of higher education, reserving this only for the rich. The obvious connection is lost sight of between scientific capability and the wealth of nations. We need our best and brightest to build the nation’s scientific capability irrespective of their income. This is not a welfare measure but an imperative in an age where science and technical capability spell development.

The other issue is how do we go about building an R&D infrastructure that delivers technology innovation to the industry? Obviously, this has not happened in India except perhaps for three sectors, space, atomic energy and pharmaceuticals. The first two were forced upon us due to the embargo on nuclear and missile technologies. The pharmaceutical industry developed as changing of the Patent Act from product to process patents allowed Indian industry to innovate new processes and produce cheaper drugs.

In all the three areas above, the state played the key role. In the first two – Atomic Energy and Space – the research, development and production are all carried out within the same organisation. In pharmaceuticals — CDRI, Lukhnow and NCL, Pune — the CSIR laboratories produced the process innovations. If we take out these three sectors, the record of the rest of the research institutions in developing technology is quite poor.


Why did the Indian research institutions fail to make contributions in other areas while it did succeed in these three? In all the three areas, both the end user of research, the industry, and the producer of technology, the research institutions, worked together. Both had their contributions: if the process was developed in the CSIR laboratories, scaling up for manufacture was done by the industry. This is the vital gap that afflicts other sectors. If technology is available from a “collaborator,” the Indian industry gets the entire package – from the design to the assembly line. Instead, if you get the same technology from a lab, you get merely the design. Scaling it up to the production level is a different ball game. The labs do this very poorly. If the industry expects the laboratories to give them a completely packaged technology, this is doomed to failure. And it is this missing link – from design to production – that has lead to the research institutions contributions in other sectors being relatively poor.

The current paradigm of the neo-liberal economy is that the market will take care of everything including research. Well, the market does take care of research for little things, essentially small problems with current products and technologies. What it cannot address is new technologies. The dominant industry players rejected the most ubiquitous of technologies of today – the personal computers and mobile phones – when they were first proposed. IBM felt that the idea that people would want to own personal computers was ridiculous. It is state funding of science and technology (and also philanthropic funding) for completely esoteric ideas that produced the next generation technologies.


What do we need to do in order to develop an innovative society? The most important element here is a state funded and well-developed R&D infrastructure including a university system that produces high quality science and technology students. The second is the realisation in the industry that it cannot treat the research institution like its collaborator of yesteryears. It must be itself a partner in technology development and develop the production system for the technology. The third is that the research institutions must understand that the source of research ideas is the everyday world of industry. This is where the ideas for research must originate, not from reading papers to produce another one for journals abroad. The real world produces great ideas, the world of journals only report them. Lastly, expecting the market to develop technology is waiting for Godot: markets fail when it comes to research.

Hiring out CSIR laboratories to MNCs — the Mashelkar paradigm — may help the CSIR generate some cash; in the long term it is helping MNCs develop their next generation of products for the global market. It will not help the Indian economy or the Indian industry, the primary purpose for which CSIR was set up.