A simplistic formulation ignores the reality of India's research environment and the constraint it faces
Narendra Modi continues to spin out his catchy slogans for growth and development and the 107th India Science Congress in Bengaluru was honoured with his latest: “innovate, patent, produce and prosper”. That, the Prime Minister (PM) said, was his “motto for the young scientists bourgeoning in this country” because these four steps would lead towards faster development.
Critically, “innovation for the people and by the people is the direction of New India”, he emphasised. This comes against the backdrop of a tight squeeze on funding for public laboratories and marked shift away from fundamental research and is dictating what needs to be researched as a national priority.
Modi’s belief that India can innovate (and prosper) is based on two factors. One, that India has climbed to third position globally in the number of peer-reviewed science and engineering publications, and two, its rise in the Global Innovation Index (GII) in 2019. India’s output of science papers is of course impressive even if nowhere near that of the top two, the US and China.
That in itself is not a concern; it is the quality of the papers that is cause for worry. Within hours of the PM’s speech, CNR Rao, a former science advisor to the PM, was issuing a caution about being the third-largest producer of scientific publications. Although he was not happy with the quantity, he made it clear he was more troubled by the poor quality of the papers.
Like Rao, a highly regarded chemical scientist who was awarded the Bharat Ratna, many others have also despaired about the poor quality of India’s research. A few years ago when India ranked 10th in output of scientific papers it was listed at 166 for average citations (the number of times these articles are cited by other scientists) per paper!
Yet, the major public organisations charged with steering science research have been unable to distinguish bad science from the good by making uninformed use of indicators, both the journal impact factor and the h-index which is an alternative, and both of which are flawed.
In 2018, scientists from the government’s own Department of Science and Technology blew the lid off the crisis in scientific publishing in India in a well-researched paper.
Accusing the government agencies, funding bodies and academic and research institutions of suffering “from the impact factor and h-index syndrome”, the scientists wrote that “the exaggerated importance given by these agencies to the number of publications, irrespective of what they report, has led to an ethical crisis in scholarly communication and the reward system in science.”
As for the other factor that the PM draws comfort from, the five-rank rise by India on GII, it has to be said India is not even in the top 50 of the 129 countries listed by the index. A host of tiny countries with neither the benefit of India’s humongous scientific manpower nor a long history of scientific research have made it the top ranks of innovators. Cote d’Ivoire has climbed up 20 spots and the Philippines by 19. We need to ponder why.
This was first published in Down To Earth's print edition (dated 16-31 January, 2020)
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