Taking science to the market

Published: Wednesday 30 June 1993

ALL THROUGH the second half of the 20th century, whenever Western governments have seen their industries lagging behind globally, they have resorted to updating their technology policies. The result has been that technology strategies became the key to economic growth not only in the US and in several European nations, but also in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and other countries in Asia. In India too, as the ongoing plans to liberalise and globalise the economy show signs of bearing early fruit, the Union government has announced its intention of linking science with industry.

The thought seems sound. While obviously lagging behind developed countries, India's efforts in science and technology are not insignificant. The Union government spends nearly Rs 4,800 crore annually on scientific research and development; India has one of the world's largest scientific workforces as well as an extensive institutional network. So, at a time when the country's industry is being urged to come up with products that can be sold abroad for profits, it is not unreasonable to expect its vast scientific establishment to deliver the goods as well.

But such expectations are belied by past performance. The time lag with which Indian technology is afflicted is proven by the country's adverse balance of trade, valued last year at nearly Rs 10,000 crore. Notionally, it exists in the perception that regards the 950,000 researchers in the US or the 580,000 scientists in Europe as pace-setters and their 105,936 Indian counterparts as laggards.

The urgency to reform the country's research and development set-up is recognised in all quarters. For three months now, Union minister of state for science and technology P R Kumaramangalam has been proudly flourishing a draft technology policy, the implementation of which he says would be essential if the finance ministry's policies are to succeed. The policy paper calls for a thrust to technologies that would "improve industries" and ensure higher productivity.

With a similar purpose in mind, and goaded by government pressure to raise their own funds, premier scientific research institutions are striving for greater contact and cooperation with industry. However, all evidence so far points to the fact that these are as yet merely glances, not steps, in the right direction.

Through blinkered attempts, the entire onus of ensuring the success of Indian science is being put on its scientists, who are being asked to propel the Indian economy towards prosperity by becoming willing and efficient workers. Their reward: All the rights and privileges usually awarded to workers in capitalist enterprises. However, what is being demanded of the other vital participants in the process -- government and industry -- is not enough.

Thus, while several initiatives on getting public- and private-sector industry to advise the government on how to use its research allocations are being bandied about, there is little effort to either encourage state expenditure on science or to introduce tax regulations that would induce industry to start research laboratories. As a result, Indian industry remains content with playing a meagre role in scientific research, spending a mere 0.7 per cent of its sales. On the other hand, in industrially advanced countries, such expenditure ranges between 4 and 10 per cent of sales.

But governments must also play a crucial role in deciding what is to be researched. In industrially advanced countries, this is demonstrated by the intensity and quality of scientific issues discussed by politicians. The United Kingdom is currently witnessing a major debate on a science policy paper introduced by science minister W Waldgrave. The projected shape and content of President Bill Clinton's science policies made lead news in US papers for months. For almost a year now, the Japanese Diet has been discussing the need for revamping its technology institutions so that the country can sustain its economic eminence even in the next century.

In contrast, the Indian Parliament has hardly discussed Kumaramangalam's draft technology policy. It is estimated that less than 3 per cent of the total questions put up in Parliament concern science and technology. The theory that all would be right with Indian science if industry is allowed to streamline it, is passively accepted. And this has led to a situation where all that is being demanded of Indian science is to facilitate more profitable production of goods already being made.

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