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Science with social purpose
Science must serve society and it must have public accountability. – The Budapest Meet of UNESCO in 1999

“In the 15 years nothing much or new has happened. There is still no social contract with science. It is business as usual,” said Dr. Jaime Jiménez, Member, Deptartment of Mathematical Modeling of Social Systems, México. He was speaking at the conclave of scientists on science, technology and innovation policy organised by the Zaheer Science Foundation (ZSF) in Delhi. Scientists from several countries, research institutions and academia attended the conclave.

Dr. M U Khan, Secretary of ZSF, described the evolution of the science policy: “the first scientific policy resolution was passed by the Parliament in 1958. The latest in 2013 expanded to science, technology and innovation.” Renowned scientists from across the globe shared their experiences and suggested the road map for a future and for building alliances.

Dr. T Ramasami, the architect of the innovation policy 2013, referred to India stepping up funding to two per cent of GPD for R&D. South Korea, known for innovation, spends four per cent of GDP on R&D and plans to increase it to six per cent by 2017, he pointed out.

Incremental, systemic and breakthrough innovation...

Distinguished scientist Dr G Thyagarajan said that NSTP is central to national development. He referred to the three stages in the evolution of technology and innovation: incremental, systemic and breakthrough. He cited the example of the spectacular development of the Indian drug industry as built on incremental innovation; the milk revolution and the green revolution as belonging to the second category and the recent successes in outer space like the Mars mission as breakthrough innovation.

Several scientists pointed to the success of China in focusing on knowledge acquisition. Dr. Aqueil Ahmad, Visiting Faculty, Elon University, USA pointed to China accounting for nearly a third of the total number of scientists with doctoral degrees in 2011 numbering 31,000.

The conference pointed to two alternatives: the first is to modify, adapt and build on the lessons learnt. Japan, South Korea and China have done this. The other is to attempt a disruptive approach to leap-frog development. The latter is tough but has the potential as a cost-effective alternative.

In the strong contingent of scientists, I was the odd man out - an economic journalist. I focused my presentation on the poor commitment of private sector on R&D up to 2000 AD. While renowned companies in Germany, US, Japan and South Korea spent around ten per cent of their huge turnover on R&D, for long Indian companies (except pharmaceutical companies) spent not even a fraction of one per cent. Sadly, higher institutes of learning like IITs also spent little on R&D. This was in contrast to the top ten universities in the US spending on an average $ 750 million each on R&D thanks to the liberal support received by them from the government, local community, companies and alumni. Luckily, today there is welcome improvements in this with a number of companies stepping up R&D spend. But academic research continues to be poor. It should not, therefore, be surprising that the record of India in terms of innovation of products and processes or patents remains poor.

There is the absence of a culture of R&D. I pointed to Siemens and Daimler Benz spending as high as ten per cent of turnover on R&D as early as in the 1960s. South Korea reached great heights in electronics with such focus by its companies like LG. Look at the flourishing Indian cement industry which thrives on a comfortable market that suffers humongous increase in prices – from around Rs 28 a bag of 50 kg three decades ago to Rs 375 today, even when production volumes sky-rocketed bringing with it advantages of scale. Six top cement companies spend a measly 0.3 per cent of turnover on R&D. It is no better for IT, steel, FMCG and other large oil corporations.

There are welcome signs. Over the last eight years the country has witnessed a new thrust towards science education. The INSPIRE programme introduced by the Department of Science & Technology supported by liberal funding is resulting in wider interest in science. Hopefully this focus on science would trigger innovation and development through research.  

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