In times of pandemic, Indias R&D begs for attention

In times of pandemic, India's R&D begs for attention

The COVID-19 crisis is attracting the best expertise from around the world to find solutions. But India has many other problems of its own, and will have more in the future, which require all the homegrown expertise we can get.

On March 16, Prof K VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, tweeted calling on scientists to do what they can in the current COVID-19 epidemic, writing “the seriousness of COVID-19 requires that we, as scientists, proactively work together to ensure synergy, develop implementable solutions that health-workers, communities need… This is a time for us...

On March 16, Prof K VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, tweeted calling on scientists to do what they can in the current COVID-19 epidemic, writing “the seriousness of COVID-19 requires that we, as scientists, proactively work together to ensure synergy, develop implementable solutions that health-workers, communities need… This is a time for us to re-purpose all the research we do, whether we wield a pencil or a radio-telescope, to this focused task” and calling on elite institutions in various cities to form collaborative teams and leaderships to tackle this crisis, unprecedented in independent India.

This is perhaps a push to scientists in various fields not just to re-purpose their skills for the current situation, but to consider priorities of scientific research more widely. If so (I may be wrong), it fits in with the research scene in India and with recent government policy. So while I fully support this call (and hopefully some of us will be able to help), let us look at the background and current situation of Indian R&D funding and priorities.

Increase spending, demand pending

In 2009, at what was the midway point of the UPA government’s tenure, Dr T Ramasami,  then secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), observed in an interview with Nature Materials that India’s investment in research and development (R&D) was about 0.9% of gross domestic product (GDP), and he was trying to persuade the government to increase it to 2%; but made the important caveat that India has only 120 full-time scientists per million population, compared to 800 in China, 2,800 in the UK, and 3,200 in the USA. He said: “To invest 2% of GDP you must create enough capacity within the system and also a structure that delivers values for that investment. Those are our present challenges”.

The figures he cited had already remained almost static for ten years. And over ten years later, on 6 March 2020 at a brief presentation on the occasion of Nature Magazine’s 150th anniversary at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, Dr Ramasami repeated exactly the same observation. Little has changed in the subsequent 5 years of a UPA government and nearly 6 years of an NDA government.

India’s expenditure in R&D remains at 0.6-0.7% of GDP in 2019 (actual expenditure has increased with increase in GDP), and had 253 researchers in R&D per million people in 2018.  A July 2019 volume on the R&D expenditure ecosystem, produced by the Economic Advisory Committee of the Prime Minister, hosted at the Principal Scientific Advisor’s website, reiterates the recommendation to increase R&D expenditure to 2% of GDP, but is silent on the equally important concern of capacity creation. What is the use of increasing expenditure if there aren’t enough scientists working in the system to receive the funding?

The science setup

Though India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had the foresight to invest in science and technology capacity building, its growth has been highly uneven during and since his time.  The landscape is fragmented into multiple systems, with multiple sources of funding and multiple stated objectives.  First, there are the universities: state universities, including some of India’s oldest universities; and central universities. Their mission is, primarily, undergraduate education, but they also have research departments and Ph.D. programmes in all fields.

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Then, there are the IITs, whose purpose, again, is primarily undergraduate education but specifically in engineering and technology. The IITs have a significant basic science footprint and also humanities departments, and research activities and PhD programmes in all these fields.

Then there are the various laboratories under the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) whose mission is to promote science, technology, and industrial links and applications.  Next, there are various elite research institutes in basic sciences. There is the venerable and unique Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, the largest of its kind in India.

And, most recently, there are the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), conceived roughly as the IIT-equivalents for basic science, with robust undergraduate programmes as well as doctoral research.

Funding for these comes from various ministries: Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD); Ministry of Science and Technology (MST), which includes Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Department of Biotechnology (DBT); Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). CSIR, though under MST, operates autonomously in funding its large number of laboratories.

The result is a fragmented educational and research system, with fragmented visions, funding sources, and even research cultures. As in other countries, individual researchers from any institution or university can directly apply for grants from, for example, DST, DBT, or other sources. But research is not just a question of funding individuals but also of institutional infrastructure. So while central and state university researchers can and do receive research funding, they work with significant disadvantages.

Focus on basic sciences, under-graduation

Another historical skew in the system, despite the glamour of the IITs, is the emphasis in common discourse on basic sciences and especially theoretical sciences. India produced noted mathematicians (Ramanujan, Harish-Chandra), theoretical physicists (SN Bose, Meghnad Saha, Homi Bhabha), experimental scientists (JC Bose, CV Raman, SS Bhatnagar), some of whom ended up significantly influencing science policy and institution-building in India.  Few pre-independence engineers captured the popular imagination in the same way (M Vishvesvaraya being a notable exception).

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But the institutions they founded, by and large, catered only to research in basic science and not to teaching or to applied research.  The universities, meanwhile, provided and often continue to provide an excellent undergraduate education in basic sciences and fed these institutions.

The IITs led the way both in establishing engineering as a lucrative career, and in setting high standards for an undergraduate engineering programme. Numerous engineering colleges mushroomed around the country. Government and private medical colleges also offered undergraduate MBBS degrees, leading to yet another career option.

What this led to is a system where students, at the high school level, needed to decide whether to do “engineering”, “medicine” or something else.  If engineering, they went to IITs; if medicine, to medical schools; if something else, to universities.

As a result, these streams did not talk to each other very much, or expose their undergraduate students to one another.  Let alone cross-pollination with mathematics or data science, basic biology students don’t interact much with the medical world, or vice versa.

On their own track

Over the decades, each of these institutions has evolved in its own way. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, founded by Homi Bhabha and originally focused on theoretical physics and mathematics, has expanded into experimental physics, chemistry, biology, and established centres elsewhere in Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad.

IISc has grown to cover essentially all areas of science and engineering, and also established an undergraduate programme. Other research institutions, including mine (The Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), Chennai) have expanded in size and vision over the years. Of the vast CSIR system, some institutes are world-class centres in basic science, some play important roles in what is now called “translational research”, but many have failed to make an impact.

Meanwhile, the universities have languished in funding and lost many of their best minds to the research institutes. And, despite some shining bright spots, concern has grown from all quarters about the poor quality, quantity and, often, irrelevance of Indian scientific research.

Industry collaboration = Self-financing?

In June 2015, after a two-day conference or “Chintan Shivr”, the MST issued the “Dehradun Declaration” for CSIR laboratories. In essence, the declaration directed CSIR labs to focus on developing “industry driven technologies”, and try to become self-financing within the next 2 years via industrial partnerships and enterpreneurships.

This announcement, and the acquiescence of the CSIR Director-General and various CSIR lab heads, caused consternation among many basic scientists.  Indeed, it runs counter to the idea that the government should increase investment in R&D: instead it appeared to be divesting from India’s largest research network.

Partly, one suspects, it was driven by cost-cutting; but partly it was also driven by a perception that India’s massive investments in a few elite scientific institutions had not paid off; and, of course, by a lack of understanding of why one should invest in basic science in the first place.

CSIR was not alone; for the past few years, the government has heavily promoted “translational” research, “interdisciplinary” research, “big data”, and large multi-institutional collaborations. Many organizations, including the Department of Atomic Energy (whose primary mission is to research and operate nuclear power plants in India, but also funds several research institutions including TIFR and IMSc), have felt the pinch and the pressure to do translational work and collaborate with industry.

Towards cross-fertilisation

It has to be recognised that there is a role for basic science. Applied science builds on basic science. The best minds in theoretical physics, mathematics, computer science can apply their skills to multiple problems, ignite new ideas in multiple disciplines. However, evidence of such cross-fertilisation is scant in India; party because the ecosystem of universities and institutes doesn’t encourage it.

Take for example one of the most cited papers ever, the 1990 paper describing “BLAST”, a fast alignment tool for biological sequences. This tool has been a mainstay for biologists ever since it was published. The original paper’s authors had backgrounds in mathematics (SF Altschul, W Miller), physics/chemistry (W Gish), computer science (EW Myers) and biology (DJ Lipman).

Thirty years later, such collaborations are still rare in India. There are theoretical computer scientists with tremendous expertise in string and graph algorithms, for example, which are highly relevant to modern biology. But very few who have actually tried to make the connection (one exception is the company, Strand Life Sciences, that was founded by computer scientists from IISc).

Many of the best minds in India, in the most elite institutions, work on subjects like string theory that, internationally, are drawing skepticism for being too removed from experiment.

So, while basic science and fundamental research (including experimental science) are an essential part of the larger research system, the government and taxpayers may be justified in asking whether the numerical strength and funding level of these fields is proportional to their importance.

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Fixing the situation is hard and cannot be done by diktats telling scientists trained in certain fields to raise a large fraction of their funding via industry collaboration.

Instead, I feel, the answer lies in what Ramasami pointed out in 2009 and continues to point out today. No matter how bloated CSIR or DAE or other institutions may seem at first glance, no matter how many faculty work at our universities, the fact remains that we lag other countries starkly in the number of scientists/researchers per million of population.

Rather than just change the current ecosystem in-place, we must grow it dramatically, emphasising basic science and also keeping translational goals in mind. To this end, we need real universities, that train undergraduates and conduct research in multiple areas.  These could be private universities (for example, Ashoka University is setting a shining example) but governmental research funding must be equally available to them.

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Equally important, they must be free to hire the best talent in the world, as universities in other countries do. The draft National Education Policy of 2019 sets very ambitious goals in this regard. Concerns have been raised about certain aspects of it (which I don’t entirely share) but in terms of scale, if implemented fully and not selectively, and with proportionate emphasis on basic and applied research and industry interaction, it could change India’s landscape.

The COVID-19 crisis is attracting the best expertise from around the world to find solutions. But India has many other problems of its own, and will have more in the future, which require all the homegrown expertise we can get.

(The author is a member of the computational biology group at Institute of Mathematical Sciences)

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