Tradition has it that while China is the factory of the world, India is going to be the laboratory of the world, and while we've already shown our skills in software, the next level of work will involve pharma R&D, and so on.
That comfortable stupor, however, has just been punctured by a report discussed in the second meeting of the Prime Minister's Scientific Advisory Council last week. The report, an assessment of India's relative science and technology capabilities, was prepared by officials of the US Navy and of leading global defence suppliers like Northrop Grumman (the makers of the F-16) and DDL-OMNI Engineering, LLC, though the report carries the usual disclaimer stating that the views expressed are those of the authors and not of their employers.
One way to do this is to look at the number, and the quality, of research papers emanating out of India's science establishment, both in the government and the private sector, and compare this with that of other countries like China.
India fares very poorly in this exercise, not in relation to itself (research publications rose 2.5 times in 25 years, see chart), but in relation to countries like China, whose research output rose more than 100 times during the same period!
Even South Korea, which had just 136 articles in 1980, is higher than India, with 27,397 in 2005, Brazil has moved from 1,638 to 17,086 and Taiwan from 434 to 16,503.
Of course, what matters is not just the number of papers published, but the quality of journals they are published in. Not surprisingly, given the huge surge in China's volumes, China's quality has also improved significantly. In 1995, Indians published five articles in the prestigious Journal of American Chemical Society (JACS) versus just 2 for China, it was 34 versus 14 in the Physical Review of Letters (PRL) and 9 versus 2 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC).
So far this year, the tables have been tilted completely -- it's 4 versus 22 in JACS, 8 versus 28 in PRL and 2 versus 13 in JBC. The report does a tabulation of the impact of each journal and then arrives at a weighted impact factor for each country, and given the rise in the number of Chinese authors in journals of the JACS-type, the Chinese impact factor is calculated at 0.59 versus India's 0.4 and the US' 4.74, an indication of just how long India's journey to laboratory-of-the-world status is.
The lower number of Indian publications in relation to Chinese ones, however significant, is just the symptom -- what matters is the cause. And though the Indian science set-up is of the view that upping expenditure is the cure, this is missing the wood for the trees. The problem, as the report brings out, is that India's R&D expenditure is awfully skewed, much like Soviet Russia's in the old days.
The private sector accounts for less than a fourth of all R&D expenditure in the country (which is why, technology-intensive exports are just 5 per cent of India's total manufactured exports basket versus 23 per cent for China); of the government spend, strategic sectors like atomic energy, space and defence get roughly 52 per cent of the overall budget.
The report also points to the very poor level of cooperation between various universities -- the low coordination between industry and universities is, of course, well-known.
Of course, a nation's scientific prowess cannot be judged just by the quality of research papers. The quality of its education, particularly the enrolment in science, the extent of its Internet and computer spread, the number of patents filed, the level of technology absorption by firms, and so on also matter a great deal.
This is where the World Bank's Knowledge Assessment Methodology (KAM) comes in. The Bank ranks countries across the globe on a variety of parameters, from 1995 to the present day, and this ranking is even more unfavourable.
While China's score on the Knowledge Index has risen from 3.03 in 1995 to 4.21 today, India's has fallen from 2.76 to 2.61 -- that is, India has slipped even relative to itself!
In terms of innovation, which includes the articles published in scientific journals, apart from the number of R&D personnel and the number of patents, India's score has improved from 3.51 to 3.72 -- China, however, has improved from 3.94 to 4.74, another instance of that country's stupendous progress.
None of this is to undermine the progress of pharma giants like Ranbaxy or Dr Reddy's or software giants like TCS, but to point out that it will take a lot more to keep India on the global science map. And that, as in the case of manufacturing, China's making huge strides here as well.