Ram Madhav
July 1, 2023

National Research Foundation: Preparing for the new revolution

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(The article was originally published by Indian Express as a part of Dr Madhav’s bi-weekly column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

Not many would have understood the significance of the Narendra Modi government’s decision to set up a National Research Foundation (NRF) with the stated aim to “seed, grow and promote research and development (R&D)” and foster a “culture of research and innovation throughout India’s universities, colleges, research institutions, and R&D laboratories”. With a budgetary support of Rs 50,000 crore over the next five years, it aims to “provide high level strategic direction” to scientific research in the country.

Usually, such announcements are dismissed by most citizens as usual governmental activity and viewed with scepticism by those familiar with policy-making. However, the decision to set up the NRF should be seen as a timely and much-needed move. The government has set an ambitiously wide-ranging goal for it. The prime minister will himself be leading the NRF and he will be supported by the ministers of science and technology and education.

The world has entered a transformative era with the evolution of industry 4.0, web 3.0 and genetics 2.0. It is the era of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics, crypto technologies and human genome projects. India missed the earlier technological and industrial revolutions. But this time, it has a huge opportunity to exploit its innate potential.

In the last few years, PM Modi’s government focused heavily on preparing the nation for the new revolution. It has given much impetus to innovation. More than a million start-ups have sprung up in the last few years, making India the world’s “start-up capital”. A fraction of them, over 120 start-ups, have become “unicorns” — highly-valued entities that could mobilise a billion-dollar investment. By the end of last year, around 240 start-ups have gone in for major acquisitions bringing in investments to the tune of $ 150 billion.

Realising the importance of digital infrastructure for ramping up the country’s innovation potential, in the last nine years, the government has invested heavily in building robust architecture. An optical fibre cable network of more than 35 lakh kilometres has been laid out, and electricity and the internet have reached almost all villages. With over 800 million smartphone users in the country, digital literacy is another major success story of the government.

The government now wants to take this encouraging story to the next level.

India has a huge tech-literate young population with high IQ levels. Yet, other than a few success stories in the fin-tech area like the Universal Payments Interface (UPI) — which the entire world wants to emulate — we lag behind in areas of fundamental research. Lack of public and private support is one reason for this situation. The government now recognises that a major push is needed to nudge India’s scientific and technological community into the research and innovation mode.

While talking of innovation, the first question to be asked is whether we are innovating or imitating — creating or copying. Most of our innovations are secondary improvements of existing technologies. Catching up is not bad. But a country of India’s potential should develop institutions of world class research as well.

It requires a few things. Foremost is funding. Leaders in innovation and research like China and the US spend massive sums on R&D. While India’s private and public funding on R&D is less than 0.7 per cent of its GDP, China spends over 2.5 per cent of its GDP on the same. Remember that China’s GDP is five to six times bigger than India’s. The actual figures for R&D funding are $640 billion for the US, $580 billion for China and over $15 billion for India.

The government’s decision to focus on academic and research bodies through NRF has a reason. Over decades, research culture in these institutions had declined. The government’s strenuous efforts in the last few years has led to some improvement. Our academics and researchers produced 54 per cent more research papers in the last five years, taking India to the fourth position in the world. However, the quality and relevance of many of these papers remain questionable. SciVal, a research platform, suggests that only 15 per cent of them have been cited in top academic journals.

China, with 4.5 million research papers published during the same period, leads the world followed by the US with 4.4 million and the UK with 1.4 million. India produced 1 million research papers in this period, averaging two lakh annually. Of these one million, only a few could reach prestigious journals and conferences. India ranks 10th globally in citation quality.

The story of patents too needs a further push. India filed over 60,000 patents in 2022. Almost 50 per cent were local patents filed for the domestic market with perceived low quality. China, on the other hand, filed four million patents in the same year, of which 25 per cent were “high value patents”. Countries like the US and China classify patents as high value if they pertain to emerging or strategic sectors. India too should do the same.

In the artificial intelligence area, India needs to cover a lot of ground to emerge as a leader. The British professional services major, PwC, projected in a report that AI will contribute an additional 15.7 trillion dollars to global GDP by 2030. A lion’s share of about 70 per cent is going to accrue to the US and China. India’s AI earnings are picking up. We earned about $ 250 billion in the last financial year.

Here too, R&D is going to play a major role. The US and China invest nearly $ 150 billion each in AI related R&D. India’s IT Ministry under Ashwini Vaishnaw and Rajeev Chandrasekhar made its ambitions clear by announcing three AI centres of excellence and allocating $ 2 billion of initial investment. Although modest, this is certainly a good beginning. It is important to increase this investment because a Goldman Sachs report warns that AI could destroy as many as 300 million jobs by 2035 and India cannot escape this onslaught.

The bottomline is clear. R&D in frontier areas is key to India’s ambition to grow as an economic and tech superpower. The real R&D is about finding answers to questions that have not yet been asked. The NRF is the instrument to prepare our individuals and institutions for that future-ready task.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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