Science declines but technology advances

Brilliant scientists like CNR Rao, Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, can be dead wrong. They say that Indian science and technology are in crisis. Nonsense, technology has never been in better shape.

Rao complains that scientists and engineers are leaving universities and government labs for private sector companies (mainly in software). High attrition of scientific staff is hobbling Indian space and defence programmes. Promising scientists are migrating.

India’s share of published scientific papers is falling: Rao says it is down to barely 3% against China’s 12%. In the first half of the 20th century, CV Raman won the Nobel Prize, and SN Bose along with Einstein devised the Bose-Einstein statistics. Nothing similar happens now.

Rao argues that Indian science needs a big step up in government R&D budgets, higher retirement age in universities, and the slashing of red tape. I agree. But I think this problem pales in comparison with India’s phenomenal success in becoming a global hub for brain-intensive services and manufacturing. Pure science may be in trouble, but Indian technology is booming as never before, and that is far more important.

Tata Motors developed the Indica, beating global rivals like Fiat’s Palio. Tata Motors is now set to produce a one-lakh rupee car, the cheapest quality car in the world. This is a major technological feat.

  • Our software industry is set to become world number one. Starting from low-end software, Indian companies have risen so fast and competitively up the ladder that market valuations of Infosys, Wipro and TCS are far higher than of IBM, Accenture and Oracle. Corollary: the Indian companies will probably take over the American giants in due course.
  • Reliance can build oil refineries at 66% of the cost in the US or Europe, and so has the highest refining margins in the world.
  • Brain-intensive manufacturing has made India world class in small cars and auto ancillaries. Hyundai, Suzuki and now Nissan have made India a centre for global export production.
  • India has developed high skills in computer-aided design and manufacturing, and in tooling. This has sparked a boom in auto ancillary exports, which could cross $ 2 billion this year. Bharat Forge can go from concept to prototype to commercial production in three months, against six months or more abroad. Superior skills have enabled it to take over rivals across the world, and it should be world number one by 2008.
  • Multinationals are rushing to India to set up R&D centers. The list includes General Electric, IBM, Suzuki, Hyundai, General Motors, Timken, Astra Zeneca and Texas Instruments. General Eletric’s Bangalore lab is its second biggest in the world, and has helped attract back to India many scientists who had earlier migrated.
  • Shanta Biotech and Biocon have established India as a force in global biotechnology. Reliance Life Sciences has been recognized by the US National Institutes of Health for stem-cell research.
  • Tata Steel’s skills have made it the second-cheapest steel producer in the world, so giants like Corus wants to be taken over by it.
  • Fifty years ago, the world’s most economic two-wheelers from Piaggio gave 27 km/litre of petrol. Today Bajaj Auto and Hero Honda have developed indigenous models giving over 100 km/litre. They have thrashed global giants Honda and Yamaha who are used to producing gas-guzzlers abroad. Bajaj once used technology from Kawasaki but now produces much better technology itself.
  • Less high-profile but more significant may be the mushrooming of new companies to do contract R&D for global ones. Divi’s Labs and Vimta Labs are some new stars in this firmament.
  • So, R&D in government labs may be in trouble, but it is booming in the private sector. In the bad old licence-permit raj, companies had no incentive to do R&D. But competition induced by economic reform means that R&D is crucial to survival. That has changed everything.

Patent applications in India have shot up from 4,000 in 1995 to 17,000 in 2004. Under Dr Mashelkar, the government’s CSIR labs have developed R&D partnerships with private sector companies, a promising way forward.

Why, then, do some scientists bemoan the decline and fall of science? Some (though not all) have the old Soviet mindset, glorying above all in indigenous technology in nuclear energy, missiles and space. Soviet scientists got unlimited sums for strategic goals, without having to worry about cost-effectiveness. This helped them make missiles and nuclear bombs. Alas, this approach was not conducive to producing the most elementary consumer goods of decent quality or price. The Soviet Union couldn’t produce competitive wheat or textiles, machinery or trucks.

this led ultimately to its economic and political collapse. That vividly illustrates the very limited relevance of space and defence technology for a country’s well-being.

India needs above all technology that benefits consumers through improved products. So I cheer the fact that India has become a global power in brain-intensive services and manufacturing. Our technology was lousy in our scientific heyday when CV Raman won his Nobel Prize. We are much better off today.

What do you think?