Beyond, Um, Vedic Science

India must take steps to attract global talent for cutting-edge technology

This year’s Budget raised import duties on 40-odd items to meet the threat posed by Chinese competition in what GoI viewed as crucial areas such as kites, candles, plastic toys and fruit juices. The Budget said nothing about areas where China really poses a grave threat: in high technology and basic sciences.

Beijing’s ‘Made in China 2025’ aims to make it world class in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, aerospace, electric vehicles and other hi-tech areas. Forget China’s old dominance in labour-intensive goods like apparel and toys. It now aims to be at the global cutting-edge of the most sophisticated technologies within seven years.

Keep Your Tencent, & Yuans

Whether it can achieve so much so quickly remains questionable. But alarm bells are ringing in the US, where President Donald Trump has sworn to stop China from purchasing top US tech companies, or getting US companies to part with high technology as a condition for investing in China.

If Chinese technological progress threatens the US, surely it threatens India much more. China is a truculent neighbour that contests Indian territory in the Himalayas, and provides succour of every sort to Pakistan. Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping may have agreed to cool tempers on the border after last year’s Dokalam affair, but long-term tensions can only deepen, as China rises to superpower status and throws its weight around. To combat that, India must prepare for battle in hi-tech no less than Himalayan warfare.

Whatever Trump may fear, no country can get to the top of the tech ladder simply by buying technology. China will have to upgrade its technological capacity, creating world-class scientific and technological institutions. The Washington Post recently highlighted China’s ‘Thousand Talents’ scheme to persuade thousands of scientists and engineers to come to China, and start or join prestigious research centres.

The scheme targets the myriad Chinese academics and engineers working abroad. But it also seeks to attract top foreign scientists, offering them salaries comparable with what they could earn abroad, plus a signing bonus of ¥1 million (around ₹1 crore). They can head research projects and institutions with guaranteed research funding for years ahead, which top scientists really prize. They get perks like housing, meals and regular trips back home.

Despite Trump’s noises, China has attracted several top US academics, including Chemistry Nobel Prize winner Fraser Stoddart, who will be visiting professor at the School of Pharmaceutical Science & Technology at Tianjin University.

China has made itself such an exciting place to work in that, despite the language barrier, droves of the world’s top brains want to spend time in the next potential superpower. A new graduate-cum-research university has been started by Duke University, US, with Wuhan University in China’s Hubei province. It advertised 20 faculty posts, and got a whopping 1,300 applications from across the world.

Apart from scientists and engineers, China also seeks to attract back entrepreneurs in its diaspora, such as the thousands in Silicon Valley. China seeks both academic and applied skills. The government says its ‘Thousand Talents’ scheme has almost overachieved its targets, netting over 7,000 scientists and entrepreneurs.

Don’t Lose Scientific Temper

China has been upgrading its scientific muscle for two decades. The US National Science Foundation says China already produces 34,000 doctoral degrees a year in science and engineering, not far short of the US total of 40,000. China recently overtook the US in the number of published scientific papers. Many of these are, however, of dubious quality. Last year, 100 scientific papers in China were retracted following a crackdown on publications fraud.

The World Intellectual Property Organisation says that China has become global No. 1in new patents. Here again, experts question the novelty and value of many of these patents. The ‘Thousand Talents’ scheme aims at overcoming this quality gap.

India badly needs a Thousand Talents scheme too. Prime Minister Modi can make a start by attracting technologists from the Indian diaspora, who seem to love him. Modi has decreed a major expansion of IITs, establishing at least one in every state. These are undoubtedly needed to produce practical skills. But India also needs to go much higher into high academia and basic sciences.

Once, India produced a Physics Nobel Prize winner in C V Raman, and another contender in Satyendra Nath Bose (of the Bose-Einstein statistics and boson fame). Today, such feats look impossible. University postings and promotions are manipulated by politicians. Research funding and equipment is pathetic. Salaries are shockingly low by global standards, and research output is abysmal.

Several R&D centres have been set up by MNCs, producing many new patents and innovations. But these are nowhere near cutting-edge. Budding Indian scientists prefer to go abroad for a better academic climate, freedom from bureaucratic interference, generous funding and the ability to mix with world-class scientists.

Making Indian universities world class is impossible in the foreseeable future. So, can India create new islands of excellence as China is doing, with rules, salaries and funding pledges that can attract the best global talent? Can the new freedom for foreign universities to open in India become a starting point? Very difficult. But we must begin somewhere.

What do you think?