“Hail Research”: can India’s Prime Minister Modi keep his promises?

“Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan! Jai Vigyan!” (Hail the Soldier! Hail the Farmer! Hail Science!) is a timeless Indian national slogan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to the stage earlier this year to extend this phrase to include “Jai Anusandhan!” (Hail Research!).

Addressing a packed audience at the Indian Science Congress, Modi declared that the country “should not wait for others to find out technical solutions to India’s problems. Indian scientists have to take a leadership role.” This was his boldest statement yet on strengthening India’s research position, which is underdeveloped and by Modi’s own admission, suffering from a decline in quality.

An important relationship: UK & India

Since an initial collaboration worth £1 million in 2008, there is presently in excess of £300 million of UKRI India shared research activity across 200 individual projects jointly managed by UK and Indian research teams. Technology is a key area of interest for the two countries, where both the UK and India have much to gain by working together.

The above investment does not capture the many institution-to-institution relationships that now exist or the growing number of dedicated India institutes within UK universities. It’s also worth noting that individual UK-India co-publications tend to be more highly cited than either India or UK publications on their own.

For these reasons and more, the success of Indian higher education, specifically the output of the country’s research activity, matters greatly to the UK.

Money where your mouth is

At a time when greater global investment needs to be directed towards research and development, India is spending considerably less than its peers. The latest UNESCO data paints a stark picture of the proportion of funds available for Indian institutions and researchers to undertake research as compared with their counterparts in other countries.

India is ranked towards the bottom of this list, with only 0.6% of total GDP dedicated to expenditure on research and development. Compare this with the UK (which currently sits at 1.7% though with a declared ambition to increase this to 2.4%), Australia (at 1.9%), or indeed the USA (at 2.7%).

What is even more sobering about the current state of affairs is knowing that India actually spent proportionally more on research a decade ago than it does now. In 2008, India spent roughly 0.9% of its GDP on research and related expenditure. This has declined to the 0.6% – 0.7% range over the last three years.

Given this, it is hard to reconcile Modi’s pronouncements on research and the strength of the Indian economy with the fact that, since his government took power in 2014, the proportion of GDP allocated for research is the lowest that it has been in decades.

No easy wins

One would also think it logical that in the final budget of the Modi government ahead of the upcoming April-May election there may be some overdue attention paid to the research community. But sadly this has not been the case.

To understand how higher education funding works in India is to recognise that of the 900 odd universities in the country, 44 of these institutions (which are run nationally) receive 65% of all available funds through the University Grants Commission (the national funding body). The vast majority of higher education institutions in India are state based institutions who have to clamour for the remaining 35% of funds – and access hugely variable funding at state level. There has been no meaningful additional investment to this funding pool, particularly as related to the money available for state based institutions.

With the exception of a few select winners, with premier institutes such as the Indian Institutes of Technology receiving a marginal injection of funds, the overall amount allocated to the higher education pie remains stagnant.

The critical issue of credibility

In the absence of comprehensive national research infrastructure underpinned by clear policy guidance on research quality India is one of the world’s most active sites for “predatory publishing.” As confirmed by a recent worldwide study conducted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the proliferation of dodgy journals and the absence of rigorous editorial standards has seriously hurt the quality of the country’s research output.

Researchers have been driven to pursue this practice after the country’s higher education regulator introduced its controversial Academic Performance Indicators. These standards dictated research as being compulsory for educators across all higher education institutions. The pressure to publish or perish is very real in the country.

Here is an opportunity to leverage the capabilities of UK research systems, through mechanisms such as UKRI India as well as institution to institution partnerships, to lift the overall quality and standing of research conducted in India.

Charting the future together

Announcing multiple new research parks and mentioning innovation at every second public address, it is clear that Modi wants to be seen to driving reform in this space. But, if he is returned as Prime Minister in May then his government must go beyond grand policy statements to tangible, targeted, investment and making further reforms to ensure quality in research. Only these actions will sufficiently fulfil the intent of “Jai Anusandhan!”

For an alternative leader, the challenge remains the same – to align India’s lofty research aspirations with its outcomes.

However, the one constant in both of these scenarios is this: the UK must deepen its engagement with India, in facilitating more collaborative research endeavours and moreover, through sharing practices and systems. After all, both countries are made stronger, by working together.

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