The government released a Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 (STIP2020) and had invited responses by January 31, 2021. The Department of Science & Technology and the Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the government did conduct a series of consultations with some scientists and other experts to seek, albeit prior to the actual formulation and release of the policy document leading to considerable disgruntlement in this community. Going by the track record of this government with regard to incorporating public responses to policies announced, nobody needs to hold their breath to see which suggestions have been accepted or which rejected, or any reasoning given for such decisions.
The process of STIP2020 formulation and the envisaged linkages with broader developmental goals of the nation are pale shadows of predecessor S&T policies. Previous policies in India, such as its first Science Policy Resolution (1958), Industrial Policy Resolution (1956), Technology Policy Statement (1983), were all closely linked to planned national development goals and strategies toward a self-reliant, industrialised, modernising welfare-state, having citizens imbued with a scientific temper.
After liberalisation in the 1990s and the diminished role of Central planning and of the State, the goals of self-reliance and indigenous technology development took a backseat. The subsequent S&T Policy 2003, and the STIP2013 placed the State in a promotional and supportive role rather than as a key driver, with S&T being seen as a relatively autonomous sphere without the direct and planned developmental linkages of earlier decades.
The present STIP2020 claims novelty in supposedly viewing science, technology and innovation together, magnifying the value added, rather than separate spheres of activity, as previously done. Yet it is marked apart mainly by its lack of direction and grounding in contemporary reality.
STIP2020 certainly differs from its predecessors in that, despite 60-odd pages of verbiage, it does not link up with or form part of a broader developmental vision. Nor has it apparently been formulated with inputs from or intensive consultations with other ministries of the government. As a result, STIP2020, in particular, and the S&T enterprise in India in general, seem like an untethered balloon, pursuing some vague course of its own through the ether of government.
There is no attempt to locate STIP2020 in the current global and national industrial and technological scenarios. Nor is there an effort to analyse where India currently stands in terms of its S&T capabilities, research infrastructure, programmes, institutions and financial arrangements. Various measures proposed, therefore, hang in the air without grounding in reality, and betray at best a naïve belief that what is proposed in STIP2020 will actually transpire.
STIP’s very aims are unclear and garbled. The very opening para of the document states that “greater emphasis will be given on promoting traditional knowledge systems, developing indigenous technologies and encouraging grass root innovation.” This may be seen as an obligatory genuflection to the ideology of the ruling dispensation, and a marker to justify funding for favoured organisations, like the incongruous suggestion that the government would create a new civil-society science communication organisation. Yet, it presents a confused view of STIP2020’s goal and methods.
The vision of STIP2020 spelt out as late as paragraph 12 of the Executive Summary underlines the confusion. STIP 2020 aspires “to achieve technological self-reliance and position India among the top three scientific superpowers in the decade to come.” STIP 2013 had aimed for India to come into the top 3, so are we to assume this has been achieved, and India is now aiming to climb two rungs higher?
Another aspiration is “to double the number of Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) researchers, Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D (GERD) and private sector contribution to the GERD every 5 years.” The sad reality is that GERD in India has been hovering around 0.7% of GDP for the past two decades and more, despite recurrent policy goals of reaching 2%, while China grew from roughly that level to around 2.4% now, and most South- and South-East Asian countries, too, at comparable levels. It should also be noted that all these countries have consistently spent 2-3% or more of GDP on education and public health so as to enable commensurate building of human resources.
Another one of four vision statements is “to achieve the highest level of global recognitions and awards in the coming decade.” Experience has shown this to be a hollow and meaningful goal. Goals such as increasing number of published papers or patents filed have only led to researchers spending time writing and publishing sub-standard papers in low-impact journals and filing simplistic patents, quantity not quality being the goal. STIP itself states, buried somewhere in the fine print, that India currently stood ninth in papers published but only 2.5% of these papers were in the top 1% of high-impact journals.
Why and How S&T Self-Reliance?
STIP2020 also betrays incomprehension of the why self-reliance in S&T is required, especially in the current and future global industrial and economic scenario, or how to achieve it. The present dispensation has belatedly, and seemingly overnight, discovered the virtues of “atmanirbharta,”(sel-reliance) as if saying it in Hindi removes the association of the term with the much-derided Nehruvian past, during the COVID-19 pandemic when India found itself with no domestic manufacturers of medical equipment, test kits, PPEs etc.
The East and South-East Asian “tiger” economies realised the imperative of self-reliance in their quest for industrialisation, following the example of post-War Japan. Japan embarked on a strongly state-supported path by indigenously developing opticals, consumer electronics, later computers and cell phones, automobiles etc, while also investing in basic and applied research in materials and semi-conductors.
Brushing aside capitalist orthodoxy not to have an industrial policy which would militate against market forces, South Korea embarked on a similar planned and state-supported self-reliant path. Other countries, such as Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, also built advanced manufacturing capabilities in micro-electronics, robotics, cell phones etc.
China followed a similar trajectory in the 1980s after starting as an offshore manufacturing base. In the past two decades, it has invested heavily in building indigenous know-how and capabilities in many advanced technologies in white goods, computers, cell phones, aviation and so on. China, alone among middle-income countries, now ranks 14th in the Global Innovation Index in which India ranks at the 48the spot.
All these countries embraced the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ characterised by the technologies mentioned above. Unfortunately, India missed the bus in both waves of this “Third Industrial Revolution,” in the “lost decade” of the 1980s and post-liberalisation neglect of self-reliance.
On the other side, China, as the world’s second largest economy and an aspiring superpower, believes strongly that its ambitions cannot be fulfilled without self-reliant capabilities and know-how in technologies of the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ which are expected to dominate the world over the next two decades.
In a series of meetings of its national deliberative bodies, China has announced plans to elevate self-reliance to a “national strategic pillar,” and achieve global leadership in chip-making, AI (artificial intelligence) and IoT (internet-of-things), self-driving vehicles, electric mobility, biotech, aviation and advanced manufacturing. China believes self-reliance is a strategic necessity since no other country would part with advanced technologies.
No Self-Reliance through FDI
Despite all this well-known history, STIP2020 repeats what has become a virtual mantra of the present government, namely, advancement through foreign investment. While the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government believed that self-reliance was an outdated concept and one could always buy technologies from abroad, the current dispensation goes further and holds that the much vaunted “atmanirbhar Bharat” of “self-reliant” industrial development can be achieved by foreign companies setting up manufacturing bases in India. This has not happened anywhere, not in Japan, South Korea or China.
Yet, the present government keeps harping on this theme and thinks “made in India” is equivalent to India possessing that know-how or technology. That is why both the Oxford University-Astra Zeneca vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute in India, and Covaxin developed by NIV/ICMR and made by Bharat Biotech in Hyderabad, are both constantly described by the government as “made in India” vaccines, not distinguishing between the two. Even recently, at the Aero-India show, the Raksha Mantri invited foreign defence majors to set up bases in India under the overall but false rubric of “atmanirbhar Bharat,” a continuing quest in the defence sector where true self-reliance should be paramount.
STIP2020 repeatedly speaks of attracting foreign direct investment or FDI in STI, reduction in corporate tax rates for foreign MNCs, fast-track clearances, easing land acquisitions, adequate means for incorporating FDI etc. Self-reliant STI can certainly not be built through FDI or by foreign MNCs, who may manufacture in India but will not transfer technologies or by “international engagements… to gain essential know-how towards creation and development of indigenous technologies.” China has recognised this, but India refuses to.
STIP2020 has devised a highly flawed and misplaced strategy to circumvent the dire shortage of R&D (research & development) funds and to escape responsibility of the Central Government for this. It proposes that state governments, public sector undertakings, small and medium enterprises, the private sector, universities, research institutions and so on would all be required to set aside earmarked funds for R&D. The policy does not address head-on the notorious reluctance of the private sector in India to invest in R&D, being satisfied with imported technologies or junior partner status with foreign partners. As for the others, they are already cash-strapped. The government drive to compel National Labs to raise at least 50% of their own funds under the notorious Dehradun Plan has already hugely reduced their research activities.
In any case, this is a futile and sub-optimal exercise and would only lead to ineffectual “R&D” on paper, merely to satisfy some bureaucratic requirement. In the absence of mission-oriented nationally-determined R&D programmes funded at scale by the Central government, the goal of transformative R&D to catapult India into a leading position in the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ would remain a pipedream.
STIP2020 is also filled with a plethora of new Institutions and funding schemes, such as the Capacity Building Authority, the STI Policy Institute, a Strategic Technology Board, Strategic Development Fund, a national STI Financing Authority, STI Development Bank, a national STI governance mechanism, Inter-State Science, Technology and Innovation Council (IS-STIC).
These would only lead to additional bureaucratic structures in a top-heavy science administration, draining even more funds from actual research. It is ironic that these suggestions come at a time when the government is closing down many S&T Institutions, showing again how distanced STIP2020 is from ground realities.
There are passing references to innovations aimed at addressing domestic developmental deficits, but no meaningful intention to address rural un-/under-employment is visible from this government. Some other red herrings in STIP2020 are its proposals to advance indigenous capacities through non-resident Indians and for “engaged universities” to be “created” to meet community needs. The most ironic is the proposal to establish “Higher Education Research Centres (HERC) and Collaborative Research Centres (CRC)… to provide research inputs to policymakers” when all universities and academics doing so are deemed “anti-national!”