comments on David King's "Scientific Impact of Nations" by Prabir Purkayastha

Garfield, Eugene garfield at CODEX.CIS.UPENN.EDU
Mon Dec 13 16:17:54 EST 2004

  People's Democracy

 (Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)



No. 50

December 12, 2004

Scientific Capability And The Wealth Of Nations<?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = O />

Prabir Purkayastha

EVERY school of thought accepts that if a country wants to become a global
player, Research and Development (R&D) is vital. Copying, body shopping,
selling other people's products and technology can work for some time. But
not for long. The ability to develop technology innovations continuously is
what distinguishes technology leaders from followers. This means the ability
not merely to copy innovations done elsewhere but to also to develop the
next generation of technology. Just following behind the Joneses may have
worked in a world where technology remained relatively stable. But not
today, where computational power of a chip doubles every 18 months.


Scientific capability and technology innovations are therefore the
prerequisites to a country's development. In a recent paper, David King "The
Scientific Impact of Nations", Nature, VOL 430, July 15, 2004) has plotted
the scientific capability (citation index intensity) of a nation against the
GDP intensity (per capita GDP) of 31 nations. The citation intensity is
simply the number of such citations divided by the GDP of the countries. The
wealth intensity of the countries is also a simple measurement: it is the
per capita GDP of the country. It shows very clearly the importance of
scientific capability for a nation: the citation intensity correlates very
well with the wealth intensity of countries. More the citation intensity,
wealthier the country. Of course, one can also argue that if a country is
wealthy, it can devote more to research and therefore its citation index
goes up. But if we look at the per capita GDP of many countries, for
instance oil-producing countries, we will find that though their GDP is
high, their scientific output is low. If we exclude the countries that are
rich due to some primary product or a finite natural resource like oil, then
the driving factor for wealth of a country does emerge as its capability to
produce scientific and technological innovation

While how to measure scientific capability is still being debated, some
indicators are agreed upon as a basis for some form of ranking. The most
common ones are amount of research papers produced and how many times they
are cited by other authors: the citation index of the papers. While the
number of papers that a country produces, may provide an indication of the
quantity of its output, the citation index is supposed to reflect its
quality. It is true that a simple analysis based on just citations is open
to various distortions - papers in medicines are quoted more than papers in
mathematics, papers in English are quoted more than in other languages, etc,
- nevertheless, the citation index does provide a rough and ready reckoner
for quality of the research produced by a country.

How does India fare on this measure of citation index and citation
intensity? The good news is that India and also China are still in the
league of countries with significant science and technology capability. The
bad news is that our quality is well below its quantity. The citation rate
per paper puts us in the 29th position, well below that of countries such as
Luxemburg, Israel, Singapore. For all publications in the time period
1997-2001, India had 2.13 per cent of all publications but a citation index
of only 0.86 per cent. Countries at the top end have a reverse ratio; with a
smaller number of papers, they have a higher citation index.


Citation index is what King has used is one measure of scientific
capability. There are others, which have been constructed. One of the better
known one is the one by the Institute for Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao
Tong University (SJTU) in China.  SHTU recently carried out an exercise to
rank the world's universities, using an index of five criteria: the number
of people who won a Nobel Prize (or Fields medal, its equivalent in
mathematics), the number of highly cited researchers, articles published by
university staff in the leading science journals Science and Nature, the
number of articles included in the Science Citation Index and Social Science
Citation Index and the average academic output of a faculty member. One can
question the weightage and the methodology: after all Nobel prizes are given
long after the people have done their actual work. However, even if one
takes the ranking, not at its face value but just an indicator of broad
trends, the picture that emerges for India is not very flattering.

Amongst the first 500 top universities in the world, India has only 3. Even
worse, there are only 3 universities from India in the top 100 Asia/Pacific
universities. In 2003, the three universities/institutes were Indian
Institute of Sciences (IISc.), Bangalore, IIT Kharagpur and IIT Delhi; this
year it is IISc and Calcutta University. To quote the editor of Current
Science, P. Balaram, "Sadly, the real universities in India are limping,
research consigned to an unimportant role. Even as funding has increased for
many of UGC's 'five star' universities there are evident problems, with
faculty disinterested in research clearly outnumbering those with an
academic bent of mind." (Current Science, VOL. 86, NO. 10, May 25 2004).
This only reinforces what we have already noted, that Indian science is
producing poor quality research, with its universities currently in decline.
Even the specialised institutes that are supposed to have concentrated on
research have yet to make their mark internationally. And if our institutes
of higher learning do not deliver on building the right kind of skills, we
cannot deliver innovation to the industry as well.


The decline of the universities has taken place in a number of ways. The key
has been the UGC denying funds to the university. While funds for the
universities have declined, a number of newer institutes have sprung up,
which are cornering the bulk of the funding for higher education. While this
is a worldwide trend, the degree to which the top universities of India are
being denied funds is perhaps unparalleled elsewhere. Even worse, there is a
theory that while school education could be supported, the state should get
out of funding higher education: the students should pay the true cost of
higher education, reserving this only for the rich. The obvious connection
is lost sight of between scientific capability and the wealth of nations. We
need our best and brightest to build the nation's scientific capability
irrespective of their income. This is not a welfare measure but an
imperative in an age where science and technical capability spell

The other issue is how do we go about building an R&D infrastructure that
delivers technology innovation to the industry? Obviously, this has not
happened in India except perhaps for three sectors, space, atomic energy and
pharmaceuticals. The first two were forced upon us due to the embargo on
nuclear and missile technologies. The pharmaceutical industry developed as
changing of the Patent Act from product to process patents allowed Indian
industry to innovate new processes and produce cheaper drugs.

In all the three areas above, the state played the key role. In the first
two - Atomic Energy and Space - the research, development and production are
all carried out within the same organisation. In pharmaceuticals --- CDRI,
Lukhnow and NCL, Pune --- the CSIR laboratories produced the process
innovations. If we take out these three sectors, the record of the rest of
the research institutions in developing technology is quite poor.


Why did the Indian research institutions fail to make contributions in other
areas while it did succeed in these three? In all the three areas, both the
end user of research, the industry, and the producer of technology, the
research institutions, worked together. Both had their contributions: if the
process was developed in the CSIR laboratories, scaling up for manufacture
was done by the industry. This is the vital gap that afflicts other sectors.
If technology is available from a "collaborator," the Indian industry gets
the entire package - from the design to the assembly line. Instead, if you
get the same technology from a lab, you get merely the design. Scaling it up
to the production level is a different ball game. The labs do this very
poorly. If the industry expects the laboratories to give them a completely
packaged technology, this is doomed to failure. And it is this missing link
- from design to production - that has lead to the research institutions
contributions in other sectors being relatively poor.

The current paradigm of the neo-liberal economy is that the market will take
care of everything including research. Well, the market does take care of
research for little things, essentially small problems with current products
and technologies. What it cannot address is new technologies. The dominant
industry players rejected the most ubiquitous of technologies of today - the
personal computers and mobile phones - when they were first proposed. IBM
felt that the idea that people would want to own personal computers was
ridiculous. It is state funding of science and technology (and also
philanthropic funding) for completely esoteric ideas that produced the next
generation technologies.


What do we need to do in order to develop an innovative society? The most
important element here is a state funded and well-developed R&D
infrastructure including a university system that produces high quality
science and technology students. The second is the realisation in the
industry that it cannot treat the research institution like its collaborator
of yesteryears. It must be itself a partner in technology development and
develop the production system for the technology. The third is that the
research institutions must understand that the source of research ideas is
the everyday world of industry. This is where the ideas for research must
originate, not from reading papers to produce another one for journals
abroad. The real world produces great ideas, the world of journals only
report them. Lastly, expecting the market to develop technology is waiting
for Godot: markets fail when it comes to research.

Hiring out CSIR laboratories to MNCs --- the Mashelkar paradigm --- may help
the CSIR generate some cash; in the long term it is helping MNCs develop
their next generation of products for the global market. It will not help
the Indian economy or the Indian industry, the primary purpose for which
CSIR was set up.

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