India has voted for Science. In May, half a billion people cast their ballots, and they decisively favored spurring the development of the world’s second most populous nation. The reelected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his new coalition government have made a commitment to reduce poverty and disease, create employment, and stimulate rural and industrial development. Attaining these goals will require substantial new investments in science and technology (S&T) plus much greater investments in human capital.
Since achieving freedom in 1947, India has established many institutions devoted to science and higher education. Most notably, five Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) were established between 1951 and 1963, and by 2008 there were 13 IITs: national degree-granting institutions devoted to the training of high-quality engineers and scientists. Despite the gap in infrastructure between advanced countries and India, there have been critical successes in areas such as space, atomic energy, and agriculture. In fundamental research too, India has made progress. Because of the innumerable demands on the economy, however, the higher-education sector has not received adequate support. Part of the reason for the decline in India’s university science education system in the past decades has been the preferential funding for R&D activities in national research laboratories.
Prime Minister Singh has recently announced an increase in government investment in S&T from the present 1% of gross domestic product (GDP) to 2% of GDP over the next year or two, an increase of unprecedented magnitude. The contribution of industry has also increased significantly in the past few years, now amounting to approximately 20% of the nation’s total investment in science R&D. And the government has begun appropriate administrative reforms as well. For example, two new government departments dealing with Earth system science and health research have been created. In addition, the Indian parliament has approved creating a National Science and Engineering Research Board, an entity somewhat similar to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), that will be responsible for funding scientific research. It will provide competitive grants and establish new facilities in priority areas. Like NSF, the board will also produce annual “science indicators”: detailed analyses for measuring progress in S&T from year to year.
This is all good news. But the human resources essential for supporting an expanded S&T agenda are lacking. Young graduates today are readily attracted to professions other than those related to science and engineering; thus, banking, business, and information technology have become immensely popular. India must now focus on creating a large body of outstanding young people interested in taking up professions in science and engineering. To improve the quality of the university education system, new support is being provided. For example, five new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research have been established in the past 3 years. Admitting undergraduates on the basis of competitive examinations (as do the IITs), these new national institutes will encourage bright young students to pursue science as a career, at both the undergraduate and Ph.D. levels. In addition, to meet the demand for top-class engineering graduates nationally and internationally, the country will increase the total number of IITs to 15.
Sixty percent of the Indian population is below the age of 25, and most reside in villages. This untapped talent represents a great potential asset. Around 600,000 scholarships are now available each year for talented school students from these areas, with an emphasis on those living in poverty. One million science awards are being given to students to promote interest in science, and 10,000 scholarships are available to support students who wish to pursue education beyond high school. In addition, the new government has already initiated important structural reforms in the education sector.
India’s citizens have risen to the occasion with their vote. The tasks and challenges for the new government are clear but daunting: It must now satisfy the aspirations of a billion people.