Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Stunted growth

In an article title Stunted growth, the former associate director of IISc, Professor Vijayan says,

About a quarter of a century ago, on the basis of an extensive survey, a major scientific journal described India as a superpower in Third World science. This is no longer true. China is miles ahead in scientific and technological research. There are other countries in what used to be described as the Third World where the rate of progress in science is higher than in India. Therefore, in spite of the country’s notable achievements, Indian science is in crisis in the international context. This is an issue that needs to be faced squarely. Modern scientific research is expensive and its output is often determined by the input in terms of funding. The level of funding for research in India has been low, but India has done reasonably well in spite of it. For instance, in relation to research publications, the proportion of publications emanating from India in the world scientific literature is very low. However, in terms of publications per unit investment, India ranks high.

Investment in research and development (R&D) in India has almost always been less than 1 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). After Independence, this figure climbed, to approach the 1 per cent mark in the late 1980s. Then, there was a precipitous fall in the 1990s. The level of funding for R&D began to rise again in the late 1990s, a trend that has continued in the current decade. It is now approaching the 1 per cent figure again. The GDP itself has grown rapidly in this period, and hence, the increase in funding in absolute terms has been substantial. This is dramatically reflected in the rate of growth of the country’s scientific output, proving, if any proof is necessary, the importance of funding for higher research output. However, the level of funding as a fraction of the GDP remains low in India not only in comparison with advanced countries but also with some of the countries with rapidly growing economies. The rate of growth in the level of R&D funding in India needs to be maintained and further enhanced for sustained growth in scientific endeavour. In addition to funding, the number of scientists in every discipline also needs to increase substantially.
I think the last sentence is very important. It is not sufficient to ensure funding but also that the number of scientists increase. For this, I strongly feel that the second tier of institutions needs to be significantly strengthened. For example, all NITs put together in the last fifteen years have published less than 10,000 papers. In 2008, the number of papers published by all 20 NITs is lesser than that published by IISc alone. While the present sixth pay commission has sort of ensured that the pay scales in different institutions are similar, it is still very unlikely that an IISc faculty will shift to NIT even for personal reasons. This has nothing to do with salaries but with more of the research environment and financial procedures prevalent in these places. For example, in engineering, the TEQIP program was started and 40 engineering colleges were chosen for enhanced funding. Similar programs need to be started in science. While starting of IISER's is a step in the right direction like the new IITs, the quality in the second rung of institutions in sciences (like the universities) have to be dramatically improved, not just in terms of funding but in terms of quality infrastructure and economic reforms.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Statistics on science/engineering

In a recent article on the future of science in India, Narayana Murthy says

India’s research productivity would be on a par with that of most G8 nations within seven to eight years and that it could probably overtake them in 2015-2020. In the last decade, India has seen its annual output of scientific publications grow from roughly 16,500 in 1998 to nearly 30,000 in 2007. Before we pat ourselves on the back, it would be good to consider things in perspective. Although India produces about 400,000 engineering graduates and about 300,000 computer science graduates every year, just about 20,000 master’s degree holders and fewer than 1,000 Ph.Ds in engineering graduate each year.

Let us look at the statistics more closely and with respect to other countries. In 1980, India, China, Taiwan and Brazil published 10606, 692, 434 and 1638 papers, respectively. In 1995, India and China published the same number of papers (around 12,000). In 2008, India, China, Taiwan and Brazil published around 30000, 130000, 28000 and 34000 papers, respectively.Thus, one can see the tremendous growth of China and other countries compared to India. See the following table,

It indicates that the India's contribution is around 2% with a growth of 4.5%. I do not see how it can reach the top eight countries in a few years. One also has to look into quality and not just the quantity. Because I have written about citations etc before, let me introduce another parameter, number of publications in top journals.  Leaving aside, Nature, Science etc, let us take the top three journals in each field and look at the numbers,

Now, to the next part of the article. I do not know why he talks about the number of engineering graduates (rather than science). Anyway, the numbers are wrong. He says that there are 4 lakh engineering graduates and 3 lakhs are in computer science. The number of engineering graduates that are sanctioned are around 6.5 lakhs while that graduating is around 4.5 lakhs. The breakup was Computer  Science  and  Information  Technology accounted for 34% of the total, 39% for Electronics and Electrical Engineering, 12 % for Mechanical and 4% for Civil Engineering. Maybe he is bunching all EE/ECE/CS/IT together.

The numbers of the masters and doctoral students are correct. There are roughly 1000 engineering doctorates graduating every year, of which around 500 are from IIT/IISc. Thus, the ratio of engineering doctorates to engineering graduates is 1/450 (i..e, less than 0.25%), while  Germany, UK, US maintain  rates  of  7 to 9%. China had a ratio of around 0.25 in 1988 and the ratio is now 3%.  One can do a similar analysis for science doctorates to science graduates.

Later in the article, he talks about money spent on R&D. The numbers are incorrect for India. Maybe he should specify the sources from which the numbers are obtained. I think it is very important that when leaders speak, they should use the correct numbers and then give their opinion.