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What happened to India as a Science Power?

by Adam Segal
February 4, 2010

We have seen a lot of stories recently about China’s emergence as a science super power–“China’s scientists lead world in research growth” in the Financial Times, blog posts at the New Yorker, and the New Scientist warning us to “Get Ready for China’s Domination of Science”–and that’s not even counting the story on how China is going to lead the world in clean energy that the New York Times seems to run every other week.

What happened? Just five years ago we were talking about the threat from China AND India. Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the prominent National Academies report that argued that America’s position was slipping, used India’s excellence in software, its mass of well-trained, English-speaking engineers, and increasing investments in research universities to galvanize government and industry action on R&D spending and science and engineering education in the United States.  The insight that the world is flat came to Tom Friedman in part because of his time on a golf course in Bangalore. It is not that India does not have ambitious plans. In January, Prithviraj Chavan, minister for science and technology and earth sciences, announced the government’s plans to raise spending on R&D from 1 to 2 percent of GDP. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission has set a target of 20,000 mw of solar generating capacity by 2022. “I am convinced,” Prime Minister Singh told business leaders, “that solar energy can be the next scientific and industrial frontier in India.”

So why the lack of attention (and concern) about India? First, India lacks the speed and scale of China.  While India has clearly improved its position, it is doing so much more gradually and incrementally.  Indian scientific publications, for example, grew three times between 1990 and 2008, Chinese output 12 times. Scale is not an easy thing for India to do.  Consensus has to be built. Resources are scarce. It is much simpler for a top-down system like China to pick a technology sector to develop and then funnel funds and people to it.

The second, and probably more important reason, is political. The rhetoric about technology development in India is much less techno-nationalist than in China.  India’s leaders hope the country will become a global leader, but there is no equivalent to “indigenous innovation,” the Chinese plan to reduce dependence on foreign technology.  When an Indian leader says India wants to develop “in ‘close coordination’ with other stakeholders, particularly the United States,” their American counterparts are likely to actually believe it.

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