The COVID-19 experience has brought attention to the importance of science, technology and innovation. Researchers facilitated the rapid understanding of a new virus. Technology underpinned efforts for curbing the spread of the disease. Entrepreneurship led to quick production of diagnostics, treatment and vaccines. But within this global picture, there are vast differences between countries. Only some nations have been able to marshal the science and the resources to respond to the pandemic.

What about India? The country has significant manufacturing capacity, but the lack of homegrown vaccines as well as a generally weak public health system are major obstacles, and reaching vaccines and treatment to our large population will not be swift. We simply haven't invested enough in the past - in science as well as in healthcare - to be able to do what is needed today. 

This realisation could explain the surge in investment in science this year. For decades, poor investment has stymied Indian science. But in the Budget proposals announced earlier this month, there is new hope of remedying this accumulated deficit. The Central Government announced a financial outlay of INR 50,000 crores over five years for research, in addition to already existing budgets. That's a welcome infusion, and although it will take time for this money to produce results, the size of the allocation is note-worthy. 

But while the resources can help, the funds alone will not help India meet its goal of joining the world's top countries in scientific research. The budgetary allocation needs to be leveraged by a well-researched, coherent policy, one that is clearly different from the past, and whose effects are measurable. A few weeks ago, the government announced the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, 2020, and it is to this document that we must turn to look for signs of an effective new direction.

Earlier STI policies - many goals missed

STI policies have been around since the 1950s, and all of them recognised the potential of STI to contribute to India's economic growth and standing in the world. The Scientific Policy Resolution, 1958 laid the foundation for growth of scientific temper and enterprise as a stepping stone for nation building and national prosperity. This was followed by the Technology Policy Statement, 1983 which promoted technological self-reliance. The Science and Technology Policy 2003 (STP, 2003) put emphasis on increasing research investment to 2 per cent of GDP. STIP2013 aimed to position India amongst the top five scientific powers. 

Continuing this hopeful spirit, STIP2020 envisions major transformations as India pursues the ambition of becoming a science leader. But it does this with no lessons learned from past attempts. National prosperity, technological self-reliance, their spending goals, and leadership among the world's nations are all goals that were not reached. Why? And could STIP2020, written without the benefit of this reflection, also end up as an exercise of setting ambitious targets that are missed by quite a bit?

Illustration: Past policies have failed to turn wishes into outcomes. STIP2020 risks repeating that.

Confusion between vision and policy:

The over-arching impression one gets from the document is that it blurs the line between policy and vision. Policy is a course of action committed to by the government. Usually, government agencies lay out a strategy/vision statement, and subsequently use this strategy to guide policy actions. The STIP2020 confuses between these, and ends up being more visionary in nature. 

For example, in Chapter 2 we read that that “STIP aspires to reach towards sustained investments in science and technology that are necessary to inculcate and promote scientific temper, nurture innovations, and cater to the diverse needs of the country.” This is a great vision statement; but lacks actionable information. An actionable recommendation would instead be that the STIP seeks to increase investment in science and technology by 50 per cent in 5 years or that it seeks a year-on-year increase of 5 per cent. The STIP2020 contains many visionary stances that need to be transformed into precise, measureable policy actions. 

Lack of metrics and use of vague, qualitative language.

There is an overall absence of metrics and data about the current science landscape and the proposed outcomes from this policy. It is ironical that a science policy document lacks data. Chapter 7, which deals with equity and inclusion heralding in creation of inclusive workplace policies, does not give an account of the current demography of Indian scientists, and how the policy hopes to influence that. In fact, the document does itself a great disservice by applauding the success of previous STI policies resulting in the "notable increase in the participation of women in R & D". Without numbers, however, there is no way to be sure if the increase is in fact notable.

The lack of any data on the previous and proposed outcomes prevents any meaningful assessment of achieving objectives. The policy also uses vague, qualitative language instead of precise data, which leaves it open to interpretation. Further, there is also no mention of budgets to perform the various activities outlined in the policy.

Feasibility of initiatives 

The STIP has noble intentions, envisioning a society where everyone can access and practice science easily. The primary issue that hampers Indian science is access. Access to funds, a scientific network and scientific publications is the key to evolve scientific thinking, facilitate high quality research and create career opportunities for scientists. The policy discusses taking science to all Indians, decreasing bureaucratic delays, and establishing more linkages between academia and the private sector.

In response, however, the policy fails to account for current implementation barriers, or recommend ways to address them. Consider the proposal for a "one nation, one subscription" initiative to provide wide-spread access to research publications. It is envisioned that the government will negotiate access rights with publishers on behalf of all Indians. It seeks to secure access to journals for all Indians to foster scientific discussion. 

While this is a grand idea, several operational questions arise. How many papers are currently accessed by Indians? What incentive does a publication house have to sign up to this scheme? How would access be monitored? Is institutional affiliation necessary to access journals and papers? If yes, how can access be ensured to those outside formal institutions? What would be a fair cost for access? How do we train students and teachers to read these papers and build on them? How will outcomes be measured? How will abuse of intellectual property be prevented? The scientific devil is surely in such details.

Lack of learning from previous policies

Similarly, other initiatives such as creating a national STI observatory, earmarking a minimum budget to spend on STI activities, mandating foreign companies to liaise with local entities for research and expecting teachers to research innovation methodologies also need well-defined roadmaps. Each of them appears to represent a possible good goal, but the distance between what is possible and what is plausible has remained high throughout the history of science policy, and STIP2020 doesn't reflect that learning.

STIP2020 also explicitly reiterates some policies that have been focus areas of previous policies. Promoting academia-industry linkages has been a consistent goal of STI policies; yet these linkages have not been achieved. A number of reasons exist for this, including the low level of R and D in the private sector, and the scattered infrastructure and expertise. Those realities have not changed. Policies must evolve in response to facts and events, and while STIP2020 acknowledges this, it doesn't move beyond that to present an alternative.

Missing timelines and budgets

The policy attempts to do too much without any indication of priority or timelines. There is no indication of the dates by which the targets are to be achieved, or the budgets needed to meet each of them fully. It would be helpful to create a priority list of outcomes that can be immediately put into action. The introduction section of the document talks about categorising outcomes to be sought in the short, middle and long terms, but we don't see those categories in the final recommendations. At a minimum, the STIP has to include timelines and budgets for the various initiatives it lays out. 

You can also listen to a podcast episode of All Things Policy on STIP2020 with Shambhavi Naik. Click here to listen.

Conclusion and next steps

The formulation of STIP2020 included multiple stakeholder discussions, followed by working groups that discussed specific aspects, and lots of inputs from experts. It would be very unfortunate if all of this were to come to nought, but that risk is very real. The STIP2020 is a good vision statement to reshaping the policy landscape that governs STI in India. However, the policy itself needs to embrace the scientific thinking it proposes to advance. 

Precise, feasible policies need to be formulated for India's STI sector. An idealistic menu of visions does not serve this purpose. The policy needs to be redrafted into clear outcomes with timelines and budgets, so that Indian citizens and scientists can understand how science will progress in the coming decade.