February 4, 2013

Even as U.S. scientists and policy makers have been wringing their hands over America’s waning influence as a scientific powerhouse, other countries such as India and China and have been steadily building up their own infrastructure for research. Each of them is doing it in their own way and offers important lessons to the U.S. if it wants to hang on to pre-eminence in the international science scene.


With the growing economic presence and rising prowess of India globally, there has been a discernable shift in attitude amongst Indian policy makers from one driven by resource scarcity to that of abundant funding. This is reflected in enhanced investments in science and technology coupled with new strategies slowly building up behind the scenes. The Prime Minister’s Science Advisory Council in India has made some savvy moves of late to promote India’s burgeoning science and technology sphere.


In December 2008, the Indian Government approved the establishment of the Science and Engineering Research Board through an Act of Parliament for promoting basic research and to provide financial assistance to scientists, academic institutions, laboratories, and industrial research units. So now India has in place an autonomous research-funding agency free from bureaucratic controls, along the lines of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States.


Historically there has been a separation between centers of research and centers of learning in India so the concept of a research university as in the U.S. did not exist. This disconnect, seen rightly as a detriment to innovation has now been bridged with the setting up in one fell swoop of 6 new elite institutes that re-integrate research and undergraduate teaching in science in the past 5 years.


Another bold move that the Indian Government is contemplating is investing and partnering in large international projects in the so-called Big Science game. On the table at the moment are two very exciting state of the art Astronomy-Astrophysics projects: IndIGO– to be part of the International Advanced LIGO Consortium and the Thirty Meter Telescope project


These are all strategic and very smart ways to build up the Indian science engine and forge an international presence.



Aspiring to become a science superpower China, has on the other hand adopted some other clever strategies of its own. China is pumping a lot of money into a few identified high impact research areas, one such example is genetics. In order to grow their own talent, they have set up state of the art laboratories and have been enticing top notch Chinese-origin scientists from the U.S.



Does this mean that we in the U.S. are going to fall behind India and China?  The space race spurred by the launch of the Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957 led to unprecedented increases in science and technology spending by the United States. This pumping of resources established American supremacy in science and technology whose reign has only recently flagged. The U.S thrived on acting alone and in competition with the Soviet Union. It is becoming very clear that the model of a lone or a small handful of science super-powers is now obsolete. Several highly successful recent international scientific projects like the HapMap project ( that aims to find genes associated with human disease to facilitate treatments are testimony to the way of the future.


With the current economic crisis and rapid globalization, what it takes to remain or become a science & technology super-power in this highly inter-connected and inter-dependent world has fundamentally changed.


We in the U.S. can retain our pole position only by exploiting the growing inter-dependent and collaborative nature of scientific research – cooperation is the smart move and frankly the only move.  For the U.S. to remain competitive in terms of research and innovation in science and technology, a new cooperative model for pushing the frontiers of research needs to be adopted, one in which the benefits will also be shared. Research and what it takes to advance now requires resources that no one country can provide solely, be it financial, intellectual or material. The pace and demands in any field be it genetics, nano-technology or astronomy can only be met with increased international cooperation and joint projects.


In the Science & Technology landscape, India is our most promising partner. The significant contributions and success of diaspora Indians from Silicon Valley to the halls of academia to national laboratories is testimony to what enhanced cooperation can bring. What India has to offer is a highly skilled and technically well-trained work force to cooperate and collaborate with. Given current demographics India offers a tremendous talent pool to seed collaborative research partnerships.


Science is not a zero-sum game, cutting edge research benefits the entire world, regardless of where it originates. This is the new mantra that we all need to adhere to and assimilate. International cooperation and joining hands is the only way forward to tackle the really big problems and challenges that face us today. Together, we may just save the planet, ourselves, and create a more equitable global society. The future is bright for cooperation in science and technology research for India and the United States.