March 18, 2023
From MR Online

I MET Prof Thomas Kailath seven years back in Delhi, where he talked about how India was on par if not leading, with countries like China in science and technology in the 90s but falling rapidly behind China today with its much bigger investments. Kailath, originally from Kerala but settled in the U.S., is one of the foremost names in the world in communications, control and signal processing. I remembered his words while reading the recent startling headlines that China has become the world leader in 37 of 44 critical technologies evaluated by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). The U.S., the undisputed leader a decade ago in almost all these technologies, leads in only seven, though it is second to China in all other critical technologies. India and the UK lead the rest, with Germany, South Korea, Italy, Australia and Japan following them.

While we in India can take some consolation that we might be losing out to China in a big way but are now on par, if not leading the erstwhile colonial powers, this tracker has sent alarm bells ringing in the U.S. Till now, they had felt comfortable in the belief that while China may be emerging as a peer competitor in the global economy, the U.S. and its European allies control technology and, therefore, could strangle China in a tech war. This is the genesis of the chip war against China, which the U.S. believed could be expanded to other areas as well. If this technology tracker is to be believed, the horse has truly bolted from the stable!

How seriously should we take such a tracker? Can we really measure science and technology outputs? A simple quantitative analysis of research outputs is of no great value as both the quality of the journals and the papers can be very different. Without going into details, the ASPI tracker has used a variety of measures to weigh the quality of papers and their authors to build their index of global leaders in terms of institutions and researchers, not simply high-impact papers. The proof, according to ASPI, is that such a tracker would have shown that China was the world leader in hypersonics much earlier. ASPI writes in its report, “
according to our data analysis, over the past five years, China generated 48.49% of the world’s high-impact research papers into advanced aircraft engines, including hypersonics, and it hosts seven of the world’s top 10 research institutions in this topic area.” The U.S. should not have been surprised by China’s hypersonic missile test in 2021.

Any tracker of science and technology can be criticised on methodological grounds. Are these indicators the only ones to be considered? How biased are these indicators to the outcomes that the researchers may want? Is the choice of language/languages biasing the results towards a more anglophone view of the world? These are questions that are and should be asked of any such study. But it is difficult to fault the broad outcomes, meaning the results across the board on a range of topics do show trends that are difficult to contest. There is just too much evidence that the U.S. and the west are losing ground to China and even India.

There are two other interesting results in the technology tracker. One is that Iran also shows up as a presence in the top five countries in specific areas of technology, though it is not in the same league as India, European Union and Japan. But its presence in the league, despite a regime of 50 years of economic and technology sanctions, shows that the world of knowledge is porous. Iran has a history of developing and sharing knowledge. Neither the fundamentalists nor the U.S. sanctions can keep the Iranian people from becoming a participant in the global knowledge economy.

The second important data is that a large part of the high-impact papers and people are from people who have not studied abroad. Let us take the example of China. Though the ASPI tracker makes much of the fact that 20 per cent of the high-impact papers and scientists are from those who have studied in the west —the U.S., EU or UK—the converse is striking: fully 80 per cent of the high-impact papers and scientists did not study abroad but in China. With such a core of scientists and technologists, it is not surprising that some of the most high-impact institutions are in China. And the impact in the U.S. of legal prosecution of Chinese faculty and researchers—the China Initiative—will only accelerate this trend. It is not surprising that the U.S. is now winding down its Trump-era China Initiative, which targeted leading researchers of Chinese origin in science and technology.

Though the western media has not reported on India, apart from India being on par with the European leaders, if not ahead of them in many areas, the same trend of science and tech researchers from Indian institutions is also visible in the tracker results. There is a very nice chart in the tracker that shows the source and destination, including the return of the researchers. Again, a significant part of the research in India is done by those who did not go abroad for higher education. Our leading institutions are today able to produce researchers who carry out high-impact research. This is indeed a welcome validation of India’s post-independence self-reliance model.

The interesting part of the ASPI Tracker Report is not simply identifying the position of countries in what can be considered a race akin to Olympic Games in science and technology but on the concept behind China’s rise as a global power. It is the vision of China’s self-reliance: from the universities/institutions to the industry. It is the same holistic vision of self-reliance, not only buying technology and investing in the industry but also setting up the institutions that can support and develop such technology. China, like India earlier, talked of self-reliance and the “made in China” model of development. It is not only money as capital that develops a nation but knowledge as capital that is the foundation of a self-reliant industry.

In the Modi era’s Make in India, foreign capital to invest in India and make India great again, what is forgotten is that knowledge is critical. Capital is not just money but knowledge as the congealed labour of the scientific workers, the scientists. That is why Marx talks of the labour of scientists (and technologists) as closest to universal labour. And for a country to advance, it needs to invest in building science and technology institutions.

That is why what the University Grants Commission is doing under Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar is so appalling and threatens to destroy higher education in the country. After mounting an all-out attack on the teachers and students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, he is threatening to repeat that on the entire higher education in the country. If his writ runs in India’s higher education, it will convert India’s institutions essentially as feeders to institutions abroad and destroy India as a centre of advanced learning. This, coupled with inviting foreign universities to set up shops here, is an invitation to foreign institutions to streamline picking bright students from India, exporting them to the “mother” countries, and making money from others by “selling” their degrees. Does anybody seriously believe that the U.S. and others will invest the very large sums required to set up laboratories and the research infrastructure required for any advanced institutions?

Finally, what explains wooing Australian universities to set up centres in India? Is it because we have no money? Are we not then an emerging power on par with China? Or is it simply the belief that the white man will help uplift Indian education simply by their presence and signboards?