[Paleopsych] New Scientist: India special: The next knowledge superpower

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India special: The next knowledge superpower

    THE first sign that something was up came about eight years back.
    Stories began to appear in the international media suggesting that
    India was "stealing" jobs from wealthy nations - not industrial jobs,
    like those that had migrated to south-east Asia, but the white-collar
    jobs of well-educated people. Today we know that the trickle of jobs
    turned into a flood. India is now the back office of many banks, a
    magnet for labour-intensive, often tedious programming, and the
    customer services voice of everything from British Airways to

    In reality, the changes in India have been more profound than this
    suggests. Over the past five years alone, more than 100 IT and
    science-based firms have located R&D labs in India. These are not
    drudge jobs: high-tech companies are coming to India to find
    innovators whose ideas will take the world by storm. Their recruits
    are young graduates, straight from India's universities and elite
    technology institutes, or expats who are streaming back because they
    see India as the place to be - better than Europe and the US. The
    knowledge revolution has begun.

    The impact of the IT industry on the economy has been enormous. In
    1999 it contributed 1.3 per cent of India's GDP. Last year that figure
    had grown to 3 per cent. And what's good for one science-based
    industry should be good for others. India has a thriving
    pharmaceutical industry which is restructuring itself to take on the
    world. And biotech is taking off. The attitude is growing that science
    cannot be an exclusively intellectual pursuit, but must be relevant
    economically and socially. The hope among some senior scientists and
    officials is that India can short-cut the established path of
    industrial development and move straight to a knowledge economy.

    For the New Scientist reporters who have been in India for this
    special report, many features of the country stand out. First, its
    scale and diversity. With a population of more than a billion, the
    country presents some curious contrasts. It has the world's 11th
    largest economy, yet it is home to more than a quarter of the world's
    poorest people. It is the sixth largest emitter of carbon dioxide, yet
    hundreds of millions of its people have no steady electricity supply.
    It has more than 250 universities which catered last year for more
    than 3.2 million science students, yet 39 per cent of adult Indians
    cannot read or write.

    These contrasts take tangible form on the outskirts of cities from
    Chennai to Delhi, Mumbai to Bangalore. Here, often next to poor areas,
    great gleaming towers of glass are growing in which knowledge workers
    do their thinking. These images of modernity are a far cry from
    stereotypical India - a place bedevilled alternately by drought and
    flood, of poor farmers and slum-dwellers. Yet both sets of images are
    real - and many others besides.

    High-tech is not the sole preserve of the rich. Fishermen have begun
    using mobile phones to price their catch before they make port, and
    autorickshaw drivers carry a phone so that customers can call for a
    ride. Technology companies are extending internet connections to the
    remotest locations. Small, renewable electricity generators are
    appearing in villages, and the government is using home-grown space
    technology to improve literacy skills and education in far-flung

    These efforts are often piecemeal, and progress is slow. "Illiteracy
    today is reducing only at the rate of 1.3 per cent per annum," says R.
    A. Mashelkar, director-general of the government's Council of
    Scientific and Industrial Research. "At this rate, India will need 20
    years to attain a literacy rate of 95 per cent." He is hopeful that
    technology can speed up this process.

    Science too has its role to play. Critics of India's investment
    priorities ask why the country spends large sums on moon rockets and
    giant telescopes while it is still struggling to find food and water
    for millions of its citizens? The answer is that without science,
    poverty will never be beaten. "You cannot be industrially and
    economically advanced unless you are technologically advanced, and you
    cannot be technologically advanced unless you are scientifically
    advanced," says C. N. R. Rao, the prime minister's science adviser.

Rise of the middle class

    The knowledge revolution is already swelling the ranks of India's
    middle class - already estimated to number somewhere between 130
    million and 286 million. And the gulf in spending power between the
    poor and the comfortably off has never been more apparent. Take cars.
    Sales are rising at more than 20 per cent a year. Before India opened
    up its economy in the early 1990s, only a few models were available,
    almost all home-built. Today, top-end imported cars have become real
    status symbols. Another consequence of the knowledge revolution is
    that the extreme wealth of a new breed of young, high-tech yuppies is
    challenging traditional gender roles and social values.

    Whether the new-found prosperity and excitement of present-day India
    can be sustained will depend crucially on how the government guides
    the country over the next few years. Cheap labour and the widespread
    use of English do not guarantee success, and there are major obstacles
    that the country will need to tackle to ensure continued growth. Take
    infrastructure. Where China has pumped billions into water, road and
    rail projects, India has let them drift. Likewise, companies complain
    that bureaucracy and corruption make doing business far more difficult
    than it ought to be.

    One of the critical issues facing India is the gulf between the
    academic world and industry. The notion that scientific ideas lead to
    technology and from there to wealth is not widespread. This stems in
    large measure from the attitudes prevalent before 1991. Before
    economic liberalisation, competition between Indian companies was
    tame, so they were under no pressure to come up with new ideas, nor
    did academics promote their ideas to industry.

    India's attitude to patents are a product of that mindset. The country
    has no tradition of patenting, and only recently have institutions and
    academics started spinning off companies and filing for patents in
    earnest. Most applications filed in India still come from foreign
    companies. Until this year, the country did not recognise
    international patent rules, a failure that hampered interactions with
    foreign companies.

    The suspicion remains that Indian companies are out to steal ideas,
    says Gita Sharma, chief scientific officer of Magene Life Sciences, a
    start-up company in Hyderabad. "We are not yet able to wipe away that
    image." And while India has now adopted those international rules on
    paper, there are still concerns about how strictly they will be
    enforced. "It will take a couple of years before the full implications
    play out," says Sankar Krishnan, a biotechnology analyst for McKinsey
    and Company in Mumbai.

    Bringing research round to a more commercial way of thinking is not
    the only issue that academia must face up to. Another cultural
    problem, according to some scientists, is that too often institutions
    have an ethos of playing safe. Researchers who devise and test daring
    theories are criticised if they fail, discouraging the kind of
    ground-breaking research that India needs.

    There is a widespread view that the entire university system needs an
    overhaul. India awards only 5000 science PhDs a year, says Mashelkar,
    yet it should be producing 25,000. There are funding problems and
    political interference in the running of some universities,
    particularly those run by state governments. In response, central
    government has decided to select 30 universities, give them extra
    money, and mentor and monitor them to create a series of elite

    But such changes will be for nothing if students choose not to study
    science. In recent years, increasing numbers have chosen to study IT
    and management because that's where money is to be made. "IT and
    outsourcing has improved the economy and quality of life of people,
    but has had a negative effect on science," Rao says. Mashelkar hopes
    that as science-based companies grow, and demand for fresh blood
    increases, salaries will rise and more students will opt for science.

Chasing China

    These problems must be solved if India is to capitalise on its recent
    gains, and there are hopeful signs that Indian science is improving in
    the global scheme of things. Its share of the top, highly cited
    publications has increased, but it is starting from a very low base.
    The government spends only $6 billion a year on research and it still
    has fewer scientists per head of population than China or South Korea.

    India's greatest rival has always been its giant neighbour to the
    north. While IT and services are helping India log 6 per cent
    year-on-year increases in GDP, China's vast manufacturing base is
    raising its GDP by around 9 per cent a year. Even in India's strong
    suit of knowledge-based industries, China could still steal the march
    on it, not least because its Communist government can command change,
    while in India the democratic government can only guide national

    Nevertheless, the rewards for India of a thriving science-based
    economy could be huge. The investment bank Goldman Sachs estimates
    that if India gets everything right it will have the third largest
    economy in the world by 2050, after China and the US. India is not yet
    a knowledge superpower. But it stands on the threshold.

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