Spending on R&D will determine India’s future progress, key message of the latest UNESCO Science Report

Spending on R&D will determine India’s future progress, key message of the latest UNESCO Science Report

Share this article Share this article
published Published on Jul 15, 2021   modified Modified on Jul 16, 2021

Scientific knowledge has immensely helped in combating the dreadful coronavirus and its spread. Within a record short period of time, scientists (including virologists, epidemiologists, biostatisticians, etc.) and their research outputs helped the commoners to learn more about the SARS-CoV-2 and how it spreads from one individual to the next one. Common people have now come to know how simple techniques and behavioural change like the wearing of N95 masks, maintaining physical distance and following hand hygiene could help them in not getting infected by the coronavirus. A large number of vaccines against coronavirus have come into existence within a year since the outbreak of the pandemic happened to save humanity. All these recent developments pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic underscores that the national governments need to make a significant amount of investment in research and development (R&D), and they should take the responsibility to create scientific temper in the society through science education. 

Article 51A(h) of the Constitution of India 1949 states that it shall be the duty of every citizen of India to "develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform." In this context, it is important to highlight what the recently released UNESCO Science Report says about the scientific achievements made by India. Published every five years, the new Science Report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) provides an overview of science and science policy

Titled UNESCO Science Report 2021: The race against time for smarter development, the report says that although countries of all income levels are prioritising their transition to ‘green’ (i.e. from non-renewable energy to renewable energy) and digital (i.e. digital technologies such as artificial intelligence-AI and robotics, big data, the Internet of Things and block chain technology which are converging with nanotechnology, biotechnology and cognitive sciences to form the bedrock of the Fourth Industrial Revolution) economies, businesses are not always supporting the agenda of their national governments, either for lack of motivation or capacity; many businesses still rely on importing packaged technologies, instead of developing their own. They are often found to be reluctant to collaborate with public research institutions.

On one hand, the clock is ticking for the countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 and on the other hand, the countries are convinced that their future economic competitiveness will be determined by the pace of their transition to digital societies. The report’s subtitle, ‘the race against time for smarter development’, is an allusion to these twin priorities.

The report has stated that there is a significant level of disparity among the countries in terms of their investment in scientific research and knowledge creation. It has been revealed by the recently released UNESCO report that just two countries, the United States of America and China, account for nearly two-thirds of the increase in spending on science worldwide between 2014 and 2018 (almost 63 percent) while four out of five countries of the world lag far behind, investing less than 1 percent of their GDP in scientific research. Kindly note that the expenditure on science worldwide increased by roughly 19 percent between 2014 and 2018 and the total number of scientists grew by 13.7 percent during that span. 

The G20 -- an intergovernmental forum comprising 19 countries and the European Union -- continues to account for almost nine-tenths of research expenditure, researchers, publications and patents. In some countries of the world, the researcher population has risen faster than the related expenditure, leaving less funding available to each researcher.

Written by 70 authors from 52 countries, the UNESCO Science Report has aggregated data on spending, personnel, scientific publications and patents. Authored by Dr. Sunil Mani (who is Director and Professor of the Reserve Bank of India Chair at the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, Kerala), the chapter on India (Chapter-22 of the report; page number 605-621) in the 2021 UNESCO Science Report shows that in each of the years between 2009 and 2019, the annual rate of economic growth has remained above 5 percent; in 2015 and 2016, economic growth crossed 8.0 percent annually. Yet it is found that in India, the Gross Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD) as a proportion of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has remained almost the same (i.e. 0.70 percent) between 2014 and 2019. However, the country's GERD as a proportion of its GDP stayed above 0.8 percent in each of the years between 2008 and 2013. In 2012 and 2013, GERD as a proportion of India's GDP surpassed 0.9 percent annually. Please consult figure-1.

Figure 1: GERD as a proportion of GDP during 2008-2019 (in percentage)

Source: UNESCO Science Report 2021: The race against time for smarter development,  please click here to access

Sectoral analysis of India's GERD shows that in 2015, the share of businesses in GERD was 33.2 percent, the government's share in GERD was 55.9 percent, higher education's share in GERD was 6.4 percent and private non-profit's share in GERD was 4.5 percent. In 2018, the share of businesses in GERD was 36.8 percent, the government's share in GERD was 56.1 percent and higher education's share in GERD was 7.1 percent. Please see figure-2.

Figure 2: GERD in India by sector of performance, 2015 and 2018 (in percent) 

Source: Same as figure-1

With an average overall GERD over the past two decades of 0.75 percent of GDP (see figure-1), the country has one of the lowest GERD/GDP ratios among the BRICS (i.e. Brazil, Russian Federation, India, China and South Africa), although in absolute terms, research expenditure has risen consistently over the past 14 years, mentions the UNESCO Science Report. It should be noted that China's GERD as a proportion of its GDP has systematically risen from 1.66 percent to 2.23 percent between 2009 and 2019.

Insufficient level of domestic investment in R&D has been identified as one of the impediments towards achieving the SDG target 9.5. Please note that the SDG target 9.5 calls upon to “enhance scientific research, upgrade the technological capabilities of industrial sectors in all countries, in particular developing countries, including, by 2030, encouraging innovation and substantially increasing the number of research and development workers per 1 million people and public and private research and development spending.” Research intensity is found to be stagnant in India (as indicated above in figure-1) and patenting by domestic corporations, research institutes, universities and individuals has remained quite low, according to the report.          

It further mentions that "India’s research intensity has been declining since 2014. The Science and Technology Policy of 2003 fixed the threshold of devoting 2% of GDP to research and development (R&D) by 2007. This target date was set back to 2018 in the new Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (2013) then again to 2022 by the Economic Advisory Council of the Prime Minister. In 2020, the task force drafting the country’s new Science and Technology Policy recommended pushing back the target date to a more realistic 2030. As of October 2020, no date has yet been set for the policy’s official release."

Since 2015, one could witness a steady fall in the share of R&D performed by the government sector. Simultaneously, the private business enterprise sector has increased its own contribution to 42 percent of the GERD. The GERD is primarily concentrated in a handful of industries, firms and states, led by the pharmaceutical, automotive, information technology and defence sectors. There has been a rise in R&D investment by the foreign multinational corporations (MNCs), accounting for as much as 16 percent of private sector investment in R&D in 2019, or 13 percent when public-sector enterprises were included in the calculation. The country should try to reap maximum benefits out of the R&D investment done by the MNCs, suggests the report. The key challenge for the country will be to ensure that the current increase in business expenditure on R&D becomes systematic, as has been noted for China and the Republic of Korea.

The total number of patents granted to inventors who are foreign residents exceeded the total number of patents granted to inventors who are Indian residents (by the country’s national patent office) in each of the years between 2003 and 2017. The gap between the total number of patents granted to inventors who are foreign residents and the total number of patents granted to inventors who are Indian residents (by the country’s national patent office) has widened in recent years. Please refer to figure-3. 

Figure 3: Patents granted by India’s national patent office to inventors residing in India and abroad, 2003-2017  

Source: Same as figure-1

The total number of IP5 patents granted to Indian inventors was 11,190 in 2015, 12,456 in 2016, 12,184 in 2017, 11,916 in 2018 and 12,905 in 2019. It should be noted that IP5 refers to the US Patent and Trademark Office, European Patent Office, Japanese Patent Office, Korean Intellectual Property Office and State Intellectual Property Office of the People’s Republic of China. Investment in intellectual property products (IPP) as a proportion of India’s GDP was 2.9 percent in 2012, 3.2 percent in 2013, 2.9 percent in 2014, 3.5 percent in 2015, 3.8 percent in 2016 and 3.9 percent in 2017.

On combating COVID-19, the Fondation Ipsen funded UNESCO Science Report has advised the government to "identify new ways of financing relevant research projects or to effect changes to international rules with respect to intellectual property rights, in general, and patents, in particular, to facilitate domestic development of technologies. Such changes could entail exempting vaccines and therapeutic drugs for Covid-19 from a product patent regime and relaxing the conditions under which a compulsory license may be issued for the manufacture of generic versions of patented Covid-19 drugs." 

The report has observed that the Indian inventors are primarily active in two industries: software development and pharmaceuticals, with the former continuing to dominate utility patents. The majority of software-related patents are obtained by MNCs operating from India, whereas almost all the pharmaceutical patents are obtained by domestic pharmaceutical companies.

The 2021 UNESCO Science Report has stated that the total number of researchers (in full-time equivalents) per million inhabitants in India has increased from 216 in 2015 to 253 in 2018. The share of female researchers among total researchers in India has gone up from 13.9 percent to 18.7 percent between 2015 and 2018.

The total number of researchers (in full-time equivalents) per million inhabitants in China has grown from 1,159 in 2015 to 1,225 in 2017.

Kindly note that the two official indicators used to measure progress towards SDG target 9.5 are:

9.5.1: Research and development expenditure as a proportion of GDP (also called research intensity)

9.5.2: Researchers (in full-time equivalents) per million inhabitants (also called researcher density)

The UNESCO Science Report has found that the Indian researchers are publishing between 1.5 and 1.8 times the global average on smart-grid technologies, photovoltaics, biofuels and biomass and wind turbine technologies, complementing the government’s push to expand green energy sources. The total number of scientific publications in India has climbed up from 80,458 to roughly 1.61 lakh between 2011 and 2019.

Globally, more than 70 percent of publications remain largely inaccessible to the majority of researchers, causing inequality and inefficiency in scientific and knowledge related activities. The UNESCO has been working on new models for the circulation and dissemination of scientific knowledge since 2019, when it started preparing a global standard-setting instrument for open science.

The density of scientists and engineers is one of the lowest among BRICS countries, despite rising to some extent in recent years. The phenomenon of 'jobless growth' since 1991 has worsened and  in 2017, the size of the workforce actually shrunk for the first time since independence. The low employability of graduates is another concern for the policymakers, including those enrolled in STEM subjects (i.e. science, technology, engineering and mathematics), although this indicator improved over 2014–2019. 

The UNESCO Science Report has identified the key targets for the country, which are as follows:

* raise GERD to 2 percent of GDP by 2030;
* achieve 175 GW of green energy capacity by 2022;
* meet 40 percent of India’s electricity needs through green energy sources by 2030;
* populate India with a fleet of 6–7 million electric and hybrid vehicles by 2020;
* raise the number of charging stations for electric vehicles to 1,000 by 2030; and
* train about 400 million people by 2022 under the National Skills Development Mission.

Among other things, the report has asked for improving linkages between the start-up ecosystem and manufacturers, in order to push technological development in sectors in which India has a global presence, such as health care. Start-ups, which got a big boost since the launch of the Start-up India initiative in 2016, remain concentrated in the services sector, in general, and software development, in particular. 


UNESCO Science Report 2021: The race against time for smarter development, released on 11th June, 2021, please click here to access  

Press release: UNESCO report calls for substantial increases in investment in science in the face of growing crises, UNESCO Science Report 2021, released on 11th June, 2021, please click here to access 

Executive Summary of UNESCO Science Report 2021: The race against time for smarter development, released on 11th June, 2021, please click here to access

Chapter 22 on India, in UNESCO Science Report 2021: The race against time for smarter development, released on 11th June, 2021, please click here to access

UNESCO Institute for Statistics Visualisation on R&D investment, please click here to access

Review: UNESCO Science Report highlights the need for increased R&D spending in India -Bharath Kancharla, Factly.in, 25 June, 2021, please click here to access  

India’s investment in research unsatisfactory: UNESCO report -Tiki Rajwi, The Hindu, 13 June, 2021, please click here to access  

Image Courtesy: UNESCO Science Report 2021: The race against time for smarter development

Related Articles


Write Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Video Archives


share on Facebook
Read Later

Contact Form

Please enter security code