Feature writing –Why China surges ahead and India lags in Science, compared to the U.S

China’s long strides in science leaves the U.S. in unease, while India flounders in its efforts to draw level

After a period of stubborn denial, America now concedes that its rival China has done close to it in many areas of science and technology. The restrictive steps such as sanctions and export controls against China have failed to slow down its progress to claim its place as a scientific power.  Just like the way Americans reacted with dismay and disbelief when the Soviet Union stole a march over them by launching the Sputnik in 1957, America’s scientific community and the U.S. government have woken up to the reality of rival China catching up with them in so demonstratable manner.

The U.S. is still the world leader in some niche areas of science and technology. China can not hope to challenge America’s dominance in these areas. However, in umpteen domains like Information Technology, Pharmaceutical research, Space technology, Quantum Computing, Semiconductors, Chip-making etc. China has emerged as a potential global giant to stand up to America’s towering presence.

Even in relatively low-tech areas such as solar cells, electric vehicles, battery technology and many more, China has left the U.S. behind. China’s high-quality, but relatively cheap electric cars have won the hearts of the European customers. The surge in sales of Chinese electric cars now threatens the European auto giants in their own backyards. As a knee-jerk reaction, the European Union has hiked import duty on Chinese EVs. The U.S. has totally closed its doors to Chinese EVs. But how long can such barriers hold? A good product, reasonably priced, will find its customer in any part of the world, sooner or later.

Some U.S. citizens, particularly from among the Republicans are clamoring for aggressive steps to deny China of any help in its scientific research. They maintain that these students eventually return to their homeland to aid the research activities and innovation there. So, the Republicans say, the U.S. must curb the entry of Chinese students to its academic spheres. The Republicans allege that the innocuous-looking students are Chinese spies whose aim is to steal scientific secrets to be passed on to Chinese scientists working in the homeland. On the surface of it, such a demand looks to be in American interest, but is it really so?

It has resulted in a growing reluctance on the part of some leading universities in the United States and Europe to allow Chines graduate students and scientists to work shoulder to shoulder with their hosts in American research labs and universities. This has somewhat blighted the bilateral relations between the two countries.

America has historically been regarded as the global hub of cutting-edge scientific research. It attracts the best of scientific talent from all countries, friend or foe. Its liberal stance towards foreign students has bolstered its own scientific prowess. Even at the height of the Cold War, scientists of the Soviet Union and the U.S. worked together in many scientific projects.

China is now a scientific superpower. This might sound unpleasant for the Americans and Europeans who still retain a snobbish attitude towards any new scientific advance emanating from the East, but a majority in the West grudgingly admit that China possibly has outpaced the U.S. in some key areas. China’s research labs are awash with the most advanced equipment, and devices. The laboratories are manned by world-beating scientific manpower. Such spectacular success has resulted from the decades-long government focus on developing China as global power in science and technology. The funding has come from government coffers. In the U.S., scientific research is mostly funded by the private sector. It results in greater accountability for the recipient entities.

The question now arises whether the U.S. needs to adopt increasingly secretive approach towards global talent pool, particularly from China or keep its science gateway open to non-American talent. The ultra-sensitive areas in the field of military and space may be guarded off against foreign espionage, but throwing open doors for collaborative research in fields like climate change, farm sector growth, epidemic control, ocean studies etc. will reinforce America’s standing as a benign scientific power. The whole world will benefit, not only China and the U.S. through such a open-door policy.

Coming to India, the most populous country on earth, things look so dismal. India produces as many number of engineering graduates as China does, but most of them languish without jobs, and a good part among them are ‘unemployable’ due to various flaws in their education. The education sector presents a bleak and depressing. Unlike the Nehruvian era, the country now looks averse to scientific thinking. Too much religion, sectarian politics and aggressive privatization of education have dampened India’s progress in science and technology. The number of high-quality research papers published by Indian scientists is a tiny fraction of what their Chinese and American counterparts separately do each year.. India’s poor show in the areas of innovation is reflected in the very small number of patents granted to Indians.

The number of Indian students going to the U.S. and Europe for doing their MS in science is almost equal to what China sends abroad. So, why does India fail to utilize them to propel the country to the front in science and technology? The blame lies squarely on the politicians. Barring three or four central ministers, all others have no education worth mentioning. In the same way, just one or two chief ministers can show a respectable university degree. Vice-chancellors of universities are political appointees, not scholars of repute. Under such leadership, scientific research remains a distant  and low-priority idea. The top leadership of the country seem unconcerned.

There are scores of eminent professors and scientists of Indian origin working in research labs and universities around the world. Sadly, very few of them would prefer coming back to the country of their birth to continue their stellar work. The government does nothing to entice them to return. Private sector investment in science and technology is paltry, because there is no incentive for such spending. No wonder, India imports most of its technological needs rather than developing them at home using its own manpower. Such is the depressing environment prevailing in India. So long as the average Indian gets his monthly free ration and basks in the glory of the past centuries, the nation will remain a low ranker in science and technology. A drastic rethinking is the need of the hour.




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