Thursday, September 16, 2010

A clearer understanding of India's research performance needs both progress reports and snapshots

It's easy to get depressed after reading articles (such as the scientometric study I linked to yesterday) that provide a snapshot of the state of science (or, academia in general) in India. But snapshots do not tell us anything at all about the tremendous changes that we have been seeing and experiencing in India in the past decade or so.

To get a good sense of the direction and pace of these changes, what we need are studies that track India's progress over the last several decades.

Such progress reports that I know of -- even with their limited scope and depth [see here, here, here, here, and the links therein] -- give us no cause for pessimism.

In fact, the broad trend is quite encouraging: science in India is growing both broader and deeper. Compared to, say, a mere couple of decades ago, there are now many more centres of scientific research; most of these centres have a greater research intensity (for example, each of the original five IITs more than doubled its research publications during this past decade); and there are many more Indian scientists who are at or near the top in their respective fields.

And then there's research funding. We have a lot more of it now than even a decade ago.

Each one of these trends is a cause for cheer; put them all together, we should actually be celebrating -- without getting complacent!

[If you want to wallow in pessimism, all you need to do is to listen to some of our pundits who refuse to think beyond cliches: Nobel still eludes us! China is progressing faster! Our share in publications is just 3 percent! Nobel winners don't cite our scientists' papers!]

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Not entirely unrelated, here's an excerpt from this NYTimes story whose alternate title might well be "Asia Ascending":

The Asia-Pacific region increased its global share of published science articles from 13 percent in the early 1980s to just over 30 percent in 2009, according to the Thomson Reuters National Science Indicators, an annual database that records the number of articles published in about 12,000 internationally recognized journals. Meanwhile, the proportion of articles from the United States dropped to 28 percent in 2009, down from 40 percent in the early 1980s.

China is leading the way, having increased its share of articles to 11 percent in 2009 from just 0.4 percent in the early 1980s. Japan is next, accounting for 6.7 percent, followed by India with 3.4 percent. While its overall percentage remains small, Singapore — with a population of just under five million — has increased its number of indexed articles from 200 in 1981 to 8,500 in 2009. [Bold emphasis added]