Public Issues, Strategy

Why Indians, but not India lead in Research?


We welcome our latest strater, Chandini Jain who is an undergraduate student at Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Kanpur. She has been the Dance Club President at IIT Kanpur and is currently interning at University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign.


I recently came across an interesting piece of news. The U.S House of Representatives passed a resolution in 2005 honoring the contributions of Indian Americans, especially the IIT graduates to American society. The resolution states, “Whereas IIT graduates are highly committed and dedicated to research, innovation, and promotion of trade and international cooperation between India and the United States”. It seems ironical, that while the innovations and technological changes attributable to Indians are widely recognized and honored, there is a dearth of internationally recognized research output from within India itself. The state of research in India is evident from a McKinsey study that observes that a typical IIT was granted 3-6 patents in 1996-97 against 64 for Stanford Engineering and 102 for MIT Engineering. Also, the number of citations per faculty in 1993-98 was 2-3 for a typical IIT, while it was 52 in the case of Stanford Engineering and 45 for MIT Engineering.

Any sorts of research, apart from a researcher studying and investigating the topic of interest, and demands resources, both in the form of the lab, tools, facilities and funds required to carry out the work, and a demand or value for the output from that research.  The industry with the demand for the output generally provides the financial backing for the work.

A comparison between the academic research scenarios in India and the US reveals several stark differences between the two. The most obvious are the Brain Drain and the lack of funding opportunities. We find the most brilliant of Indian minds opting to drive the technological advances in a foreign lab, than working here in India. But again, a foreign lab allows them the luxury of carrying out capital intensive research. Working in a lab back in India, they will first have to struggle against the shortage of resources, and unavailability of state of the art facilities, before they can hope to compete with their foreign counterparts. As an undergraduate intern in research group in a university in the U.S, I was allowed to order tools worth 400$ every week. However, working on a bigger project in a central lab in India, I was unable to obtain a simple instrument, essential to the accuracy of my project, worth just 5k during the entire intern. It had an adverse effect both on the speed of the work, and the quality of results.

Another difference is in the attitude towards research. While research in the U.S is centered on originality and innovation, in India it tends to move on the lines of work already done in reputed labs abroad. A factor for this would be the university-industry collaboration, which is one of the primary sources of funding and hence tends to shape the research trends. Industries in the U.S are constantly looking for new breakthroughs and developments, and also liberally support research promising new cutting edge technologies. The Indian Government and industries on the other hand are looking to attain self reliance first, and hence tend to support research that could reduce import of technology from abroad. The focus in most of the research labs is hence on attempting production of technology already available abroad in the country itself. I can quote the recent Chandrayaan Project by the Indian Government as an example, which I was a part of. It requires development of lunar rovers and spacecrafts suitable for lunar landing. Such projects have already been undertaken by NASA 40 years ago, and our group was instructed to use their work as a guide, and model most of my work after it.

Indians may power the Silicon Valley, or drive the indices at NASDAQ, but we are currently not in a position to attain notable success in quality research from within the country itself.  Research accelerates development, but we are yet to reach the level of development that can promote original research. Research output from India till then can be expected to trail behind that in other countries.



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13 thoughts on “Why Indians, but not India lead in Research?

  1. Dishant says:

    Research facilities in India must improve , as research drives Development.
    How many out of the 3 lac engineers produced by country every year,do get a chance to enter in Research & Development ?.Almost Zilch! , cause there are less opportunities and Innovation here in India.
    We want many more Rajiv Gandhis,Sam Pitroda..who can bring many more revolutions in the field of Technological innovation and reforms.

  2. The post is quite methodical well researched. But I must point out the irrelevance of the decade and a half old data.

    I agree that the indian institutes still lag far behind in the reasearch area but to say that India lags behind would not be the whole truth. Take pharmaceuticals for example… India is the hub of all activity.

    For us to consider reasearch, we need to consider entirely different statistics. But then again, stats can be used as suited. Anyhoo, here’s the thing…
    Stats are that while in the US they outsource a lot of their research to the univs and such, in India we follow backward integration. Every big company boasts of a big RnD sector; it might be cheaper – it might be the lack of infrastructure.

    Stats are that the growth rate compunded by Indian Research, including that of agriculture is far more than the developed countries. You obv cannot put a developing and an industrial giant on the same platform, not now at least.

    I agree to lot of the points here, there is a drastic need for infrastctural development. I guess the present govt agrees as well 🙂

  3. Kaushik says:

    What you have written regarding brain-drain was applicable 5-6 years back, when going to the US was considered “cool” and any Tom, Peter and Harry rushed off to embrace Uncle Sam just for the heck of it.

    However, things are definitely going for the better, as Bafna has pointed out. Perhaps you have not seen the transition phase when even Indian institutes started upgrading facilities for research 3-4 years back. Now even the top students are going for research in Indian labs – as there is better scope of innovation at the grassroots level – macro-research, if you may call it. And most of it is original.

    Though I agree on the points that we need some more funds to carry on the good work (yes, good work gets started here, but somehow meanders due to lack of funding).

    Chandini, what do you say to this suggestion – lets make the B-Tech and M-Tech projects at IITs start from the 5th semester itself, with better grades and funding and opportunities for original work. Do you think it would work?

  4. Chandini says:

    To add to the data about faculty citations, the two IIT’s featuring in THE’s top 200 institutes list scored 47 and 43 points on a scale of 100 in the citation index, compared to the top universities scoring between 90-100.

    I agree that the Indian institutes have definitely upgraded facilities, but the current focus in research in India is to attempt production of technologies that are imported from abroad. The scope for innovation is hence reduced. For example, a lot of research in automobile industries in India is on the development of indigenous efficient Anti braking lock systems, a technology which is still majorly imported, and hence increases the overall costs.

  5. Chandini says:

    I agree that brain drain has reduced. But if we talk of the RnD sector alone, a typical Indian student looks towards the US to pursue higher studies, and it is a well known fact that a majority of them are then employed in the academia or the research sector there itself.

    Kaushik makes a good suggestion, but apart from providing the necessary funds and opportunities, out of box thinking should be promoted and encouraged to bring about a change. The whole idea afterall is about how Indians have shown the ability to lead when provided with the required funds, infrastructure and support.

  6. Pushkar says:

    I want to put a different perspective on research in India. Apart from Academia Chandini’s post mentions industry.
    In my internship in a research lab in India, I had a first hand experience of the state of research even in the corporate sector.
    For applications, mainly in hardware and product development; there are a lot of bottlenecks like government approvals and a lack of state-of-the art facilities, like fab-labs. For the project I was working on, the company preferred to delay project by a month to get proper approval from the US-FDA, since the approval from Indian government authorities is not considered good enough.

    Once an Idea germinates up to the product development stage it is sent to the on-shore arm of the company. I believe infrastructure is a big hurdle towards ‘true’ research in India.

  7. Utkarsh Shukla says:

    Well I would like to say first something about the kaushiks post, It is not the Btechs and the Mtechs that do the research work, its the PHD´s. India lacks in original research because the answer is so simple,India does not wants to do it. Neither the government policies support the research, and since the research is so developed in US company find import of research ideas from US to be much cheap. Take example, Even the Simran Project working much fine was once thought to be scrapped as Germany provided a better solution but it continued only because govt said lets help Indian research. The thing is like take Germany, here I see that even the poorest gets 400 euro. So here the govt and companies can focus on research but India has to tackle much harder problems of poverty and economic stability.

  8. Chandini, a very well articulated article. I think a conscious effort is being made towards improving Phd programs in India, but funding gap will remain for a long time.

    I got an opportunity to interact with John E. Hopcraft, author of Introduction to Automata Theory who termed as “world class undergraduate institutions”.

    An interesting question to answer is, if funding the only gap between research in India and US or is there something more?

  9. A nice, insightful article.

    I have a point to add however, which is related to the lack of encouragement for innovation that you mentioned. The “safe” Indian mentality seems to spill over into research as feel, where one is encouraged to take tested paths to attain reasonable results, than to try exploring new grounds. It seems we dont yet have the belief or the ambition to make it big with something original. Most people and companies are content to do what the world did decades back, but for a cheaper cost, to ensure a decent business margin. Even the attitude grounded into people through their life so as to not question elders and pre-accepted notions dulls our scientific temper.

    Plus the lack of work ethic in most indian workplaces, where hard work is not recognised and rewarded.

  10. utkarsh says:

    Well i doubt a bit about the thing when you say about the attitude of not questioning the established notions, as the present india is seeing the tremendous rise in the entrepreneurs. Well i would plainly put it as two points:
    1) For the student perspective why should he work and do the research, he is not getting paid much for the work where as his counterparts in the industry are getting much more.
    2) For the company perspective, why should they spend in research in some Indian university when the foreign institutes had been doing it for many years.
    I tell you my Example, Nvidia was ready to fund my research everything, but the prof. did not agreed, as he himself was not confident. So then I lost all the interest in that project and now I am at Germany and when i told these guys they are like amazed that how can a 2nd year btech do such a thing.

    So you see the companies dont want to fund much and those who are excited too do not get good results so stop funding.

    3) So left is the case of prof who can lead a good research, But the thing is like he also can not do much as most of what you say brain drain took better people to foreign and the people doing PHD are not competent enough to perform well, moreover Industry have not much confidence so they are short of funds too.

    This can be increased only if Govt takes steps.
    I appreciate Railways for giving projects. But lets take Germany there are Max Plank and Fraunhofer institutes which are reseach institutes, and govt spends a lot on them, but the Indian govt cant spend much on research as it has whole bunch of issues to tackle. I myself support that instead of spending 1 crore on some research in Nanotechnology, it would be much better to spend it amongst poor. So i dont think the condition of research might increase drastically unless we guys feel for india and try to do research here in how much limited resources. 🙂

  11. Kaushik says:

    Utkarsh, when you say that Btechs and MTechs do not do do research – you just sum up the mentality that prevails in the technical colleges, and why India lags behind others.

    It is this exact mentality that I am trying to address – a project spread over 4-6 semesters with proper encouragement and funding can provide good results.

    As far as my point of micro-research is concerned – there are a number of institutes which are organizing entrepreneurship and research summits ( to help the budding researchers showcase their skills. And Chandini, promotion of out-of-the-box thinking starts here.

    Utkarsh, again when you say India does not do original research because it doesn’t want to – you
    are trying to brush the matter under the carpet under one go. Original research is indeed happening, albeit at a much smaller scale. We do not have big-bang discoveries to announce to the world, but we are small steps related to research in agriculture related activities.

    I realize all of you who have posted here have interned at foreign universities and have been impressed by the ethics and work culture and funding there (at the same time do not forget that 1 USD = Rs. 49 and 1 GBP = Rs. 80), but I request you to at least visit some of the dedicated research organizations in India like PRL, NIO, NGRI etc to see the work being done there.

    Finally Chandini, when you say that an average Indian student who wants to pursue research still looks to the US, I think you are thinking of only IITs and other top engineering colleges and painting the entire lot with one brush. A lot of original work and thinking takes place in India, and done by students who do not study at these places. After all, innovation is not the prerogative of only engineers, that too, from top engineering colleges. And research does not only mean academia.

  12. AT_korvus says:

    @Utkarsh: Agree with a lot of what you have said. I have seen the same mentality from the profs during my undergrad days. However, its unfair to say that all he profs behave in the same way. The Mech department of my undergrad college was actually quite enthusiastic about trying out new things, but the other departments weren’t even interested in something groundbreaking.

    And as regards the students’ perspective, theres an interesting anecdote I’d like to share: The head of one of India’s premier JEE coaching institutes in Kota regularly asks the students to name their president. When they reply with the name of India’s current president, he rebukes them and says that their current president is the president of the USA, and thats where they should head.

  13. Harsh Shah says:

    A very nice insight, a friend of mine provided:

    “In the US, you will find the best research oriented students at Stanford and MIT. In India, you will find the best research oriented students also at Stanford and MIT”

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