A Nature Index analysis

India’s ascent towards world-class science

Published online 3 December 2015

Transitioning from a developing country to an emerging economic superpower, India is experiencing an attendant surge in its share of the world’s high-quality scientific publications. This rise is clearly indicated in the Nature Index, a database that tracks the affiliations of research articles published in an independently selected group of 68 high-quality science journals.

Figure 1 India’s ascent | India has steadily increased its contribution in the Nature Index compared to other nations with a similar output and broadly similar economic backgrounds.

Since 2012, the country’s weighted fractional count has increased by 185 (Fig. 1). As a result of this growth, India ranked 13th globally in the index in 2014, sandwiched between Australia and the Netherlands, with a weighted fractional count of 921.8 and an article count of 1,484 (Fig. 2).

To place the patterns of India’s Nature Index output in an international context, this report compares the country to groups of other nations in the Asia-Pacific, Europe and South America that have similar volumes of index output in 2014 and broadly similar economic backgrounds.

The growth in Indian output in the index has been achieved despite a stagnation in spending. The country invests less than other comparator countries in this analysis as measured by research and development funding, committing less than 1 per cent of its gross domestic product to research (source: UNESCO data from 2011). Indeed, funding for science and technology has hovered at around this level for the past two decades.

While Russia, Brazil and Italy spent at similar levels (between 1 and 1.5 per cent of their gross domestic products), among the group of comparators considered here only Italy achieved a weighted fractional count higher than India’s. And while Australia, Singapore and South Korea spend higher proportions of their gross domestic products on science, India’s weighted fractional count in 2014 far surpasses that of Singapore, draws level with Australia and is closing the gap with South Korea.

India’s current government, led by Narendra Modi, has not yet offered much to science and technology. The past two budgets were disappointing: the 2014 budget with a below-inflation increase in funding followed by the 2015 budget that remained rather flat, and actually nose-dived for some key government departments.

The 2014 annual budget set aside 362.69 billion rupees (US$6 billion) for research being carried out under the science and technology ministry and seven other ministries — agriculture, defence, earth sciences, health, renewable energy, space and atomic energy. In 2015, this allocation was marginally higher at 419 billion rupees (US$6.4 billion).

Figure 2 Global Top 30 in the Nature Index 2014 | India’s position at number 13 in the world puts it among the global leaders in producing high-quality science. Full size image (25 KB)

Despite the funding stagnation, the new government has taken some steps in a positive direction, including establishing tax incentives for research and development that are among the best in the world. These have helped to boost research investment by a few industries, but have yet to drive widespread innovation. Problems such as bureaucracy, government indifference, unfair appointments (or appointments not based on experience), and lack of resources also continue to dampen enthusiasm.

However, despite limited resources and complexities, the international science community is still hopeful for Indian science. These past couple of years have seen international attention focused on the country’s ambitious space voyages, the Mars Orbiter Mission and India’s first dedicated multiwavelength space observatory Astrosat. In another area, Indian biologists also m ade a mark in international proteomics research by mapping the human proteome and making it to the cover of Nature in 2014 1.

India’s biggest strengths are the quality of its most elite scientific institutions, a healthy growth in the biotechnology sector and commitment by researchers to address India’s social and economic challenges. Indeed, the country, soon to be the world’s most populous nation, is sitting at the nexus of some grand challenges in building scientific capacity to tackle pressing issues in energy, water, food and pollution.

In this context, the art of jugaad – the characteristically Indian technique of frugal innovation — and youthful enthusiasm in abundance are things that shine through.

  1. Kim, M. S. et al. A draft map of the human proteome. Nature 509, 575–581 (2014).

India’s high-quality research output in a global context