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India Needs a Sputnik Moment

Competition is a great motivating force for individuals and nations. In the global battle to innovate, the preferred weapon of choice is education. Warning his nation that India and China produce more engineers and scientists, US President Barack Obama calls for a Sputnik moment, harkening back to the 1950s when the Soviet satellite launch spurred new investments in education and technology. But David J. Karl, president of the consultancy Asia Strategy Initiative, points out that India’s education system is also in dire need of a Sputnik moment: Half of India’s children drop out in primary school; government scrimps on outlays for research and technology in higher education; the nation annually produces more than 600,000 engineers, yet most are poorly prepared for world-class jobs. Innovation is essential for meeting global challenges. The most competitive nations will fund and respect science and math educators, expecting high quality along the way. – YaleGlobal

India Needs a Sputnik Moment

To compete globally, India must jolt education and spur innovation
David J. Karl
YaleGlobal, 4 March 2011
Poor grades: India’s primary education ranks 98th among 139 nations (top); Research "hitting an all-time low."

LOS ANGELES: History is back in the news in a bid to shape the future. Recently US President Barack Obama recalled a 53-year incident to energize the country. India, one of the emerging giants, could take a page from Obama’s book.

US politicians used the Soviet launch of the Sputnik I satellite on 4 October, 1957, to spur massive new investments in technology and education. By November 2, the New York Times suggested that “The long orbital shadow of the sputnik has been able to do in a few weeks what scientists and educators have been unable to do in years,” in an article headlined “Sputnik Acts a Spur to U.S. Science and Research; Changes Coming.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act, boosting math, engineering and science education, in September 1958. NASA began operations the following month.

More than half a century later, Obama returns to a theme common in US policy circles, citing global competition from China and India in his State of the Union address. He regularly refers to the prodigious output of brainpower from the world’s two most populous countries in exhorting the need for US economic and education reform. As he told a town-hall meeting in 2009, “we can’t afford our kids to be mediocre at a time when they’re competing against kids in China and India.” At a gathering last year in Las Vegas, he cautioned that if both countries are “producing more scientists and engineers than we are, we will not succeed.”

US business leaders and scientists warned that India and China are acquiring a vast reservoir of brainpower.

There is no doubt that China and India are enhancing their research and development profiles, churning out more scientists and engineers than the United States. Yet the caliber of their graduates is generally poor. In India’s case, this reality tends to be obscured by the prominent role of India-born engineering and scientific talent in driving US prosperity and innovation – most prominently in Silicon Valley – as well as the swelling number of bright, diligent Indian students enrolled in American universities. These images formed the backdrop for a widely-publicized 2005 report, Rising Above The Gathering Storm, by an eminent group of US business leaders and scientists who warned that India, along with China, was quickly acquiring a vast reservoir of low-wage, highly-trained brainpower that will inevitably sap America’s edge in innovation. 

Yet for India to become a true competitive threat, it must overcome the stark inadequacies of its educational system. India not only exhibits the lowest educational indicators in the Group of 20, its public education system scores poorly relative to Brazil, Russia, China or other emerging-market countries. The 2010-2011 Global Competitiveness Index issued by the World Economic Forum places India at 98th out of 139 nations evaluated, in terms of the quality of primary education, and 85th for higher education and training. China ranks 35th and 60th, respectively.

For India to become a true competitive threat, it must overcome the stark inadequacies of its educational system.

Half of India’s children drop out of primary school; an additional half fails to complete high school. Despite recent efforts at improving primary and secondary education, Indian children on average attend school several years fewer than those in many emerging countries. Deep flaws also are evident in the university system. A much smaller proportion of the college-age population is enrolled in some form of tertiary education than is common in other emerging countries; the share is twice as high in China than in India.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, declaring that India’s “university system is, in many parts, in a state of disrepair,” catalogued the problems in June 2007: “Around 10 percent of the relevant age-group is enrolled in any institute of higher education – as compared to 40-50 percent in most developed economies…. Less than 50 percent of secondary school students continue into college education in any form. Almost two-third of our universities and 90 percent of our colleges are rated as below average on quality parameters. And most importantly, there is a nagging fear that university curricula are not synchronized with employment needs.”

Total outlays on the higher education system are lower than in other countries, affecting capacity for teaching and research.

Total outlays on the higher education system are much lower than in many other comparable countries, affecting the capacity for teaching and research. Singh’s scientific advisor has warned that research from Indian universities is “hitting an all-time low.” Even the research output from the world-renown Indian Institutes of Technology is slim. As a result, the country has few institutions with strong international standing, making it difficult to attract and retain top scholars and researchers. Indian faculty members publish a comparatively low number of research articles in leading international journals.  Incredibly, given the country’s high-tech image, the Infosys Science Foundation in 2009 failed to find a worthy recipient for its inaugural prize honoring an Indian researcher in the field of engineering and computer science. And The Journal of the ACM, the world’s leading journal in the computer science field, has for a number of years not published Indian submissions on quality grounds.

The quality of graduate education in critical technology fields lags behind the United States and Europe. Concerns about the caliber of India’s legions of engineering graduates have mired New Delhi’s bid for full membership in the Washington Accord, which governs international recognition of foreign engineering degrees. Despite the world-class reputation of India’s technology sector, the country manages to produce few PhDs in computer science each year; indeed, Israel graduates approximately the same number as India despite the 1-to-160 population disparity. A senior government official in New Delhi recently acknowledged that India would never become a great power on the basis of such paltry numbers. 

India’s transformation over the past two decades commands world respect, though that should not blind
us to its daunting challenges.

Educational deficiencies have led to an acute skills shortage. Although the country mints about 650,000 new engineers a year, a recent McKinsey study reports that only a quarter of technical graduates and just about 15 percent of general college graduates are suited for employment in offshore IT and business process outsourcing industries, respectively. The rest lack in requisite technical knowledge, English language capacity and collaborative skills. The report foresees a potential shortfall of 3.5 million IT workers by 2020. Another official in the prime minister’s office acknowledges, “The stark reality is that our education system churns out people, but industry does not find them useful.” This view is echoed by a recent report by a parliamentary committee, which observes that the employability of graduates of the country’s technical schools “remains a matter of serious concern.” 

The skills gap also has acute consequences in other fields. A 2009 World Bank report concludes that an acute deficit of civil-engineering skills severely jeopardizes the country’s growth prospects. The number of civil-engineering graduates from Indian universities must increase threefold in order to make good on New Delhi’s ambitious plans to improve the nation’s decrepit infrastructure. And to expand the ramshackle energy sector, India has been forced to rely on tens of thousands of Chinese guest workers. The chairman of the Central Electricity Authority admitted in a recent interview, “We don’t have that amount of skilled manpower in the country.”

India’s stunning transformation over the past two decades commands world respect, though that should not blind us to its daunting challenges, perhaps none more formidable than in the area of human-capital development. The country’s prodigious demographic resources could one day be the basis for India’s emergence as a full-fledged global power. For now it remains an open question whether India has the capacity to distill potential into actual achievement. Like the United States, India requires its own Sputnik moment that will jolt it into a higher educational orbit.


David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, a consultancy based in Los Angeles. He recently served as project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy, jointly sponsored by the Pacific Council on International Policy and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Rights:Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

6 March 2011
I differ from some of the views expressed in the article. India’s Advancement in Science and Technology, Education is well-known to the world. Being one of the populous countries the development is noteworthy.
A New Frontier
The tradition of science and technology (S&T) in India is over 5,000 years old. A renaissance was witnessed in the first half of the 20th century. The S&T infrastructure has grown up from about Rs. 10 million at the time of independence in 1947 to Rs. 30 billion. Significant achievements have been made in the areas of nuclear and space science, electronics and defence. The government is committed to making S&T an integral part of the socio-economic development of the country.
India has the third largest scientific and technical manpower in the world; 162 universities award 4,000 doctorates and 35,000 postgraduate degrees and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research runs 40 research laboratories that have made some significant achievements. In the field of Missile Launch Technology, India is among the top five nations of the world.
Science and technology, however, is used as an effective instrument for growth and change. It is being brought into the mainstream of economic planning in the sectors of agriculture, industry and services. The country's resources are used to derive the maximum output for the benefit of society and improvement in the quality of life. About 85 per cent of the funds for S&T come directly or indirectly from the Government. The S&T infrastructure in the country accounts for more than one per cent of the GNP. S&T in India is entering a new frontier.
Atomic Energy
The prime objective of India's nuclear energy programme is the development and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes such as power generation, applications in agriculture, medicine, industry, research and other areas.
India is today recognized as one of the most advanced countries in nuclear technology including production of source materials. The country is self-reliant and has mastered the expertise covering the complete nuclear cycle from exploration and mining to power generation and waste management. Accelerators and research and power reactors are now designed and built indigenously. The sophisticated variable energy cyclotron at Kolkata and a medium-energy heavy ion accelerator 'pelletron' set up recently at Mumbai are national research facilities in the frontier areas of science.
As part of its programme of peaceful uses of atomic energy, India has also embarked on a programme of nuclear power generation. Currently eight nuclear stations are producing eight billion kilowatt of electricity. Four more nuclear power stations are planned. The new nuclear reactors are designed in India. The peaceful nuclear programme also includes producing radioisotopes for use in agriculture, medicine, industry and research.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), under the Department of Space (DOS), is responsible for research, development and operationalisation of space systems in the areas of satellite communications, remote sensing for resource survey, environmental monitoring, meteorological services, etc. DOS is also the nodal agency for the Physical Research Laboratory, which conducts research in the areas of space science, and the National Remote Sensing Agency, which deploys modern remote-sensing techniques for natural resource surveys and provides operational services to user agencies. India is the only Third World Country to develop its own remote-sensing satellite.
India joined a select group of six nations on October 15, 1994, when the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) successfully accomplished its mission of placing the 800 Kg remote sensing satellite, IRS-P2, in the intended orbit. Earlier in May, the fourth developmental flight of the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) achieved its mission by placing the 113 Kg SROSS-C2 scientific satellite in a near-earth orbit. India is well on its way to developing a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) capable of putting 2000 Kg satellites into space. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is currently trying to develop an indigenous cryogenic engine for GSLV. A GSLV model has already been tested in wind tunnel.
The INSAT series of satellite launched earlier are performing well and provide vital services for telecommunications, television, meteorology, disaster warning and distress detection. The latest INSAT series include new features like Ku-band transponders and mobile satellite services transponders.
The remote-sensing satellites, launched in 1988 and 1991, have already become the mainstay of the natural resource management system of the country.
The projected launch of advanced remote sensing satellites will not only enhance the scope of their application, but will also offer commercial service to other countries.
The Indian achievement in the application of space-based remote sensing technology has led a US company to enter into an agreement for marketing the data from Indian satellites globally.
India's progress in space technology has attracted worldwide attention and demand, with leasing agreements for marketing of IRS data and supply of space hardware and services. India also believes in co-operation in space with agencies all over the world. A high-level UN team selected India for setting up a UN Centre for Space Science and Technology Education. India is on the threshold of achieving self-reliance in the launch capability. It will be a befitting tribute to the father of the Indian space programme, Dr. Vikaram Sarabhai, whose 80th birth anniversary was observed in August 1996.
The Department of Electronics plays the promotional role for the development and use of electronics for socio-economic development. Many initiatives have been taken for a balanced growth of the electronics industry. The basic thrust has been towards a general rationalization of the licensing policy with an emphasis on promotion rather than regulation, besides achieving economy of scale with up-to-date technology. A multi-pronged approach has been evolved for result-oriented R&D with special emphasis on microelectronics, telematics, and high-performance computing and software development.
Application of electronics in areas such as agriculture, health and service sectors has also been receiving special attention. For upgrading the quality of indigenously manufactured products, a series of test and development centers and regional laboratories have been set up. These centers for electronic design and technology help small and medium electronics units. A number of R&D projects have been initiated to meet the growing requirements of the industry.
India has a coastline of more than 7,600 km and 1,250 islands, with its Exclusive Economic Zone covering over 2 million sq. km and continental shelf extending up to 350 nautical miles. The Department of Ocean Development was established in 1981 to ensure optimum utilisation of living resources, exploitation of non-living resources such as hydrocarbons and minerals, and to harness ocean energy. Two research vessels, ORV Sagar Kanya and FROV Sagar Sampada, are assessing and evaluating the resource potential.
Survey and exploration efforts have been directed to assess seabed topography, and concentration and quality of mineral nodules. In August 1987, India was allotted a mine site of 150,000 sq. km in the central Indian Ocean for further exploration and development of resources. India is the only developing country to have qualified for Pioneer Status by the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1982, and it is the first country in the world to have secured registration of a mine site.
India has sent 13 scientific research expeditions to Antarctica since 1981, and has established a permanently manned base, Dakshin Gangotri. A second permanent station, an entirely indigenous effort, was completed by the eighth expedition. The objective is to study the ozone layer and other important constituents, optical aurora, geomagnetic pulsation and related phenomena. By virtue of its scientific research activities, India acquired Consultative Membership of the Antarctic Treaty in 1983 and acceded to the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources in July 1985. India is also a member of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, and has played a significant role in adopting a Minerals Regime for Antarctica in June 1988.
A National Institute of Ocean Technology was set up for the development of ocean-related technologies. It is also responsible for harnessing resources of the coastal belts and islands.
India has been the forerunner among the developing countries in promoting multi-disciplinary activities in this area, recognizing the practically unlimited possibility of their applications in increasing agricultural and industrial production, and in improving human and animal life. The nucleus of research in this area is the National Biotechnology Board, constituted in 1982.
A Department of Biotechnology was created in 1986. Recently, the Biotechnology Consortium India Ltd. was set up. It will play the role of a catalyst in bridging the gap between research and development, industrial and financial institutions. Some of the new initiatives taken include developing techniques for gene mapping, conservation of biodiversity and bio-indicators research, special biotechnology programmes for the benefit of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and activities in the area of plantation crops.
The areas which have been receiving attention are cattle herd improvement through embryo transfer technology, in vitro propagation of disease resistant plant varieties for obtaining higher yields, and development of vaccines for various diseases.
Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)
CSIR was established in 1942, and is today the premier institution for scientific and industrial research. It has a network of 40 laboratories, two cooperative industrial research institutions and more than 100 extension and field centers. The council's research programmes are directed towards effective utilisation of the country's natural resources and development of new processes and products for economic progress. It is now playing a leading role in the fulfillment of the technology missions evolved by the Government(Source:India MapsofIndia).
The number of publications by Indian scientists is characterized by some of the fastest growth rates among major countries. India, together with China, Iran and Brazil are the only developing countries among 31 nations with 97.5% of the world's total scientific productivity. The remaining 162 developing countries contribute less than 2.5% of the world's scientific output.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
-Anumakonda , Nellore(AP),India
5 March 2011
What Sputnik moment? India is the world's greatest democracy and its only remaining super power! Americans are still living in the delusion that India is a backward country and that they are superior to the average Indian middle class. India has already sent our own Sputnik into the space, and onto the Moon. We have a vast amount of superior brainpower than America and our Brahmain PhDs are already the world's envy. As to some of our dalits, they can continue to rot, we can afford it; they are good for collecting our - shall we say - other bodily things quite efficiently.
Submit to your fate under our Hindu colossus, beg our 5 rupee meal middle classes, bow to our super powers.
Jai Hind!
-FriendsofIndia , India
4 March 2011
The concern I have over articles like this is that the data presented is out of context. Does India still have a long way to go in improving education for large numbers –yes. But that should not be used to rationalize that the US is competitively OK and American “exceptionalism” in education and thus in US science driven businesses is safe–—that is a potential implied reading of the article.
Many of the statistics in the article presented are very dated, and of debated accuracy anyway when first presented. And many other relevant data items to give a more complete picture were left out:
--Like India has ~400M kids age 0-14 vs. ~60M in the US –so at this point in time and over the next decade even mid single digit 12th standard graduation rate in India surpasses US college ready US graduates
--Like more foreign born students(with Indian & Chinese the largest %) are in US Phd programs in the sciences than US born people;
--Like trends—growth in colleges there—yes many are not up to west standards, but many are and many US entities are helping develop Greenfield universities, create and enhance programs there and staff them for top and mid tier universities. All of the majors are involved in exporting their brands in some form—Harvard, MIT, Stanford and all the big state Research schools have been and will continue to send faculty, recruit and exchange. It matches both the intellectual charter of such US institutions and its faculty as well as the business of University $s.
--And corporations there, not just IT and not just Indian based firms, but Western firms with branches there are relatively(but economically) heavily invested in providing extensive training programs to bring employees up to speed, with a survival of the fittest element throw-in that can work with such large numbers.
-- Every major US firm from pharma and medical devices to aerospace is looking to ramp its India employment for engineering and manufacturing. The concepts of “dual-shoring” that are proven in the IT sector are moving rapidly into the hard sciences and hard engineered products sectors.
-- As reference points you need to look no further than a few miles from Yale – the experiences of IBM and GE.
--In 2011 IBM goal is for 154,000 employees in India, up from 131,000 in 2010 and only 5,000 in 2002. IBM’s total world employment was under 400,000 in 2009 and is estimated by analysts as 105,000 in the US.
--GE US employment has shrunk to approximately 287,000 in 2009 down from 313,000 in 2000 with the US % being 54% in 2000 and 44% in 2009. India has grown to 13,000 employees as the US has declined by 34,000 in 10 years. The trend is clear as one of the GE portfolio “stars” healthcare has focused on India employment expansion as note in a 2009 article: “G.E. Chief Sees India Helping Cut Costs of U.S. Health Care”.
As a frequent traveler to India and one interacting with the high tech community, I have been a witness and participant in seeing the changes. The “vibe”, energy and yes pitfalls are similar to what I saw as a venture capitalist and investment banker to tech firms of Silicon Valley and the Boston tech communities in the 80s and early 90s. It’s exciting, it’s creating value, it’s improving lives, it’s innovating. A key to remember is “Growth covers a lot of sins” – in this case the growth of demographics and the employment pool (and its youth, energy, willingness to change and striving), the growth of opportunity to serve a large, growing consumer population in India and China, and with over 700 Million cell phones already and growing, it is larger by 2X than the US in networking – information age participants. The natural drive to want to improve education at some level in each generation that has access and sees rewards desired is what was witnessed here the past 100 years. That drive, with the flows of capital and intellectual outreach of the west will help drive India. Yes some will be left behind, but many have moved ahead and “the demographic pig is in the python” to continue. And US Universities and major corporations and entrepreneurs from all over the world are there to help fill the gaps and feed it.
-LightWave Advisors , CT