Beyond good intentions: Leveraging India’s international research partnerships to be a force for global good

Swati Joshi and Rohan Atrawalkar

The authors work at the Centre for Technology Innovation and Economic Research, Pune. 

Climate change, food insecurity, pandemics and similar pressing challenges need urgent action. Countries like India face severe financial and resource constraints to combat these challenges. Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) can play a crucial role in finding inclusive solutions. India occupies an important space in the global STI landscape. India is a partner of choice for all the scientific powerhouses in the world. It enjoys a strong relationship with the global north and the global south. India’s strength as a powerhouse of STEM talent is well recognised. We explore India’s potential to take the lead on these global challenges.

The relation between research and societal welfare in India

The Nehruvian vision of ‘science for societal good’ is the guiding philosophy for most research institutions in India. Government backed institutions received most of the early investments. The legacy persists today. India remains an outlier globally with the research structure skewed towards the government. Government run research institutions receive the majority of the funding available for research.

A lot of research directed towards societal good has come out of this system. This is true across sectors – ISRO doing frontier research on the use of satellite imagery or the Indian Institute for Millets Research exploring the nutritional potential of ancient grains. Given these foundational aspects of our research, India is well poised to become a global leader in furthering the cause of research for global good. 

Global research and India

India is well placed on the supply side of the research pipeline on the global stage. She is  sought after as a research partner in the global north and global south. She is a key player in mega science projects across disciplines. For example, our contribution to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is well recognised. The India-led International Solar Alliance (ISA) contributes towards the use of solar energy in meeting the energy needs of member countries in a safe, affordable, fair and sustainable manner. Examples from healthcare include the Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) and the global cancer genome project.

Megascience apart, India is also on the map for many ambitious cross-country science projects. This number has increased in the past decades. It has led to a culture of data sharing and global collaboration.

Moreover, the steady stream of research coming from Indian labs is in use worldwide. This includes crop varieties to address nutritional deficiencies. Other solutions used across the world include converting plastic waste to pave roads. Infrastructure related technologies such as earthquake resistant building technology have found wide use.

Taking a closer look at India’s research partnerships

India has research links with leading scientific agencies in the world. Some of these are bilateral and multilateral partnerships with various scientific ministries. These multidisciplinary partnerships focus on global grand challenges. The research output often contributes towards addressing SDGs. The table shows a snapshot of focus research areas of these partnerships.

Table 1: Partner Countries and Thrust Areas for Research

CountryThrust Areas
USAEnvironment; Health; Water; Climate Change
UKClean Energy; Climate Change; Health;Industry
EUHealth; Agriculture; Water; Climate Change; Clean Energy
JapanHealth; ICT; Agriculture
IsraelIndustry; Agriculture; Clean Energy; ICT; Water
GermanyWater; Clean Energy; Life Sciences
NetherlandsWater; Agriculture; Health 
RussiaICT; Health; Clean Energy; Agriculture
BRICSICT; Water; Energy; Climate Change

Source: Various websites, compiled by Centre for Technology, Innovation and Economic Research

Take, for example, the multicountry partnership of BRICS which is a regional partnership between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa which holds conferences on regional strategy, research and other socio-economic issues. One of the goals of BRICS research is to benefit member countries in addressing SDGs. Biotechnology, new and renewable energy, water resources, etc. are the focus of BRICS projects. Projects range from research on preventing natural disasters to looking at climate change and flow regimes in the plateaus of Asia. Other examples include inventing green printing technology for novel optical metadevices and designing novel inhibitors for HIV protease.

India and the UK share many research success stories. One such example is the CRADLE- VSA (Vital Sign Alert) project led by a team of Indo-British scientists. This novel medical device resulted in findings on reduced maternal mortality and mortality. The project has been instrumental in 10 sites across 7 countries in bringing good health and well being and gender equality.

The USA is an important research partner for India. The Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF) projects have spanned research such as transformational modular roofing solution for low-income urban homes, modular diagnosis of cervical cancer using smartphone and Artificial Intelligence, affordable digital braille accessibility, low-cost, portable autorefractor, etc.

We analysed research projects done under a bilateral or multilateral arrangement by DST. In the last 5 years, over 90% of these were with researchers in public universities and labs. This highlights the long standing relationships that public institutions have with foreign partners. Given the societal welfare aspect, it also makes the case for such institutions being good partners in performing research for global good.

A global powerhouse of talent

India is a global powerhouse when it comes to research talent. At least 65 MNCs among the top 100 MNC R&D spenders globally have a R&D centre in India. Research capability is also reflected in traditional metrics like publications. India ranks 10th currently in country wise comparisons of total publication output. 32.6% of publications from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) come from international collaborations. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research labs (CSIR) rank the highest in international partnerships among institutions in the country with upto 20.3% of its publishing coming through international collaborations. Patent output tells a similar story. India ranks 7th in the WIPO’s global patent filing index.

Stepping into a global leader role

India maintains strong relations with the global south. There are capacity building and technical training initiatives with countries such as Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) initiative. This is in keeping with India’s target under SDG 17 in capacity building and technology dissemination through enhancing partnerships on STI through the North-South, South-South and triangular co-operation.

Through the Global Innovation and Technology Alliance (GITA), a Public Private Partnership (PPP) between Technology Development Board (TDB), Department of Science & Technology (DST), Government of India (GoI) and India’ s apex industry association Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), enterprises from countries such as Canada, Finland, Israel, Italy, Sweden, Spain, and the UK are partnering with industry and government from India, bringing a new dimension to existing techno-economic alliances. These partnerships have resulted in technology-based high-end, affordable product development. Such products can connect to both global and domestic markets – or in other words, research solutions for global good. India is in a good position to become a force for global good through leveraging its R&D strengths.

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