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Editorial: Of mice and men
Atmanirbhar Bharat is still trending after Prime Minister Modi’s Lockdown 4.0 speech. One example he gave was about how our country, which did not produce a single Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for its frontline healthcare workers when COVID-19 hit Indian shores, was now comfortably producing over 2 lakh PPE every day to meet its needs.
A significant milestone no doubt. But will just producing adequate PPE, masks and gloves make India self-reliant? What about a cure or a vaccine for COVID-19?
Despite being the third-largest drug producer globally and accounting for 60% of vaccines produced anywhere in the world, there is no government-funded research undertaken in India that is even close to producing a vaccine against COVID-19 in line with the global race for such immunisation. Barring one private firm in Hyderabad that is working in collaboration with a leading US university, there is no significant indigenous effort towards a cure or vaccine for the novel coronavirus. Even producing a ‘Made in India’ rapid testing kit posed a significant challenge for our massive pharmaceutical industry. The unavailability of raw materials and Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) was one of the reasons given for India’s inability to produce testing kits. A senior biomedicine researcher at a top government institute had gone on to reveal that the nation does not even breed the mice (transgenic mice that have been genetically modified with human gene ACE2) to conduct clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines.
An R&D Statistics report released by the Union Ministry of Science and Technology in March 2020 claims India’s Gross Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD) has tripled from Rs 39,437.77 crore in 2007-08 to Rs. 1,23,847.70 crore (US $16.36 billion) in the year 2018-19. However, this is nowhere close to the R&D spend of developed economies. USA spent around $543.2 bn on R&D while China’s budget was $496 bn. Even smaller nations like Japan have a $175.8 bn budget while tiny South Korea puts aside $89.8 billion.
India’s stagnancy, vis-a-vis public investment in R&D, as a part of the GDP, has been a sore point for over two decades now. The Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM), had emphasised last year that growth in R&D expenditure should be in line with economic progress. The target was a tall order – to reach at least 2 per cent GDP by 2022. It is presently just 0.7% of the country’s GDP, and has remained almost the same for the past two decades.
Another factor stressed was the amping up of the contribution of the private sector in the R&D space. Currently, it stands at 0.35 per cent of GDP. The R&D Expenditure Ecosystem study went so far as to suggest that a minimum percentage of a company’s turnover be invested in R&D by medium and large enterprises based in India.
It’s not an entirely implausible expectation. Just as we have film cities – self-contained ecosystems where every aspect of film production can be undertaken, India needs to build townships that offer an end-to-end supply chain for scientific research, preferably built around major universities where raw materials, human resources, top-class research facilities, laboratories are readily available.
Such dedicated R&D spaces in various verticals could pave the wave for a self-reliant India that need not look for solutions abroad to protect its people and improve the quality of life. If the PM’s vision of a self-reliant India is to become a reality, going forth we must not only increase the spend on research, but also allocate it sensibly.