Nature

What Modi’s third term in India means for science

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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has claimed victory for his alliance in the national election — beckoning a rare third term in office for the leader. But the result brought a shock for Modi, whose alliance, led by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), didn’t achieve as large a majority as expected. Nonetheless, the BJP and its coalition partners will form a government that is a strong supporter of science in a broad sense, researchers say. But they caution that the beneficiaries may not be evenly distributed, with the returned government focusing on specific areas of innovation.

“Science is the highest priority for the government,” says Ajay Sood, principal scientific adviser to the Indian government. But this will mean prioritizing sources of national pride and applied science that will bring results in the short to medium term, says Soumya Swaminathan, chair of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai. Examples include the space programme, quantum computing, artificial intelligence (AI), semiconductor technology, renewable energy and electric vehicles.

The national election — a mammoth exercise in which polling took place in several phases over a period of a month and a half — ended on 1 June. According to the Election Commission of India, around 642 million of the nearly one billion eligible voters turned up at the polls.

Legacy-building

Aseem Prakash, a political scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, says that over the next five years — possibly Modi’s final term — he will want to solidify his legacy. “He is a man in a hurry,” he says. To achieve this, Modi will promote a self-reliant India. This is “part of a broader vision this government has of making India a superpower, with its own indigenous science and technology thrust,” says Prakash.

A key message, he says, will be that India is “able to achieve technological wonders at a fraction of the cost” compared with the United States — from sending a mission to the Moon and developing COVID-19 vaccines to commercializing cutting-edge therapies. “Now they also want to do that in other areas.”

Recent initiatives by the government indicate its priorities, says Sood. In 2023, the government launched the National Quantum Mission, committing 60 billion rupees (US$720 million) over eight years to the development of quantum computers, communication and materials. “This is one area which will definitely gain momentum in the next five years,” says Sood. Another is AI. In March, the government approved 103 billion rupees over five years to develop supercomputing infrastructure to support the AI ecosystem.

A semiconductor initiative aims to establish India as a global hub for electronics manufacturing. And several programmes will support the clean-energy transition, such as green hydrogen and electric vehicles technology, says Sood.

In addition to the quantum and AI plans, the BJP’s election manifesto offers insights into the government’s other priorities, says Prakash. The document refers to a graphene mission and an atmospheric mission, and the creation of a registry for geospatial data. It also affirms the government’s ambitions to position the country as a leading space power, including landing an astronaut on the Moon.

Heavy hand

Government funding accounts for some 60% of spending on research and development (R&D) in India, which means that “there is a heavy hand of the government driving science and technology policy”, says Prakash. India spent some 1.27 trillion rupees on research and development in 2020–21, the most recent financial year for which data are available. That accounted for about 0.65% of gross domestic product — a figure that has dropped slightly from a decade ago.

In August 2023, the government passed a bill to set up a new funding agency, the National Research Foundation, promising 500 billion rupees over five years — 72% of which is expected to come from the private sector.

But historically, the government has struggled to mobilize private funds for R&D, says Harleen Kaur, a science-policy researcher at the Foundation for Advancing Science and Technology in New Delhi, whose views do not reflect those of her employer. “It’s going to be extremely tough to get it done.”

The government will need to devise mechanisms to support public–private partnerships, says Swaminathan. “It’s going to be a new experiment.”

Targeted investment

But Swaminathan fears the focus on industry funds could mean less attention to areas for which there is no immediate return on investment, such as pandemic preparedness, vaccine platform development and climate adaptation. “I’m quite worried about climate change and the impact that it’s going to have in pushing people further into poverty.”

Other areas that could be neglected are complex, ‘wicked’ problems for which there are no easy answers, such as how to reduce the health problems associated with ageing, says Kaur.

As a developing economy, India’s funds are limited, and so money must be targeted carefully. Research on areas central to economic development might be something that a country such as India needs, to help to bring large sections of the population out of poverty, says Sandhya Visweswariah, a biochemist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. “But there must be space for basic research as well.”

Sood says the government’s priorities will not come at the expense of other areas of science. “Basic science will have as much place as applied science; there is no question.”



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