Context: In the U.S., despite egregious failures and missteps, science and informatics have been able to guide COVID-19 policy to some degree. It is time to think about the underpowered investments in science in India and about the stark social inequities.

COVID-19 revealing realities: 

  • Investment: India has invested very little in the type of science that is needed to meet contemporary environmental challenges. 
    • Gross expenditure on R&D as percentage share of the Indian GDP hovers around 0.7 per cent. This is far lower compared to Israel (4.6 per cent), South Korea (4.5 per cent), Japan (3.2 per cent), Germany (3.0 per cent), USA (2.8 per cent), France (2.2 per cent), UK (1.7 per cent), and Canada (1.6 per cent). 
  • COVID-19 may be its most severe environmental challenge so far, but India faces devastating challenges such as assaults on biodiversity, floods and unmitigated pollution every year. Every disaster underlines national vulnerabilities, accentuated by inadequate science and research infrastructures.
  • India’s medical research institutions and epidemiologists have a prominent role to play. 
  • Every day in the USA scientists provide new data to direct policy. 
  • India is a global superpower in information technology, yet it has few scientists or institutes systematically deploying ‘big data’ and informatics to understand large-scale environmental challenges, including infectious diseases. 

Need of the hour: 

  • India is a hotspot for emerging diseases — but to respond adequately, it urgently needs an expanded group of world-class specialists in this area.
  • The successful mitigation of COVID-19 in India will require rigorous testing, monitoring, and modelling to inform policy and action.
  • Data driven policy: need good data on demographic changes, on how disasters push people into poverty, and the local interventions that pull people out of poverty and build resilience to these cyclic events.
  • Integrating natural and social sciences to generate multidimensional knowledge:It will help to guide adequate policy responses and action to confront a crisis. In India, very few research centres are capable of doing such work.

Building for future: hopeful signs

  • The Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, one of India’s most accomplished scientists, is playing a critical role in policy responses.
  • Focus on science:  there are nine large national science missions in various stages of implementation. These include a mission in quantum computing and another in biodiversity and human well-being, with an important component on emerging infectious diseases.
  • India needs substantial investments in a science directed towards the well-being of all social sectors : a science for realising the UN SDGs; a science to build resilience against environmental disasters; and a science for healing humanity’s relationship with Nature to ward off biodiversity loss and mitigate climate change.

We must ensure healthcare as an individual basic right — and Earth-care as a collective right.

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