14 Mar 2023
India is a science-tech leader in the making
Critical and emerging technologies are reshaping the future. This message was repeated in New Delhi recently as India hosted the G20 and Quad foreign ministers’ meetings, and the well-known geopolitical conference, The Raisina Dialogue. The foreign delegations were in India to deepen collaboration with the country on foreign policy, trade, defence, national security and education.
Amid this hustle from foreign partners, it is science and technology (S&T) that offers India an enormous opportunity to supercharge its domestic development and to contribute to the rest of the world. Moreover, its growing reputation as a trusted technology partner, a descriptor that starkly differentiates India’s value proposition from its less-trusted neighbour to the north, China, could see India challenging China and the United States (US) as a global S&T powerhouse.
In a world-first study, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), revealed that China has established a stunning lead in high-impact research across the majority of critical and emerging technology domains, such as defence, space, robotics, energy and environment, biotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI), advanced materials and critical quantum technology. China leads globally in 37 of the 44 technologies ASPI is tracking through its new data-rich project, The Critical Technology Tracker. The tracker allows the public to compare countries and groupings (such as Quad and AUKUS) while also showing the flow of global talent to reveal where “brain gains” and “brain drains” are happening.
The US leads in the remaining seven technologies, including high-performance computing, quantum computing and vaccines, and ranks second in most of the 37 technologies that China leads.
What might get lost in many international headlines is that India is often placed third, along with the United Kingdom, followed by a grouping of countries that includes South Korea, Japan and Germany. India claims a space in the top five countries in 29 of the 44 critical technologies and is second in the world in smart materials, high-specification machine processes and biofuels.
Our new research project shows India has competitive advantages across a range of critical technology areas, including biofuels, advanced aircraft engines (including hypersonics), drones, vaccines, semiconductor chip design, cybersecurity, critical minerals extraction and processing, advanced data analytics, advanced radio-frequency communications (including 5G and 6G) and more. Across this list, India is ranked among the top five countries by the proportion of high-impact research output and is often ranked second or third in the world.
Many Indian universities stand out. In advanced data analytics, for example, India has three leading players in the top 20: The Thapar Institute of Engineering and Technology, the National Institutes of Technology (India) and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). The IITs are also a dominant player in AI, ranking among the top 20 institutions in seven of the 10 AI technologies covered in the ASPI project.
India needs to enhance, retain and regain more of its talent pool to leap into the top tier with China and the US. Again, the ASPI project is informative, quantifying the enormous contribution of STEM talent India offers the world.
Opportunities for students to gain experience and knowledge offshore, including at some of the world’s leading educational institutions in Australia, the US and Europe, are valuable to India and its partners. Many governments have long realised the value of Indian talent in a competitive global labour market, particularly in the wake of Covid-19. But it will be important for India to also translate these partnerships into retaining and enhancing its talent at home — to drive forward 6G, AI, critical minerals extraction and processing and crucial energy technologies.
In addition to developing Indian talent, such opportunities support the foundation of trusted technology partnerships. The ASPI report highlights the growing importance of such collaboration. Unfortunately, the current trajectory is in China’s favour. So it’s vital that democracies work more together to ensure we don’t face a future in which one or two countries dominate new and emerging industries.
Each of us will need trusted, nurtured partnerships on which we can rely to provide us with the goods and materials to power our economies through secure supply chains. The recent experiences of Covid-19 and Russia’s war on Ukraine, set against the background of rising strategic competition that has produced instances of Chinese economic coercion — including against Australia — have underscored the indispensability of trusted relationships.
As the world’s largest democracy, a top-five economy, an Indo-Pacific strategic shaper and a rising technology superpower, India will be central to this cooperation. It can drive practical outcomes from Quad and play a powerful role in setting international technology standards, especially in areas where it excels, such as AI, computing and energy technologies. A natural starting point is our recommendation for a streamlined technology visa programme to enable STEM talent to study and work among Quad countries. India should also look to build stronger partnerships with other countries in the Indo-Pacific, including South Korea and Taiwan.
Critical technologies will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of the Indo-Pacific, and, as we enter into a new era of strategic competition, India is the key player which can support a more stable region through shaping technology standards, building linkages with trusted partners and leveraging its strengths as an emerging science and tech superpower.