R&D in China and India: Great image, few reliable numbers

I’ve been working on a round-up of Indian and Chinese R&D statistics. The first thing that caught my attention was that (foreign) R&D in China seemed to be getting much more scholarly attention than Indian R&D.

A quick Google search provides some backup for this hunch. Searching Google Scholar for <India “R&D”> returns 21’600 hits. A search for <China “R&D”> returns 32’200 hits. Of course, there may be all kinds of junk in those hits, but a factor of 1.5 does show some difference. Another back of the envelope technique I used was to search for India and China in the journal “R&D management.” Searching for India returned 30 citations; searching for China returned 44. (Again, this needs to be taken cautiously since most of the differential is due to a special issue on R&D management in China).

On the other hand, in regular (business) news, the two countries are about even. The same Google searches as above in Google News returned 1’130 hits for India and 1’110 for China today.

Further searching showed that it’s quite difficult to put together a rough and ready overview of R&D statistics for India from the comfort of your desk. Few numbers are available online, and various databases contradict each other. (For example, the reported number of engineering and technology doctorates awarded in 1989 varies from 238 to 586, depending on the source.) The most useful numbers (for an outside investor) are provided by the software industry association, NASSCOM – and even these are meager and purely industry focused.

China, on the other hand, publishes a handy bunch of figures on the website of the Ministry of Science and Technology. Of course, Chinese government statistics are notoriously unreliable; but at least they appear to publish a uniform set of numbers and provide easy access to them.

The point here is less one of scholarly research than of marketing. India and China are competing for foreign R&D dollars (and spillovers). To do this, they need to demonstrate the availability of research talent. Conversations I have had, suggest that neither country is building its R&D strength on available resources. In both countries (though more so in China), proximity to a huge customer base is an important reason for firms to conduct R&D there. Lower costs also help. Both benefit from the West’s realization that India and China have very large college-educated populations.

However, “college-educated” does not equal “research-trained.” Several MNC labs have found that only a handful of elite schools provide the same kind of research training as they expect from researchers elsewhere in the world. As I heard time and again, development talent is plentiful; the research talent pool is very small.

Given a less than ideal labor pool, how do Bangalore and Beijing achieve their status of Asia’s R&D hubs? How can they expect to outperform Japan in terms of research?

China’s strategy has apparently been to muscle its way into the field by requiring foreign firms to set up labs if they wish to get permits for their low-cost factories – and by investing heavily in state-of-the-art infrastructure.

Bangalore seems to be benefiting from a halo effect: As the go-to spot for software development it becomes a natural location for IT research as well. In both countries, the case has also been made that returnees play a crucial role. As more interesting jobs open up (e.g. team leader in an R&D lab), more highly qualified emigrants find it worth their while to return home. Of course, more opportunities and market demand will eventually also have an effect on research training – whether in universities or in industry.

In the end, excellence in a field may translate into R&D prowess. And an image as an R&D hub may help sustain the current boom long enough for an adequate talent pool to develop. Until we have reliable numbers, though, nobody will be able to tell for sure.

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