International research collaborations have emerged as a central component of the core research activity of prominent Indian universities and research institutions. The current pattern of research collaborations show a significant departure from the academic collaborations existed in the country till the nineties. This is particularly evident in the nature of various forms of research collaborations emerging in the form of joint research projects, co-authorship, patenting, participation in conferences, etc. One reason for this is the development in the field of information technology that has broadened the opportunities available to researchers to establish relations with their peers located at longer distances.
The inflow of research funding to the country from foreign sources has risen in the recent years and partnering between institutions has become a highly lucrative business in some areas. A recent Reserve Bank of India data indicate that inflows of foreign exchange for R&D services have increased from $221 million in 2004-05 to $878 million in 2010-11. As noted by Sunil Mani and Rakesh Besant, India has also witnessed a significant increase in the total share of R&D investments by business enterprises: which now account for about 30 per cent-- a significant increase from just 14 per cent in 1991. The emergence of many private contract research firms in pharmaceutical and life sciences and the creation of research facilities by large multinationals in India are another reflection of this change.
The growth of collaborations during the past two decades has changed the landscape of research in many universities and research institutions in India. Current trends show that there are significant disciplinary differences in collaborations; science and technology are often internationally oriented than the social sciences and the humanities. A study by B.M. Gupta and S.M. Dhawan based on Scopus Database -- an indicator of international transmission/sharing of knowledge -- ranks India at 12th position among the top countries in the world in science and technology. The collaboration of Indian institutions with its counterparts from the American continent contributed the largest share of international collaborative papers (44.33%), followed by Europe (43.24%), Asia (26.92%), Oceania (4.09%), and Africa (2.85%).
The World Social Science Report published by the UNESCO ranks India thirteenth in terms of the top social science knowledge producing countries. According to this report, India is the only visible South Asian country in terms of research publications at the international level. The report also notes that since the initiation of economic reforms and liberalization in 1991, India has been witnessing a shift in social science research and a number of non-governmental research institutions and private consultancy firms have started functioning during this period for carrying out specific goal-oriented research. This has created new spaces for collaboration and knowledge production, sometimes on commercial basis.
Although the number of international research collaborations has increased in recent years there are still many barriers at the institutional structure of the Indian institutions that hinder collaborative research. Apart from a few prestigious Central, State and private universities and other research establishments mainly under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), a majority of the institutions are still not administratively structured to facilitate collaborative research.
Although a handful of private universities play an important role in research collaborations, for many of them, apart from profit-making, collaboration is only an instrument to increase institutional prestige and reputation. A related worrying development is the emergence of many new private research institutions with the sole goal of commercial interests. The recent growth of customised contract research service providers in various parts of the country can be viewed in this context.
There is a general tendency among Indian institutions to establish relations mainly with European and US-based institutions only. In addition to these regions, efforts should be made to promote deeper academic relationships with countries in Asia and Africa which are extremely important to India in terms of inward student mobility. Also apart from the usual mode of engagements like faculty and student exchange programmes, the government and institutions should develop coherent strategies that would give more focus on areas like joint delivery of courses, joint research projects, joint workshops, regional academic networks, etc. The partnership agreement signed by the five partner countries — India, China, Canada, Japan and the U.S-- for the “Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) Project”, establishment of the South Asian University in New Delhi and Nalanda University in Bihar are small steps in the right direction. But, notwithstanding the various steps that have already been taken, a great deal more needs to be done for facilitating networking of research institutions and programmes.
All the major challenges faced by humanity have global implications and they need research solutions through new collaborative epistemological frame-works and methodological practices and therefore, international research collaborations are of vital importance in the present context. Indian universities and research institutions can benefit immensely from participating in effective international collaborations. Unfortunately, majority of the universities in India by and large have neglected this area. It is time that policy makers in the country address this issue in a well-planned manner and ensure a favourable environment conducive to fruitful collaborations by breaking down the existing barriers.