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Can India’s New STI Policy Help India Achieve Its Sustainable Development Goals?

Can India’s New STI Policy Help India Achieve Its Sustainable Development Goals?

Photo: Shreeneet Rathi/Pexels.

The Government of India  is currently in the process of formulating a new science, technology and innovation policy (STIP), or STIP 2020 for short. The policy aims to “realign priorities, sectoral focus and methods of research and technology development with the goals of larger socio-economic progress.” This in turn is aligned with a global tendency to rethink the role of STI to addressing social, economic and environmental problems. We believe this is a unique opportunity for our country to transform its STI policy approach and use its diversity as a strength to create a transformative innovation policy (TIP) for India.

1. Keeping diverse perspectives visible throughout the policy process

To prepare for participatory policymaking, the new secretariat team for STIP 2020 has set up an elaborate four-track consultation, with experts and members of the public, to collect evidence and insights from older and ongoing research and practices. The Science Policy Forum has put up a commendable effort to gather and process inputs from as many as 15,000 stakeholders from around the country and abroad. The emphasis on a “decentralised, evidence-informed, bottom-up, experts-driven and inclusive” policymaking is a laudable starting point.

But while inclusivity is a criterion for TIP, there is bigger challenge: to make all the diverse perspectives count in all stages of formulating and implementing the policy. In a heterogenous country like India, engaging with multiple stakeholders will of course imply conflicting opinions and contradictory viewpoints between experts from different backgrounds and citizens of different regions, income classes and genders. Conflicting forms of evidence are resolved by efforts to arrive at a consensus, often superficially and prematurely, thus ignoring the value of diversity of perspectives to arrive at “scientifically informed decision”.

Thus, what evidence is counted and who had the opportunity to provide it remains a crucial factor in determining the policy’s outcomes. The absence of a certain evidence due to lack of internet access or due to the inability of actors to communicate their evidence in a timely manner is inevitable. The new STIP 2020 for India will truly be inclusive in achieving its SDGs if diverse and conflicting forms of evidence are made visible, tensions across different stakeholder groups are acknowledged and the efforts to include more voices are continued beyond the timeframe for consultations and drafting.

2. Supporting innovation in society, not just in labs

In addition to evidence by whom, what further matters for a transformative STI policy is evidence of what. Previous STI policies in India have focused on strengthening R&D capabilities, as an indicator of scientific and technological progress, by increasing investments up to 2% of the GDP. However, R&D investment alone doesn’t suffice to achieve multi-dimensional SDGs. Our research in sustainability transitions says that innovation policies of the present and the future need to be able to transform societal systems for basic service provision, including urban mobility, energy, heath and housing.

We need to acknowledge that experimentation doesn’t only happen in science labs and innovation is not confined to formal business startups. Innovation is abundant in societies waiting to be supported by an STI policy. To achieve out SDGs, the STI policy should build on the evidence base (or lack of it) of social and technological innovations at the grassroots, which may be small-scale yet are crucial to empower communities and improve the well-being of economically marginalised groups. The National Innovation Foundation – India is a good initiative of the Department of Science and Technology in this regard, to enable its vision of strengthening grassroots innovation and traditional knowledge.

The new STIP 2020 will be a true enabler of transformation if it can further guide the nation with such initiatives to protect the diversity of innovation, harness the entrepreneurial potential of grassroots innovations and encourage more social ‘experimentation’ with new business models, inclusive technologies and interpersonal social relations to tackle ongoing and future sustainability crises.

STI agents can facilitate transformative change by nurturing innovative ‘niches’ and opening up incumbent ‘regimes’ for systemic transitions. These are concepts borrowed from the field of sustainability transitions, which help understanding how change happens in societies. Different actors perceive sustainability differently and ‘what is sustainable’ depends on local contexts. So it is of the utmost importance to protect multiple niche alternatives catering to even a single SDG. And such protection means rewarding alternative visions for the future, good intentions and creativity at the micro-level by diverse actors such as scholars (STEM and humanities), sectoral policymakers, businesses and civil society in the true spirit of the decentralised and bottom-up approach to achieve sustainabilities (intentionally plural).

3. A transformative STIP 2020 is adaptive to dynamic change

Enabling change at a societal level is a complex and long-term process that requires continuous adaptation, coordination and agility. In other words, transformative innovation policies never stop being made and revised over time and space. The publication of STIP 2020 should be considered only a starting point in the long marathon of transforming societal systems for achieving SDGs over the next decade. This is a limitation of any static process, which can be easily overcome if STIP 2020 can be considered as a non-linear and dynamic set of guidance for enabling societal change over the course of time.

Our suggestion to the drafting committee is to acknowledge that a time-bound process of drafting a policy document often falls short of appreciating the rich diversity and contested nature of evidence gathered from consultations. It is also hard to respond to unforeseen crisis for the future through a static policy document.

Therefore, it is best to be modest about promises on what evidence informed STI policy can deliver towards tacking future sustainability crisis and make explicit the complexities and impossibility of a finalised output for achieving SDGs, especially in a year as difficult and uncertain as 2020. Adopting a more agile policymaking strategy, efforts should go into making space for distributed use and rapid iterations of a non-linear and dynamic set of guidance for STI in the years to come.

The STIP 2020 will be India’s fifth policy on science, technology and innovation in around 73 years after independence. None of the previous four policies were made amidst a raging pandemic and economic distress. The present pandemic as well as persistent sustainability challenges demand a considerable departure of the new policy from the previous ones in terms of policy process and outcomes. Instead of catching up with others perceived to be ahead in the league, India’s path to a sustainable and equitable future could be marked by its own innovativeness, collective (albeit contradictory) imaginaries and support for experimentation towards sustainability.

The aim is not to follow but to learn from and join other countries in the journey towards sustainable futures.

Bipashyee Ghosh is a researcher fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex Business School. She works at the interface of science and innovation policy in the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium project. Sumit Kumar is a postgraduate student at the unit. His research interest lies in understanding how science, technology and innovation can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

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