On June 8 the United States Senate passed the US Innovation and Competition Bill by a majority of 68-32 votes. The Senate which has 100 members is effectively evenly divided between the Democrat and the Republican parties. At a time when the US polity is polarised it is very significant that this Bill received large bipartisan support. This is because it is directed at giving a major fillip to US research and development in frontier areas of science and emerging technologies and manufacturing systems by earmarking a sum of US$ 250 billion over a five-year period. The Bill will now have to be cleared by the House of Representatives but the Senate passage shows US commitment to thwart current and future competition to its leadership in these areas mainly from China.
Recognising the importance of the Bill, President Joe Biden said “It will empower us to discover, build and enhance tomorrow’s most vital technologies--from artificial intelligence, to computer chips, to the lithium batteries used in smart devices and electric vehicles--right here in the United States”. He went on to say “We are in a competition to win the 21st century, we cannot risk falling behind. America must maintain its position as the most innovative and productive nation on Earth”.
Biden’s words are an unmistakable signal of US resolve to not relinquish its lead in science and technology. It is also indicative of its desire to evolve new manufacturing technologies which will attract high end manufacturing back to the US. It follows that this commitment will influence a range of US policies from investments and trade to immigration. It will also impact on the nature of globalisation when the Covid pandemic ends and global supply chains are restructured to reduce dependence on one economy including in the critical areas relating to these technologies.
There is little doubt that the US specifically and the Western world in general did not anticipate the speed and depth of China’s transformation and rise. When China began to open up to foreign investments in the late 1970s it had gone through the devastation of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s; its impact had continued to be felt on its economy and its scientific and technological infrastructure. What China therefore initially offered was a platform for stable manufacture through a control of labour and an improving infrastructure. Manufacturing technology was brought in by multinational companies. The Western powers simply did not think till the early part of this century that China could acquire the scientific and technological prowess to challenge their dominance in some of these vital areas. This was especially so because they had outplayed the Soviet Union, their principal adversary till its collapse in 1991, in the spread of digital technologies. And now Russia, which was the core of the Soviet Union and is its successor state, is well behind in most areas of frontier technologies despite its acknowledged strengths in defence, nuclear and space.
Perhaps what really shook the US and the West was Chinese advances in telecommunication technologies as seen in the 5G instance. China has also done well in biotechnology and this too will be a challenge to the US in future. In the case of 5G the US has actively pressed many countries, including India, to disallow its import. While these pressures may succeed in the short-term US policy makers are doubtless aware that there is no way in which they can succeed in the long run. Even the staunchest of allies cannot be expected to eschew the advantages of better and price-wise more competitive products for all time. The only effective way is therefore to maintain the lead in science and technology.
That is the lesson of history too. Societies with superior scientific and the technological knowledge especially when applied to defence and security areas were able to control others. Indeed, India and China that between them contributed around half the GDP of the world till part of the 18th century lost out to the West which gradually went ahead in science and technology after the Renaissance and especially after the Industrial Revolution. The age of European conquest and of colonialism followed including in India.
The great lesson which progressive Indian freedom fighters learnt was that a country which was left behind in science and technology could never really be in the front ranks of the nations of the world even if it may prosper for many decades on account of its resource base or its geographical location. Jawaharlal Nehru fully realised that one of the fundamental requirements to take India to greatness was to develop science and technology and inculcate in the people a scientific attitude. Hence, he devoted national resources to establish science and technology institutes across the full range of human activities. They contributed to India’s growth in agriculture, industry and above all in developing a cadre of highly trained scientists and technologists. There is now the urgent need as the digital age is witnessing scientific and technological transformations with astonishing speed for the Indian state and the private sector to focus with greater vigour to indigenously develop expertise across the full range of scientific and technical knowledge and their applications for the welfare of the people. The key word is indigenous; for no country parts with the latest in these vital areas, it only gives either its products at exorbitant prices or with that which is outmoded.
Those who aspire to atmanirbhar Bharat must realise that India will be truly so only when it begins to lead the world again in science and technology.
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