Sep 28, 2023 - Science

U.S.-India science ties deepen as both try to counter China

Illustration of a collage of hands holding flasks and petri dishes, India's flag, and the US flag.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The U.S. is expanding its long-standing scientific collaborations with India —as both countries prioritize strengthening their science and tech foundations and try to counter China's ever-growing influence.

Why it matters: The Biden administration is trying to build "a stable base in the Indo-Pacific." India is challenging China to become the voice of the Global South. Science is a lever of power both are pulling to try to achieve those goals.

What's happening: There have been people-to-people and institute-to-institute collaborations and partnerships for decades, but the deepening support of government-to-government could make collaboration easier, says Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

  • The U.S. and India, along with Israel and the UAE, announced a new joint space venture last week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
  • President Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 earlier this month announced a joint initiative focused on biotechnology and the India-U.S. Global Challenges Institute, a network of universities in the U.S. and India aimed at advancing science and tech in the two countries.
  • The National Science Foundation has invested nearly $150 million in more than 200 joint projects with India in the last five years, including 35 this year focused on AI, edge computing and other emerging technologies, NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan said during his G20 visit to India.
  • Those followed a host of other science, space and emerging tech initiatives the two countries announced over the last year.

Where it stands: The growing U.S.-India research partnership is fueled in part by India's large diaspora in the U.S.

  • More than 720,000 scientists and engineers born in India emigrated to the U.S. in 2019 and make up nearly 30% of the foreign-born U.S. STEM workforce.
  • The diaspora is also influential: Google, IBM, CRISPR Therapeutics, the NSF, the AAAS and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy are all helmed by people born in India or of Indian descent.

Zoom in: Government funding is often directed to universities that have been a venue for collaboration between the U.S. and India for decades, starting with exchanges between students and scholars in the two countries.

  • India has been "a critical partner" for the University of Chicago for a long time, says Juan de Pablo, the university's executive vice president for science strategy.
  • Those partnerships continue to grow: As part of the G20 announcements, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay joined the Chicago Quantum Exchange, a quantum science research hub based at the University of Chicago.
  • "Currently, there is less risk within India, but that may change in the future," de Pablo says, in comparison to scientific partnerships with China that are under intense scrutiny in the U.S. "We did not anticipate that this was coming and look at where we are now."

Reality check: China remains the United States' main scientific partner, though the growth in collaboration has slowed.

  • "There's no way that India can replace China in the relationship in science and technology," says Caroline Wagner, who studies international science collaboration at Ohio State University.

Between the lines: In a paper not yet peer-reviewed, Wagner and Georgia Tech professor Travis Whetsell measured the research capacity of the world's countries.

  • On core technical capacity, India ranked in the top 10, aside the U.S., China, Japan and others. But when factoring in governance issues — academic freedom and control of corruption — both India and China dropped out of the top 30 countries.

The big picture: The deepening partnership has geopolitical and economic goals, as well as scientific ones.

  • "Both New Delhi and Washington see strong reasons to counter China," says Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, adding there have also been a series of tracks in the U.S.-India relationship that don't relate to China, including economic cooperation that began in the early 1990s.
  • India is trying to generate "alternatives, providing newer, different more desirable models than China ... to pitch itself to the world as a rising science and tech power relative to China," he says.
  • In global scientific partnerships, India could also fuel the development of a science and tech sector that supports economic growth. India has long said it has a goal of spending 2% of the country's GDP on research and development each year. But it invested just over 0.6% in 2020-2021, while the U.S. and some other countries spend more than 3%.

What to watch: The relationship presents challenges, including India's layers of bureaucracy, which can be hard to navigate, Parikh says.

  • Press freedom has diminished in India under Modi and the government has been criticized for discrimination and persecution of the country's Muslim population, among other issues.
  • A major sticking point is export controls. The U.S. has been hesitant to transfer sensitive types of military and other technologies to India because of its dependence on Russian military equipment.
  • The Indian government earlier this year granted the first approvals for foreign universities to establish campuses in India. But the country ranks low when it comes to academic freedom, posing challenges for foreign universities.
  • And while India may be easier to partner with than China from a geopolitical perspective, there are "a lot of barriers in terms of the regulatory environment in India," says Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities (AAU).
Go deeper