If cynics are right, we are a nation of talkers. There are hundreds of think tanks in India, many in Delhi, but none of them figured among the top 50 in the University of Pennsylvania's 2012 global think tank rankings released in January.
The only Indian entity in the top 100 bracket was the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a Delhi-based think tank. Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, The Energy and Resources Institute, the Observer Research Foundation and Development Alternatives figured in the top-150 list.
Why have Indian think-tanks failed to find their way into global rankings? What could be the constraints for these entities?
Virtually no one denies the poor performance of these entities. However, many think often, global rankings have methodological limitations. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president and chief executive of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), said the Pennsylvania rankings were based on the focus areas of think tanks. "Indian think tanks are very small and often domestically preoccupied. They are not a big voice in global issues. CPR and CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) are probably the biggest. But we are very small by global standards. They were also unable to explain many things," he said.
Sonalde Desai, senior fellow at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), said if the rankings were not skewed against entities that worked on domestic issues, the position of Indian think tanks would have been better.
Many like Ajay Shah, professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, however, have a different take. Shah said India faced a severe talent crunch. "Look at the experts in any field and count the number of Indians in the list. There are not many. This is just an outcome of our poor university system. But even in the US, much of the research and Nobel Prize winners come from universities, not think tanks," he said.
In the QS World University Rankings in 2012, no Indian university was ranked among the top 200. The only Indian institutions that figured in the top 300 were Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Delhi, IIT-Mumbai and IIT-Kanpur.
"If we want the best people, we have to hire people from abroad. For that, the salaries have to be higher. The salaries in Indian think tanks are very low. The administration system is too poor and the incentive system is too weak to attract bright minds," Shah added.
"It is very hard for think tanks to attract talent today because the salaries in Indian think tanks are very low. Also, we get very little sustained funding from the government, though data collection can be very expensive," said NCAER's Desai.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, however, said the poor performance of Indian think tanks didn't have anything to do with shortage of talent. "Indians indulge in the harshest self-criticism. But this is an entirely self-fulfilling argument. If you donate $10 million to Harvard, you will get a chair. The total spending of the Indian Council for Social Science Research on India's research ecosystem is about $10 million. The gross expenditure of CPR in 2010-11 was only Rs 11.91 crore, while that of CSDS is comparable. The marginal returns from investing in India are much higher. But the Indian business community is happier to pay Harvard," Mehta said.
In 2010, Ratan Tata had donated $50 million to Harvard Business School, the largest international donation in the school's 102-year history. Earlier, Mahindra group Vice-Chairman Anand Mahindra had donated $10 million to Harvard's humanities centre.
However, Nitin Pai, founder of The Takshashila Institution, thinks when there is talent, funding follows. "Low funding is a constraint. But it does not fully explain the situation. How much money does a think tank need? Good research requires talented people." Parth Shah, president of CCS, also thinks money isn't the biggest issue. "The US dominates to the think tank industry. But does that mean think tank salaries in the UK are much lower? Think tanks salaries are lower than what a talented person can get elsewhere. But no one chooses a job at a think tank for money." he said.
Ajay Shah disagreed, saying the best think tanks in the UK were comparable to the best in the US. In the top 10 think tanks in the Pennsylvania State rankings, five of were from the US. The US has the largest number of think tanks in the world.
Shah said though there were many think tanks, it was impossible to predict which of these would come up with good research. "Because of the weak feedback mechanism, a lot of poor quality work gets published. Much of what is published in the name of development economics is worthless. The science has to move beyond it," he said.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta thinks these entities have a better feedback mechanism than that of for-profit organisations. "We have to live by our reputation. We are subject to more scrutiny and evaluation when compared to for-profits. Peer review is a form of feedback. Non-profit performance should not be evaluated by the same yardstick that is applied to for-profits," he said.