Only one Indian think tank -- the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) -- has been ranked among the top 50 in the in the latest annual global annual list for such institutions for 2013, released by the University of Pennsylvania. In contrast, China, despite its innate disadvantages in English language, has three entries in the top 50. Even such countries as Lebanon, Brazil, Egypt and Argentina have institutions ranking higher than the best that India has managed.
In the seventh edition of the rankings, India's solitary entry in the top 50, in fact, is rated lower than Brazil's Fundacao Getulio Vargas at Number 21, Argentina's Consejo Argentino par alas Relaciones Internacionales at Number 38, and Egypt's Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies at Number 48.
Even Kenya, Indonesia, Chile and Bangladesh have a think tank that rates higher than the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), India's second-highest-ranked institution. Apart from CCS and IDSA, four other Indian think tanks are bunched in the bottom 33 percentile of the list of 150. The saving grace is that all these six in the top 150 have shown a minor improvement over the previous listing.
The Centre for Civil Society (CCS) at Number 50, is up one rank from 51 last year. IDSA is at 102 (up from Number 105), the Indian Council for Research on International Economics Relations (ICRIER) at Number 105 (109), The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) at Number 107 (110), the Observer Research Institute (ORF) at Number 114 (115) and Development Alternatives at Number 140 (141).
Yet, it's nearly impossible to replicate Beijing's national resolve and oceans of state-funding that powers the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences at Number 20, the Chinese Institute for Social Sciences at Number 36, and, breaking into the top 50 this year, the Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations at Number 44.
Deep collaborations, read shedding the "my" feeling, will have surer outcomes.
"Why can't CCS and NCAER do some joint studies on the economic impact of vouchers? Why can't Janagraha and CCS work to improve livelihood opportunities in cities. Why can't some of ICRIER (formerly Indian Council for Research in International Economics Research) work be shared?" queries Harsh Shrivastava, chief operating officer of CCS.
"For that matter, why can't the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies and CCS can do more to understand how to take the idea of school-choice to the whole community. Or why don't the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram and CCS do joint research on market-based solutions to some of the tragedies of the commons that India faces?" Shrivastava, chief operating officer of CCS said in a 'congratulations' message to colleagues, reviewed by this columnist.
"We can't only have economist solving problems. Or only engineers! We need anthropologists, chemists, lawyers, journalists, sociologists, and perhaps even zoologists. CCS of course has economists, engineers, lawyers, journalists, and even a zoologist. But we perhaps need to combine our disciplines more effectively to think better. We need to cooperate and coordinate their work, especially if they have to make an impact on our complex nation. Yet, very few of us do!"
ORF, the only Indian think tank to be listed on four distinct specializations in disaggregated rankings, adds global projects to this prescription.
"Indian think tanks are increasingly collaborating with overseas institutions as it helps increase reach and also helps with cross-pollination of skills and techniques. Domestic collaboration between universities and think tanks is still very modest and far from what it must and could be. Indian institutions must collaborate more with each other to pool resources and deliver world-class outputs that can compete with the much better resourced and richer TTs from US and the UK," Sunjoy Joshi, director of the Reliance Industries-backed institution said.
For Indians who value the role of such institutions shaping a country's future, the carps aren't limited to China or that only those in the US or Europe have made it to the top 10.
Our feedstock is good. Out of 6,826 think tanks identified by U-Penn across 182 countries, we can boast of 268. Only the US (1,828), China (426) and the UK (287) have more.
Also, the general trend is bullish. ORF at Number 16, IDSA and 21 and CCS at 26 feature in the list of institutions "to watch out for."
As might be expected, we draw a blank in the list of the world's 40 best university-affiliated think tanks, topped by the redoubtable Harvard and London School of Economics, but having Iraqi Al-Mostansiriyah too.
But beyond research output, funding and resultant influence among policymakers drives these rankings. Here, the interplay of the government (and the country's university system or even political parties) remains India's weak link. Collaborations appears to be the only way forward, and even beyond, till these issues are addressed.