Sustainability and India Public Survey

Seeram Ramakrishna, FREng and Krishnan Narayanan

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Fig 1 Net Score of Benefits Vs Risks of Technologies

Fig 2 Net Score of Comfort Level of Usage of AI in Applications

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in humanity’s most profound medical, economic and social crises of the century (1). As a response to these crises, the world is discovering a state of new normal.  We wanted to understand the perceptions of the public in India about the new normal and about science and technology. The Survey methodology included conducting an online questionnaire (2). The Survey was disseminated among the alumni and students of IIT Madras, and to leading scientific and technical institutions in India. Our Survey questionnaire is benchmarked with similar global surveys by the UK Charter for Science and Society, the European Commission (Special Eurobarometer). We had 1564 respondents to the Survey, of which 78% had a high extent of science education (under-graduate / post-graduate level).

We analyse the Survey findings (3) from the following perspectives which have critical impact on policy making:

  1. Perception about the new normal and awareness, hopes, concerns, and levels of trust about science and technology
  2. Public attitude to Sustainability and Artificial Intelligence

Perception about the new normal and awareness, hopes, concerns, and levels of trust about science and technology

The respondents demonstrate a sense of resilience and optimism about the future. 82% of them are very or fairly confident that we will drive a new normal in the next few years. 80% of the respondents believe that the current state of rapid digitisation that we are experiencing in our lives will become permanent. Interestingly, the younger respondents believe the least that this digitization will be permanent – Net score (Net score is sum of positive responses minus sum of negative responses) of those under age 21 and 21-40 are just over half that of those in age group 41-60 and 60+. Perhaps, it is a reflection of how they desire the future should be. The respondents overall believe that a ‘hybrid model’, one that involves a combination of remote working and in-person or onsite working, will be dominant in the future of Work (Net score 83%) and Education (Net score 65%).

This finding is in line with other studies, especially in the Indian IT market (4). Policy makers should recognise this trend and create policies that encourage a hybrid model of work and education. For instance, the Department of Telecommunications extended connectivity norms in India up to 31st December 2020 to facilitate work from home.

Sustainability has come out as an important factor in the study.  The respondents, when asked about the top technology priorities for India, identify Information Technology including AI, agriculture technology and environmental technology (technology for energy, water, air etc.) as the top three priorities.

When asked for their perception of ‘benefits vs risks’ for emerging technologies, the respondents strongly believe that the benefits outweigh the risks for sustainable technologies like Renewable Energy (Net score 87%) and Electric Vehicles (Net score 76%). They do not believe that benefits outweigh risks for technologies like Cryptocurrency (Net score -7%), Synthetic Virology (Net score -4%) and Gene editing (Net score -4%), perhaps reflective of the early stages of such technologies.  See Fig 1.

This is aligned with our views on creating a sustainable new-modern society and some of the mega-trends we see with respect to sustainability especially around food industry, water and energy sector (5). Researchers have proposed strategies to address biodiversity loss and climate change and have proposed how such sustainability strategies help reduce the potential for zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 from emerging in the future (6).

When asked what they recall when they hear the word “science”, respondents identify Physical Sciences like physics & chemistry (55%) the most, followed by Applied Sciences like engineering & medicine (33%). Formal sciences like mathematics (6%), Life sciences like biology (5%), and Social sciences like sociology (1%) came way below among respondent choices. Policy makers should continue to promote STEM education and adopt online education platforms for it (7). Such a finding may be seen as an opportunity for the policy makers to promote social sciences in science / engineering programs and promote STEAM education in schools and colleges.

The respondents have an optimistic attitude towards science. 91% of the respondents believe that science and technology make our lives better and 96% believe that they make a direct contribution to economic growth of the country. The respondents are also discerning – 91% believe that scientists and technologists should discuss more with the public the social and ethical implications of their work. Policy makers should create more spaces for dialog between the public and scientists (8).

The Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India (Office of PSA) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) have jointly initiated a decentralized, bottom-up, and inclusive process for the formulation of a new national Science Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 (9). They have undertaken extensive public and expert consultation process through Science Policy Forums and thematic discussion groups.

In the Survey, the top three sources of scientific information include: 1) Online Websites 2) Scientific Journals 3) Social media like Facebook / WhatsApp / Twitter. Further, 88% of the respondents share online scientific information they receive. Factors like attractively presenting scientific information and the presence of a friends-network come out as important ones that facilitate online sharing of scientific information. A case is made for science to do a better job in telling stories (10). Thus, policy makers should ensure that they do consistent science communication to the public through online / digital mechanisms and place emphasis on both content and its packaging.

Public attitude to Artificial Intelligence

The top most ‘emerging technology’ that emerges in the Survey is Artificial Intelligence. 43% of the respondents pick AI, which is as much as the numbers for the next six emerging technologies put together. Such a premier position for AI is well aligned with the importance placed on it by Indian policy makers (11).

Respondents are most comfortable when it comes to the usage of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in applications like manufacturing that included automation and robots in factories (Net Score of 81%) and language translation (80%). Respondents are considerably less comfortable in AI applications like web personalization that included targeted advertising, recommendations for online products / content (8%), autonomous vehicle (29%), armed forces like drones and UAVs (34%) and automated application processing (34%). See Fig 2. Overall, the respondents believed that benefits of AI outweigh the risks (Net Score of 49%).

For the same AI application like healthcare, facial recognition and automated application processing, respondents are roughly 1.5 times less comfortable when asked if they will share personal data for the AI application as compared to when asked their comfort level with the AI application category itself. Policy makers should consider this dichotomy as they develop strategies for creating national level data repositories that will benefit AI research and applications.

There have been considerable discussions in the society about AI posing a threat to humanity and the established way of living and working. In our Survey, 42% of the respondents believe that the impact of AI on net new jobs created will depend on the industry, and on balance feel that, overall, more new jobs will be created than lost (Net score 1%). Further, 63% of the respondents feel that humans will always be more intelligent that AI systems. Thus, they demonstrate a positive attitude towards this question of AI and humanity.  

One puzzling trend emerges in the Survey about how the youngsters perceive AI. Those in age category greater than 40 are relatively more optimistic that net new jobs will be created (Net score 14%) as compared to those aged less than 40 (Net score -8%). Further, respondents aged less than 40 are 3 times less confident than those aged more than 40 that human intelligence will not be overtaken by AI. Policy makers should pay close attention and devise appropriate education and communication strategies about AI for the youth.

Conclusions

The respondents in the Survey demonstrate a sense of resilience and optimism about the future and believe that digitisation is here to stay. Their dependence and belief in science and technology to make lives better is reinforced by the study.  Our findings align well with other global studies – in India, 85% say they have a lot or some trust in scientists to do what is right for them (12). It augurs well for the science and technology establishment in India. We would like to offer this study as one additional input into the science and technology planning process for India.

The findings from our Survey highlight trends like continued digitisation, hybrid model of the future of work and education, sustainability, and the importance of emerging technologies like AI, renewable energy, EVs. These align well with the Prime Minister's Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council's national missions in India around natural language translation, quantum frontier, artificial intelligence, electric vehicles and others (13).  

India should enhance its R&D spending from 0.7% of GDP and human resource capacity of 156 researchers per million inhabitants to greater numbers. For instance, the equivalent numbers for other countries are – Singapore (2.1% and 6632), United States (2.7% and 4205) and South Korea (4.3% and 6826) (14). Ultimately, the objective of the science and technology policy is to promote science and technology investments in the country and deliver scientific, economic and social impact to the society.

The public in India demonstrate a sense of optimism about the future in the new normal, and believe in science and technology to make their lives better.  

References

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  2. Driving the New Normal Survey, (2020); https://survey.zoho.com/survey/newui#/portal/394001749/department/jYikEu/mysurveys
  3. IIT Madras Alumni Association, Driving the New Normal Report, (2020); https://iitmaa.org/f/Sangam-2020---Driving-the-New-Normal-Report-7102?source=view
  4. Krishnan Narayanan et al, Impact of Covid-19 on IT companies in India, itihaasa Research and Digital, (2020)
  5. Seeram Ramakrishna et al., Looking through the COVID-19 Lens for a Sustainable New-Modern Society (2020); https://sustainabilitycommunity.springernature.com/posts/looking-through-the-covid-19-lens-for-a-sustainable-new-modern-society
  6. Dinerstein et al., A "Global Safety Net” to reverse biodiversity loss and stabilize Earth’s climate, Science Advances (2020); DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abb2824
  7. Igor Chirikov et al., Online education platforms scale college STEM instruction with equivalent learning outcomes at lower cost, Science Advances (2020); DOI:0.1126/sciadv.aay5324
  8. Roland Jackson, 12 things policy-makers and scientists should know about the public, The Guardian (2020); https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/dec/04/12-things-policy-makers-and-scientists-should-know-about-the-public
  9. Science Policy Forum, Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020; http://thesciencepolicyforum.org/initiatives/science-technology-and-innovation-policy-stip-2020/#how-to-engage-contribute
  10. Holden Thorp, Persuasive words are not enough, Science (2020); DOI: 10.1126/science.abd4085
  11. NITI Aayog, National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence, (2018); https://niti.gov.in/sites/default/files/2019-01/NationalStrategy-for-AI-Discussion-Paper.pdf
  12. Pew Research Center, Science and Scientists Held in High Esteem Across Global Publics, (2020); https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2020/09/29/science-and-scientists-held-in-high-esteem-across-global-publics/
  13. Office of the PSA, The 9 missions under the PM-STIAC, https://www.psa.gov.in/pm-stiac
  14. UNESCO Institute for Statistics, R&D Spending by country, http://uis.unesco.org/apps/visualisations/research-and-development-spending/

Acknowledgements

We are thankful to the IIT Madras Alumni Association and the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India for their support in conducting the Survey.

Seeram Ramakrishna, FREng, Everest Chair

Professor & Chair of Circular Economy Taskforce, National University of Singapore

UNESCO Global Expert Group member on the Universities & the 2030 Agenda (https://www.uib.no/en/sdgbergen/141236/members-unesco-expert-group).