When can there be progress in research?

Research and Development (R&D) activities foster innovation, herald technological advances, and ultimately promote economic growth. An increase in gross expenditure on R&D activities is an indicator of a nation’s long-term vision and growth strategies.

Research progresses when smart minds meet challenging problems. After that chance meeting, the research group should have timely access to research analysis, synthesis and characterisation equipment that can be employed to investigate the problem. This ecosystem has only been enabled in the Tier-I research and education institutions such as the IITs, IISc and CSIR laboratories.

A start-up requiring, say, materials characterisation or microscopy has to wait in line for so long that the idea could become moot pursuing. With over 40,000 Ph.D students graduating annually and lakhs of researchers competing for limited resources, access to equipment has stymied progress in India and has stunted the quality of research questions for too long. The ‘access’ problem requires a solution on a war footing. The answer lies in fostering a shared economy for access to research equipment through an ecosystem of Research Oasis labs.

Increasing research spending

According to the recent R&D statistics report published by Department Of Science & Technology, Government of India, while India’s Gross Expenditure on R&D (GERD) has consistently increased over the years, the GERD as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been stagnating at around 0.7% for the past couple of years. Most developed countries tend to spend over 2% of their GDP on R&D.

With respect to private sector investment in R&D, according to the report by ICICI Securities, firms in India spent approximately 0.9% of their revenues on R&D during FY 2020. This is abysmally low compared to other developed/developing nations. It should be our endeavour to increase both government and private sector spending on R&D.

Encouraging group effort

In the current highly competitive research marketplace, the best work is done when resources match intent. While it is still possible for individuals to deliver brilliant research working alone, a large share of cutting-edge research is an outcome of large groups working with expensive equipment.

This is particularly true in areas where access to state-of-the-art equipment such as X-ray absorption spectrometer and Solid-state Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer can elevate the quality of research considerably. Even in purely computational areas such as Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, groups with larger computing power are likely to dominate.

Research management

India needs to think about levelling the playing field. While it might not be feasible to match the research funding levels of developed countries, given our resource constraints and multiple alternate worthwhile causes to consider, targeted investments in clusters of excellence and a clear mandate to make the facilities accessible to every corner of India can bridge this gap. This would require top-class research management learnt from developed countries but adjusted to the Indian context.

Take Bengaluru as a case. The city is home to some of the best aerospace research institutions with facilities that rival the best laboratories in the world. It would be helpful to create an open cluster of aerospace fabrication and characterisation equipment through a public-private partnership. The equipment can be funded and owned by the government but the management, maintenance and operation can be leased to a private partner. This model is similar to some of the Department of Energy laboratories in the U.S. and will ensure the greatest use of the equipment and could eventually spawn a cluster of start-ups in that space.

Incentivising private research funding

For too long, funding research in India has been the burden and responsibility of the Government. This is unsustainable since the fruits of such research — including the manpower trained during the process — are to be employed by the private sector. The latter should be incentivised to participate in the creation and operation of the laboratories.

For example, CSR funds towards the creation of the RO laboratories can be given tax incentives similar to Section 35 (2AA) of the IT Act, which has now lapsed. Similarly, philanthropy should be encouraged to invest in the creation of such a shared infrastructure.

Top-class infrastructure must be manned by top-class minds. This is another area in which India has considerable catching up to do. Meeting of unlike minds with different gender, cultural, ethnic, and national backgrounds will prove to be a cauldron for innovation.

To further diversify our campuses, India must position herself as an attractive destination for the best in the world to spend time pursuing research.

Prof. Mahesh Panchagnula is the Dean for Alumni and Corporate Affairs at IIT-Madras and a faculty in the Department of Applied Mechanics, IIT-Madras.

Prof. Raghunathan Rengaswamy is the Dean for Global Engagement at IIT-Madras and a faculty in the Department of Chemical Engineering, IIT-Madras.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 12:00:25 PM |

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