‘We want youngsters to take to S&T in a big way'

Bangalore:25/10/2010..... Infosys Chief Mentor Narayan Murthy during the announcing of the winners of Infosys Prize 2010 in Bangalore on Monday 25th October 2010. Photo: G.P. Sampath Kumar   | Photo Credit: G.P.Sampath Kumar

Established last year, the Infosys Prize is an annual award to honour outstanding achievements in five branches of natural and social sciences.

Shortly after this year's recipients of the prize were announced on October 25, N.R. Narayana Murthy, Chairman and Chief Mentor, Infosys Technologies, spoke to N. Gopal Raj, Science Correspondent of The Hindu , about the importance of promoting high-quality research in order to secure India's scientific future. China and other developing countries are rapidly striding ahead in research and development, and India must not be left behind, he maintained.

In an article you wrote in The Hindu last November, you observed, “While India is uniquely positioned to use technology for progress, it has in the recent past lagged behind considerably in the quality and speed of scientific research.” From the perspective of someone from a high-technology industry in India, why is such scientific research important?

Science is about unravelling nature. Engineering or technology is all about using the power of science to make life better for people, to reduce cost, to improve comfort, to improve productivity, etc. Therefore, any country that has made advances in prosperity has invariably depended on science. If England became a world power, it was because of the industrial revolution. If the U.S. became the undisputed superpower that it is today, it was primarily because of its technology, whether it is in transportation, agriculture, high-tech industry, medicine, etc. Therefore, for a country like India to solve its problems of nutrition, healthcare, shelter, etc. we need technology

Are we slipping behind in scientific research when compared to other nations?

Yes we are, because other countries are progressing faster. It is not that we have slowed down too much, I don't think so. We have done reasonably well compared to our own past performance. But that doesn't suffice. You are always compared with other people. So if you look at China, South Korea, Singapore, Brazil and other developing countries, they have all gone past us. That's the reason.

You mentioned China. Now, China has grown in leaps and bounds, not just in terms of its economy but also in terms of its research and development (R&D) capabilities. China's spending on R&D as a share of GDP has doubled in the last decade and it is now the world's third biggest investor in R&D after the U.S and Japan. It has also emerged as the world's leading high-technology exporter, displacing the U.S. How is that going to affect the competitiveness of Indian industry in the global marketplace in the coming years? Will it be seriously affected?

If you look at the world ranking of universities, of institutes; India doesn't have one university or institute in the top 300 of the Shanghai Index ( Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by the Shanghai Jiaotong University). On the other hand, China has two in the top 40. If you look at the top 100, China has six or seven. China's telecom company Huawei is a big competitor in communications to Cisco and many other international companies. In other words, it has become a global level company. While we have several global players as well, we need more players who can go out of India and say, ‘We will compare with the best.' Yes, there is Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), etc. in one area. But China has become a leading global player in several areas. And for that to happen, you need new ideas, you need innovation, and ideas and innovation come only with education, with original thinking. That is where I believe that higher education and research become extremely important. One good thing is that a recent newspaper report said that between 1998 and 2007, while China was ahead of India in the number of research papers published, Indian research papers received greater number of citations. This is something we must encourage and build on.

A couple of years back, Bill Gates remarked that jobs in the U.S. would go where the engineering talent is and that other jobs around it would follow. If China continues its progress and India is not able to accelerate its scientific growth, does that mean that Indian companies would face a similar sort of issue, moving to where the scientific talent is?

At some level, it would. Areas where we would need researchers, areas where you need original thinkers, those areas would move to countries where there is an abundance of talent in these areas. There is no doubt. On the other hand, there will be areas where you don't need such people and those areas will continue to be in the country that has not achieved this. It is inevitable.

What do you see as the key steps that must be taken to ensure India's scientific competitiveness in the years ahead?

I think we need to embrace autonomy, meritocracy and enhance interaction between our universities and universities outside, particularly those that have performed much better than we have. We need exchange of faculty, we need exchange of students. We want students from those places to come and spend maybe a few months or a semester here. We want students from here to go spend a semester there. We want our researchers to submit more and more papers in global conferences. We want our people to become more patent-minded. We need a system that will rank our universities based on some universal parameters so that our youngsters can have an informed choice.

That would be in the area of education basically, isn't it? What about in the area of research?

We have a number of problems in this country. So our researchers will have to open their eyes towards what is happening around them. There are lots of problems that need to be solved. For example, we have to come out with mechanisms that can easily detect and plug the stealing of electricity that happens. We have to find solutions to ensure our roads, where a significant percentage of money goes as corruption, are built to last. We need to reduce carbon emissions of our automobiles. We need to increase the productivity of agriculture. There are umpteen problems. We need our researchers to look at these problems.

Industry finances about 75 per cent of the R&D in Korea and Japan, 70 per cent in China and 65 per cent in the U.S. In India, by contrast, the government finances more than 80 per cent of our R&D expenditure. In a recent report, the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister noted: “Except in sectors like pharmaceuticals and drugs, our industry does not appear to be making major investments in and demands on Indian science.” Shouldn't Indian industry, especially the high-technology sectors, be doing more to create and drive domestic R&D?

I think it works both ways. While the Indian industry has to show more interest in collaborating with the Indian academic community, it is necessary for the Indian academic community to show more interest in working with industry. Let me give you a very simple example. Every year, I receive a number of visitors from several International universities like Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Cambridge, University of Michigan, etc, etc. The professors from these universities are so keen on solving our problems. I would be very happy to also receive professors from our own institutions like the Indian Institute of Science, the IITs, and others. Our academicians must be interested in solving our problems.

Many multi-nationals have established R&D facilities in India. Do you think India's Information Technology industry is doing enough by way of creating R&D capabilities for itself?

We at Infosys have our software engineering and technology laboratories where there are 600 people working on issues that are relevant to our needs. So those are huge research laboratories. I think there are other companies too, which have such things. So therefore the answer is yes.

The best students will always go to where they get the best jobs and pay, and that is to be found in industry these days. A research career on the other hand, means protracted training and less remuneration. So how does one make such a career attractive to young people?

I have suggested several times to various institutions that for every paper that is produced in a world-class refereed journal, they could give Rs. four lakh. So that if you produce four papers in a year, then you have got Rs. 16 lakh. Add to that a salary of Rs. six or eight lakh a year, then you have got a decent sum.

What is the thinking in Infosys behind the establishment of the Infosys Science Foundation?

Well, the objective in establishing the Infosys Science Foundation is to create recognition and respect for role models in science and technology.

Unlike many established awards, which recognise achievers almost towards the end of their careers, the aim is to recognise and reward younger researchers, to enable them to leverage the full benefit of the prize and contribute to their work. We want youngsters in the country to take to science and technology in a big way. And that is going to happen only if we can create a positive environment for these people. Therefore we said we will have prizes of Rs. 50 lakh, which is not bad.

Is the Foundation going to do more than just award the Infosys Prize? Are there other plans that you have in mind?

No, I think at this stage, we will focus on this. This itself takes a lot of effort.

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