Revamping India’s scientific ecosystem

There is a massive wave of entrepreneurial energy coursing through India’s arteries. The need is to connect this enthusiasm with excellence in basic and applied research in our higher educational institutions.

August 03, 2015 02:38 am | Updated March 29, 2016 12:56 pm IST

Vijay Chandru.

Vijay Chandru.

A newspaper headline, “The Lament and the Lash”, made waves recently. Interestingly, it was a report on how Chairman Emeritus, Infosys Ltd., N.R. Narayana Murthy had lamented, while delivering the convocation address at the Indian Institute of Science, on July 15, 2015, that India has not produced a single invention that became a global household name. “… let us pause and ask what the contributions of Indian institutions of higher learning particularly IISc and IITs [Indian Institutes of Technology], have been over the last 60-plus years to make our society and the world a better place. Is there one invention from India that has become a household name in the globe? Is there one technology that has transformed the productivity of global corporations? Is there one idea that has led to an earth-shaking invention to delight global citizens? Folks, the reality is that there is no such contribution from India in the last 60 years….,” were his words.

Mr. Murthy then went on to contrast local achievements with some by MIT (the one in Massachusetts, and not Madras or Manipal), recalled the contributions made by Indian scientists in the 1950s and 1960s and then challenged IISc’s finest to revisit that passion. This is a bit of an unfair comparison since most global universities, the West included, would fare poorly in comparison with MIT. According to the Kauffman Foundation report in 2009, MIT alumni founded companies that generated over $2 trillion in revenue a year (the 11th largest economy, when viewed as the GDP of a nation) and provided gainful employment to over 3.3 million people.

‘Translational research’ However, Mr. Murthy’s focus on the value that could be created for society by the outgoing class of 2015 is not misplaced. IISc’s founders, J.N. Tata and the Mysore Maharaja, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, had hoped that the institute would contribute to the “material benefit” of society. In turn, Mr. Murthy asked the students to realise the ideals of the founders. However, these ideals have evolved based on interpretations by the then leadership; therefore, today, some realignments may be needed.

For example, there is a massive wave of entrepreneurial energy coursing through the nation’s arteries. If we could connect this enthusiasm with excellence in basic and applied research in our higher educational institutions, the possibility of a new growth engine that has more enduring value seems within reach. This synergy needs a new alignment around the theme of “translational research” — a concept easy to describe but hard to execute as it disturbs the order.

At SelectUSA 2015, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt reasoned why the United States continues to hold the innovation advantage — its outstanding centres of higher education and the clusters of enterprises around them. He talked about Vannevar Bush, the engineer, inventor, founder of Raytheon and science administrator par excellence, who had enabled this in the post-World War II era. President Roosevelt had challenged Bush, as Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, to make a plan for the post-war period. Bush then penned the now classical declaration, “Science the endless frontier” in July 1945. He was not advocating “applied” over “basic” research. It must be noted that basic research leads to new knowledge and provides scientific capital. New products and processes do not appear in final form as if by magic, but are painstakingly developed by scientific enquiry.

Bush presented the blueprint for the National Science Foundation. For historians, Bush is to be noted for having “insisted upon the principle of Federal patronage for the advancement of knowledge in the United States, a departure that came to govern Federal science policy after World War II.”

Science, the endless frontier In post-Independent India too, we have seen similar tasks being presented to Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Meghnad Saha and C.V. Raman by Jawaharlal Nehru. For example, in 1947, C.V. Raman proclaimed that “vast powers are placed in the hands of man by successful research which opens up a vista of possibilities for its beneficient application in the relief of the fundamental ills of humanity, namely hunger, poverty and disease.” For perhaps the first three decades after 1947, India did experience a great period of development driven by the passion to create and innovate for the “material advancement” of the nation. This was manifested in the public sector undertakings as there was no real capital available from the private sector for this kind of institution building. Committed leadership was present through those years. The image of IISc created by scientist-engineer Satish Dhawan to drive important initiatives in space, electronics, machine tools, aviation and rural technologies remains its legacy.

So early on, India’s science and technology strategy was in step with those of the most progressive nations. Scientists dedicated themselves to institution and capacity building. Despite inheriting an economy ravaged by colonialism, the Indian leadership seemed to have found the resources to carve a special role for science in the country’s development.

Incidentally, the Indian IT industry owes a great deal to visionaries in the government in the 1960s and 1970s. The Department of Electronics identified “software led exports” as a segué for Indian export promotion in 1972 and provided resources to buy computers and get the private sector up to speed. Software technology parks in the 1980s and 1990s enabled industry to import equipment at competitive prices, avail tax holidays and access free connectivity to the Internet. The leg up that industry received in these two decades is often overlooked in the facetious praise of “benign neglect by the government” as the reason for the IT sector’s success. The truth is that the government provided the right help at the right time and did not over-regulate the sector — a fine example of directed public policy in technology.

“Innovations” such as the “24-hour work day and global delivery” were borrowed from the supply chain and hospitality industry as the IT industry needed to maintain a fantastic growth rate triggered by the fortuitous service opportunities that the Y2K (millennium) crisis provided. The sector has continued to maintain scale at a breakneck speed.

A contrast in cultures In the late 1970s and 1980s, science and higher education in the U.S. was going through a major realignment. The bets were on translation and commercialisation of federally funded research output. The Bayh-Dole Act (1980) allowed individual researchers and universities “to leverage funded research output as intellectual property that could be taken forward, licensed or commercially exploited to create new products, solutions and private companies”. Overnight, professors transformed themselves from “geeks into suits”, learned to hire lawyers, negotiate with universities, attract investors, build companies and hand off to professionals to scale and build value. For example, Boston and the Bay Area in the U.S. began to bustle with high technology companies that sprouted at regular intervals. Clusters formed around the hotspots of scientific research and “regional advantage” in Saxenian terms took root.

In contrast, India chose a new alignment which might be considered a conservative and almost retrograde pivot. There was a culture of “singular focus on excellence in research”. Institutes of higher education were bound tightly to purist academic metrics — “publish in high quality journals, place your postgraduate students in centres of excellence and ensure that the most tutored young scientists entered the campus”. We were promoted, feted and given awards based on these metrics.

Some correction in the quality of research may have been warranted. The National Centre for Biological Sciences and the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore were exemplary new additions to the “Science City” and within proximity to IISc and the Raman Research Institute. Over the last three decades, many new IITs, Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research and Indian Institutes of Management have come up. Publications seem to be showing a hockey stick growth in numbers and many young and senior doctoral students in the diaspora are returning home as universities improve.

Yet, engineering and applied scientific research have not shown relevance to practice. We have clearly lost the plot as far as the accountability of science to society is concerned and need to make some course corrections. Self and peer review seem to have been ineffective in auditing and nudging institutions and faculty to be more accountable to society. One solution is to introduce frequent third party external reviews with mechanisms for actionability. We can be sure that such a move will meet resistance.

Entrepreneurship and innovation The drumbeat on innovation and entrepreneurship has been rolling for over a decade in India. The virtues of innovation are being written and spoken about, with grass roots and business innovators, incubators, accelerators and entrepreneurs coming up in every corner. There is a rapid conversion of demographic dividend into a “hungama” of entrepreneurship. India now has the world’s second largest number of entrepreneurs, as a Google search will show.

With incubators and seed capital becoming accessible, a handful of start-ups attempting to translate research are visible. Localised versions of the Bayh-Dole legislation have been doing the rounds of Parliament and institutes of higher education. While the trends are right, the volume and velocity of impact is still quite disappointing.

Developing on this, we need to blend the emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem with centres of excellence in higher education, and soon we would be a nation transformed. This would require great focus on translation of research while extending support for excellence in research in the basic and applied sciences.

I come back to the point made in the first paragraph, that of Mr. Murthy’s “lament and lash” which could be turned into “appreciation and applause”. For this to happen, we need to pay close attention to the realignment needed for translation to be elevated to a high priority and processes to be in place to enable a scaled effect. Incubation centres, patent cells and technology transfer offices are visible in many institutions but as satellite activities and translation is not core to the academic mission. Vannevar Bush also said: ‘Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress, no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.”

A prescriptive plan of realignments is being formulated and will be made public soon. But the execution of the plan will need commitment from institutions of higher education, science administrators, the state, and, most importantly, by scientists.

(Vijay Chandru is an engineer-scientist, a former professor of IISc and an entrepreneur. He is a member of the expert committee on innovation and entrepreneurship at Niti Aayog. The views expressed are personal.)

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