Science in Industry and the Academy
At least 5.1 lakh patent applications were filed in India between
2005-06 and 2017-18, according to the data compiled by the Department of
Science and Technology, Govt of India, as part of the latest Science and
Technology Indicators (STI 2019-20) released recently. Data shows 76 per cent
of these applications were filed by "foreigners resident abroad" and the rest
by Indians. The silver lining is that the number of Indian applicants is slowly
increasing. Between 2005-06 and 2009-10, 18 per cent of patents were by
Indians. This increased to 24 per cent for the next five years and for the
three years thereafter, more than 30 per cent of the patents were filed by
Indians. At the same time, India improved its ranking in the global innovation
index by five places to 52nd in 2019 from 57th position in 2018.
According to a report titled 'R&D Expenditure Ecosystem', the Economic
Advisory Council to the Prime Minister said that "India's public investment in
R&D as a fraction of GDP has remained stagnant over the last two decades at
around 0.6 per cent to 0.7 per cent of GDP and this is well below the major
countries such as the United States (2.8 per cent), China (2.1 per cent),
Israel (4.3 per cent) and Korea (4.2 per cent). The growth in research and
development (R&D) expenditure should be commensurate with the economy's
growth and should be targeted to reach at least 2 per cent of the gross
domestic product (GDP) by 2022".
"To ensure that India leaps into a leadership role in innovation
and industrial R&D by stimulating private sector's investment in R&D
from current 0.35 per cent of GDP, it is suggested that a minimum percentage of
turn-over of the company may be invested in R&D by medium and large
enterprises registered in India," the report emphasised.
R&D in science & technology in India suffers, today more
than ever, from government underinvestment. This is exacerbated by the fact
that India tries to run on the same track as the wealthiest countries and the
best endowed institutes in the world. Only a handful of scientists and
institutions in India can afford it, and then only by monopolising an unfair
share of the country's scant funds. Even these players barely compete with
their chosen peers-never really at the top, but "somehow running".
This leaves most researchers and institutions with inadequate
resources, and worse, feeling backward.
In terms of big international initiatives, atomic energy and space
science, these are two significant investments that the government of India
made very early on in the 60s and the dividends are for all to see. Besides, we
set up a system for these two areas based on the traditional science model.
However, unfortunately, we are not doing so in other areas such as life science
or medicine. These are the areas where we need a strategy to improve our
ability to compete internationally.
Another obstacle is the slow and complex approval procedures for
large experimental programmes in India. The government needs to understand that
research is not a question of a few experiments - it requires longer
investment. Short-term projects create complications: for instance the
Department of Biotechnology's new initiative, the Biotechnology Industry
Research Assistance Council, works with industry and academia to try and fill
some of these gaps. But BIRAC funding is staged funding; it is helpful but the
budget is relatively poor.
Is there a dearth of talent in India? Certainly not and today
R&D investments, in the private/commercial sector in particular, are today
growing at twice the rate of government/public investment.
Is there a dearth of unstoppable achievers and innovators? Yes:
because making talent shine takes a culture that is proud of its scientists and
a charged intellectual environment that nurtures, mentors and drives them.
The efforts made by a handful of educational institutions such as
few IITs, academies and a few others are crucial, but inadequate. The majority
of science graduates in India are deprived of meaningful training. At this
crucial stage in their careers, they are denied the mentoring required to
instil the culture of science and the habit of analytical thinking and free
And once the scientists are trained? They work with inadequate, ill-maintained
equipment, in isolation from stimulating peers, their research not always free
from unscientific interference. We need to create an environment that nurtures
The quality of infrastructure and ecosystem for innovation in
India still leaves much to be desired. Do we concentrate on industrial or
fundamental science? The innovation ecosystem needs a knowledge economy driven
by fundamental research, and a commercial economy driven by businesses and
customers. These economies are interlinked. This also includes the funds for
government/public funded research and development derived from taxes.
The bulk of spending, especially for basic research, comes from
the government, through channels like direct funding of research
facilities, grants to universities and private-sector researchers, contracts
for specific projects, and tax subsidies. Without such intervention the
private sector may not deem it profitable to invest in basic science and
research. They may concentrate only on applied research projects that fetch
From a commercial investor's point of view, the returns from basic
research seldom accrue to the inventor, especially if the new knowledge or
technology can be copied at low cost. They would want governments to set
up an effective intellectual property framework, for exclusive and long-lasting
claims to the commercial benefits of their discoveries. Extending and expanding
patent rights will also help to strengthen the intellectual property rights
regime. Investment in research usually fetches later, but very impactful
Investments in science and technology are not just limited to
research and development, but comprise a range of intangible investments that
help drive innovation. We need an appropriate level of public and private
investment, effective innovation partnerships between businesses and with
universities. Maybe private corporations could pool funds together through
consortia to address different broad research areas. One way to do this can be
to focus public investment on basic research, and private investments on
further applied research.
India should also develop enabling policies that money can't buy.
Senior researchers working freely with students spot raw material and connect
them with more scientific mentors, nurture them and help their careers over
decades. In India, researchers generally start being mentored only when they
show promise as young principal investigators. Thus, a fresh returnee from a
leading postdoctoral lab abroad suddenly becomes all but invisible to key
collaborators or contacts at home and elsewhere. This results in the returnee
pursuing quality problems fragmented into ever smaller stories for ever more
publications, each of lower visibility.
How do we edge towards the big ideas? A top-down, long-term
mentorship scheme starting with graduate students could prove useful.
Cultivating excellence is a selective process. So it is important also to
innovate for an egalitarian system. Outstanding senior scientists, visionaries
who care deeply about taking their nation from good to great, must not be
neutralised by those intent on preserving the ossified status quo.
India should redevelop scientific ethics and etiquette. The
research community should value, for instance, collaboration with small
neighbouring colleges or universities instead of recognising only international
affliates. India should create a new peer-review system, research publication
system and new measures of "impact" - all tailormade for our needs, problems,
resources and interests. We need to believe in ourselves and not just chase
world rankings - as individuals, as institutions and as a country. Most
importantly, we should honour those who work on problems that are crucial to
India needs quality multidisciplinary research centres on energy,
poverty, malnutrition, health, education, air and water pollution, water
conservation, climate change, unseasonal flood, drought, weather forecasts for
agriculture, food security and more besides. These centres would also train the
next generation of researchers to use holistic approaches. A few IITs and IISc
Bangalore, has already established such centres. This step should be emulated
nationwide with funding from government and private industry. Germany's Max
Planck Institutes provide an ideal governing model, or the many CNRD
specialised research centres in universities in France.
Organisations need to make applied research and development
relevant to their business while non-government organisations, in addition to
the government, need to promote and allocate funds for basic research. The role
of such organisations and initiatives, in acting as a catalyst to achieve
success in research and development, are pivotal to both national progress and
global competitiveness (i.e. Infosys Science Foundation, Ajim Premji
Foundation, M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation etc). We should foster
collaborations between the government, academicians and the industry and
not-for-profits, facilitating the flow of innovations from research centers of
universities, to the industry, benefiting a nation's economy and its progress.
Our educational system is a spoilsport in all this. At the
fundamental level, a pedagogical change must encourage scientific enquiry amongst
children. Curiosity and passion are the two most important keys to becoming a
scientist. A solid foundation at the primary and secondary levels of learning
can help students enhance their understanding and give them the confidence to
pursue research in later years. Unstructured, accommodative and flexible
learning coupled with fulfilment of job roles through successful investment in
R&D can ignite the spark. Our exam-based system based on regurgitation is a
bit of a problem, as the scientific enterprise (even in the human sciences)
depends on asking questions.
In addition, we need systemwide policies to promote women into
science and technology leadership and research.
To climb out of the economic downturn and arrest disemployment,
governments must be proactive in nurturing and encouraging the development of
innovation ecosystems that foster basic research within industry and academia.