The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a global technology policy think tank, ranks India third from amongst 56 countries on the extent to which, on a per capita basis, economic and trade policies contribute to or detract from innovation globally. Well, hold on, that’s not from the top, but from the bottom. The reasons for such low ranking include the lack of needed support from government, industry and community. A bulging middle class that made excellent use of opportunities of higher education, has been keener in pursuing careers that brought attractive pay packages far removed from research.
For four decades since Independence, running until the end of the 1980s, young boys and girls had the overarching desire to get into administrative service or pursue blue ribald courses in engineering and medicine through premier institutions that assured remunerative placements. In that phase, large multinationals like Hindustan Lever and ITC attracted top talents with high pay packages. It was thus common for a brilliant student graduating from IIT, to pursue a management course at IIM ending up selling detergents, cigarettes and why even condoms. A good number of this creamy section migrated to the US and settled there. Understandably though, this yearning for higher standards of living; but polilcymakers did little to correct this.
With the information technology boom engulfing the country since the 1990s, the focus shifted to IT companies that offered irresistible pay packets and global placements. Civil, mechanical, electrical, metallurgical – whatever the stream pursued during graduation studies – the majority of engineers ended up in the IT sector.
The licence-permit-quota raj also contributed to little interest in pursuing application-oriented research. With the government limiting production volumes, industry was content with importing technology and reverse engineering. In the absence of large-scale production, commitment to R&D was rare. Little wonder, for decades, research efforts were confined to defence, space, CSIR, ICAR and a few large public sector units.
The prosperity of industries in the US and Europe was aided by generous support from the government, community, universities and by growing numbers of alumni. In the US local communities made liberal allotment of land. Famous universities like Purdue and Wisconsin at Madison have been endowed with thousands of acres of land. Over time, these have set up institutions for a wide range of disciplines and provide quality education to around 40,000 each. Look at the research spend of UW-Madison: of over
$ 800 million – around Rs 5000 crore! With such funding, academics have been able to pursue high-quality research in frontier areas of technology. Funding by business also helps in the pursuit of research for results. In the horticulture department at Purdue, Heinz funds research on increasing the shelf life of tomatoes and their pulp content; both of these have the potential to increase revenues for Heinz in millions of dollars.
Catch students young and nurture research...
Post-2000 India has been witnessing a welcome change in its approach to R&D and innovation. In this, there is a welcome support for policy and funding by the government. Over the last ten years, the Department of Science & Technology massively stepped up allocations for the pursuit of science and technology. Dr T Ramasami as Secretary, DS&T, focused attention on science education for young students and nurtured talent from the school to the PhD levels through the INSPIRE programme. The UPA government had set up several higher institutes for science education spread across the country such as the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research.
A great initiative by Saint Gobain - IIT-M
The initiative taken by the leading academics at the IIT- Madras and business leaders led to the setting up of the IIT-M Research Park, to work on collaborative research between industry and the faculty and students of IIT. Phase I, constructed over 40,000 sq.ft, became fully occupied a couple of years ago and had helped 50 businesses and around 100 start-ups well incubated. The IIT-M calendar for 2016 showcases the breakthrough innovations made by a dozen of these. Several of these have received support from venture capital through Angel Investors.
In this issue, we include a comprehensive report on the inauguration of Saint-Gobain Research India (SGRI) at the IIT-M Research Park Phase II. SGRI is the seventh global research centre of the 350-year-old Saint-Gobain, the French industrial giant on building materials. The focus on research, both fundamental and application-oriented, at this world-class facility, will be the first such SG facility set up at a university campus. SGRI will work in close collaboration with the faculty, research scholars and students of the reputed IIT-M. Our interactions with a score of scientists and senior business executives hold the promise of answering the problem with which we began this essay, viz., furthering the quest for innovation, research and development.