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Leading science and technology: The opportunity and the challenges for India

Varun Aggarwal, co-founder and Head of Research, Aspiring Minds | Author of 'India Next'

May 04, 2018 15:43

Today is the most opportune time for India to revolutionise its science and technology ecosystem. The size of our economy provides the capital, manpower and market to invest in scientific research and enjoy its social and economic fruits.

Our government and the private players have enough money to invest in long-term scientific research, without taking away from social and developmental programs. We have a large labour force with the potential to become researchers, entrepreneurs and product developers. They can develop the many different specialised skills required to turn an idea into a product in the market. And then, we have a large local market, the middle class and rural users, to provide opportunity to conduct pilots, to solicit feedback and ultimately to provide a market for innovative products. Very few countries in the world have the scale to support such an innovation ecosystem.

Also, as a Nation, we are psychologically ready for science and technology. Unlike ever before, technology has touched the lives of all strata of people – GPS, apps, internet, smart phones, MRI/CT scan machines and what not! The public opinion is amenable to investment in research and innovation to build newer technologies. They understand that it can make their lives better.

It is now or never, I say in my book ‘Leading Science and Technology: India Next?’ I argue that if India doesn’t build its research and innovation ecosystem now, it risks its economic growth and social development.

Although we have a large opportunity in science and technology, the challenges in our path are many. The good news is that we have one of the fastest growing research productivity in the world, albeit slower than China. We need to create a critical mass of high productivity researchers. Our count of high productivity researchers stands at 27,500 today while the count of US is 17 times and that of China is 7 times more than ours. We need to improve this number substantially in order to have an impact of any scale and size, toward advancing science, creating economic or social impact.

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Invest in Excellence

In order to emerge as a global superpower, India needs to focus on a few key elements, the first among them being ‘right’ investment in research. It is often argued that low public and private investment in research is a major impediment. However, this is only partially true. We need to invest in ‘excellence’. Rather than having too many researchers, we need to spend to possess a larger number of high productivity researchers. Our proportion of high productivity researchers is currently at 14%. It is much lower than most other developed countries. Research awareness, great professional and monetary rewards can act as major drivers for more and more high-performing students to take up research as a career option.

We need to have high ‘quanlity’ of researchers – high quantity of high-quality researchers. This is the first and the most immediate need.

Healthy collaboration and competition

Researchers multiply each other’s success through healthy competition and collaboration. This requires a critical mass of researchers and good Ph.D. students. They create value by sharing knowledge, collaborating and even competing. China and USA have scripted multiple research breakthroughs through such collective effort by a large and efficient research community. Similarly, we need a critical mass of high-performance researchers with a culture of healthy competition, to achieve big breakthroughs.

It is also important to increase our level of interaction with the global community. I recall at MIT, in the Computer Science and AI Lab, there were at least three invited talks every week. The mechanical engineering department at SJTU hosts 300 external talks every year. In contrast, IIT Madras lists 16 distinguished external talks in the computer science department (2015-16). We need to provide for ample travel money for such exchanges and to present papers at conferences. This will provide our budding researchers with the right exposure, opportunities for knowledge sharing and ultimately result in collaborations to help further research.

Liberalise processes with speed and merit

India liberalised its economy at the beginning of the 90’s. It’s time we liberalise our science ecosystem as well. We can do so by providing greater autonomy to our institutions and making the processes for funding and equipment-purchase more efficient. For instance, experimentalists in fields like neuroscience need equipment such as a MRI machine, components to build a prosthetic arm and various electronic components. In the US, a doctoral student can order $5000 worth of material with just a simple email approval from her adviser, for shipment overnight. We need to similarly simplify processes in India while having audit mechanisms for financial control and propriety. Together with such liberalisation, we need to make our institutions and researchers accountable and compete for resources. Resources need to be accumulated for the high performers to enable scientific breakthroughs.

Enabling our researchers

Our researchers cannot give their full attention to research. We need sufficient technical and administrative staff to assist them. Our faculty should spend their time on thinking about original research questions and their breakthrough solutions, rather than just maintaining equipment, calibrating them and doing paperwork. Institutions like MIT, Stanford and UC, Berkeley, provide tremendous support to their faculty in this regard. The number of staff members in these institutions is 4 times the number of faculty members. We need to build similar capacity. Not only will this help us get maximum ROI from our researchers, but also enable optimal use of the institute’s resources and equipment. A hassle-free enabling environment is a must for our researchers to give their best performance.

Increased emphasis on Industry-academia interaction

Institutionalised mechanisms of interaction between the industry and academic institutions is another important aspect. It is the industry that supplies interesting and relevant problems to the faculty to be converted into original questions of research inquiry. And then research leads to social and economic development through the industry and entrepreneurship. Though the Indian start-ups have come a long way, there are still only a few names that have made great technological advances or any global impact.

Our institutions need to develop respect for interaction with industry – industry deployment should be valued as much as paper/citation counts. Institutions need to have professionally-run industry liaison offices to engage with the industry and develop a relationship like the top global institutions such as MIT which has a 50+ people industry office.

On the other hand, science entrepreneurship ecosystem also needs to be nurtured. Investors need to come forward and support high-risk businesses where it takes time to develop a commercially viable product or service. At the same time, our entrepreneurs need to come up with original business concepts inspired by new research. It will be great to see more Ph.D. students involved in founding start-ups than only those with a bachelor’s degree.

India has the resources, talent and opportunity. All it needs to do is nurture them all. We need a movement, a science satyagraha, to make India a formidable knowledge creator again. The government, the policymakers and our public institutions need to work in tandem toward making India a scientific superpower.