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What India needs to foster innovation and research

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By Swami Subramaniam, CEO, Ignite Life Science Foundation

India spends USD 58 Billion on R&D, a low figure compared to the US (USD 668 Bn) or even China (USD 525 Bn). The share of the corporate sector in R&D in India is also low, at 37%; in Japan, it is 78% and in the US 65%. India has responded by providing incentives for corporate R&D. Despite being in place for over two decades, incentives have not worked.

Where, then, lies the problem?

Innovation is an emergent property of a complex ecosystem that starts with the producers of knowledge – scientists in universities and public research institutions. This pool of knowledge and skills is critical nourishment for innovation in the wider economy. Both Japan and the US have strong, robust, publicly funded research communities that produce the knowledge that corporations exploit. Indian academia is not producing the knowledge that the corporate sector can build upon.

There is a need to increase public funding for research. However, there is only modest headroom for an increase in public funding given competing priorities in infrastructure, healthcare, and defense. But India can improve the productivity of R&D thus amplifying bang for the R&D buck.

This is not a choice, but an imperative if India is to become an economic power.

A way to improve the productivity of R&D in academia is to improve the quality of research. Even the Principal Scientific Advisor to the GoI has bemoaned the poor quality of much of Indian science. Improving the quality of Indian science is not a single line item topic: it requires a whole raft of thoughtfully implemented interventions.

The anchor point that holds the following thoughts together is the fact that our scientific establishments, unlike companies, do not treat scientists as valuable assets. Companies describe their top performers as “talent”. They search for and poach “talent” from the competition in an ongoing war for “talent”. And then they provide them with the material support and training to perform their best. The contribution of such top performers directly affects the profitability of the company. Managements are sensitive to this and respond with generous incentives for top performers to stay and perform.

Talented scientists are just as valuable. Top performing scientists, for example, the scientists at the University of Pennsylvania who developed mRNA vaccine technology, can create an enormous impact, both financially and socially. Such an impact is not immediately tangible and can take decades to materialize. As a result, the tendency is to lump all scientists into one undifferentiated mass. This, when combined with the structural inadequacies of a creaky and under-funded scientific establishment, guarantees the failure of even talented scientists to produce knowledge of value.

Treating our best scientists as “talent” means that we must provide them with the resources and tools that help them perform at their peak best. This means not overloading them with the drudgery of administrative work, providing funding for projects on time, giving them flexibility and room to use the funding in the best manner possible and not miring them in bureaucracy in the name of control and accountability. Imagine if an Indian scientist could not discover a vaccine for a new organism because she had mind-numbingly inane forms to fill. The time of a talented scientist is precious.

Every second spent, either not doing research or not thinking up new ideas, is a wasted opportunity.

All scientists may not have the ability to be described as “talent”. Investing in finding the “talent” is a key role for science leaders in the country. Bad science that produces wrong information can be worse than no science, since future scientists build new ideas on the foundation of existing knowledge. It is better to have fewer scientists producing top-quality science than to have many mediocre ones publishing work in journals of poor credibility.

The Government directly or indirectly funds 90%+ of publicly funded science, almost all of it in government institutions. The lack of competition in both funding science and doing science means that lazy mediocrity gets enshrined. We need both private sources of funding for research and private research institutions and universities to challenge existing funding agencies and institutions.

Improving the quality of science by nurturing talent can help provide the best bang for the research buck. There are many Indian scientists capable of doing world-class research if the ecosystem helped, instead of disabling them to do their best.

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