Science, technology and innovation have had a great impact on economic growth and social development in India. The Government moved from scientific policy resolution (1958) to the technology policy statement (1983) to the science and technology policy (2003) and finally to the science, technology and innovation policy (2013). These are illustrative of the commitment to science and technology by successive governments, as also the welcome emphasis on the importance of science led technology led innovation over a period of time.
We can look at our 40 year journey, the pre-liberalised as well as the post-liberalised India.
First, India experimented with socialism for more than four decades, which kept out foreign capital and technologies, but spurred local innovation based on indigeneous technology.
Second, the Indian economy didn’t start growing until the 1990s, so local companies were small. Indian entrepreneurs, therefore, developed a penchant for undertaking small projects with indigeneous (import substituted) technologies but with huge capital efficiency.
Third, local companies knew that while India has both rich and poor people, catering only to the rich limited their market. They were forced to create products that straddled the whole economic pyramid, from top to bottom. Thus affordable inclusive innovation was firmly integrated in to the strategy.
And fourth, the most important driver happened to be India’s innovation mind-set. Some Indian leaders had the audacity to question the conventional wisdom. The mix of miniscule research budgets, small size, low prices, but big ambitions translated into an explosive combination of extreme scarcity and great aspiration, which ignited the Indian innovation.
Indian technology grew in a denial driven mode in the pre-liberalised India. Foreign technologies were denied because of lack of resource as well as a closed economy in the pre-libralised era. They were also denied due to security and strategic reasons. It was through the path of ‘technonationalism’ that India developed self-reliance through its own technologies in both civilian sectors as well as strategic sectors such as space, defence, nuclear energy, and supercomputers. Let me illustrate.
Take defense. India developed diverse missiles and rocket systems, remotely piloted vehicles, light combat aircraft, etc. Brahmos is a great example of Indian prowess in a strategic technollgy. None of these technologies were available to India for love or for money.
Take nuclear energy. The entire range of technologies, from the prospecting of raw materials to the design and construction of large nuclear reactors was developed on a self-reliant basis. India’s nuclear fast-breeder reactors emerged from its thrust towards technonationalism.
Look at space technology from indigenous development to satellites to launch vehicles, from SLV to ASLV to PSLV to GSLV. India’s first moon orbiter project Chandrayan-1, Mars Orbiter Mission or even the recent simultaneous launch of 20 satellites are brilliant examples. No wonder, India is now ranked amongst handful of nations of the world that have a credible capability in space technology.
Strength respects strength. It is the growing technological strength of a nation that increases its access to technology that has been denied to it. The technology denial regime itself underwent a change as technonationalism gave India a strong technological foundation.
For instance, India’s supercomputer journey began, when access to CRAY super computer was denied to India in mid-eighties. In 1998, C-DAC launched PARAM 10,000, which demonstrated India’s capacity to build 100-gigaflop machines. In response, the US relaxed its export controls. During the same year, CRAY, which had denied the licensing of technology, itself established a subsidiary in India.
In 2008, India signed a key civil nuclear deal with the US, which gave it access to some nuclear materials and technology. Recently, India become a member of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), getting access to crucial missile technologies. More will follow.
But what about Indian industry and its technological prowess? Indian industry has done well in some sectors. India’s dominance in generic drugs is one example. The auto industry is another one.
Indian industry is a world leader in what everyone refers to as `frugal innovation’. I prefer the term `affordable excellence’. For instance, let’s ask the following questions.
• Can we make a high quality Hepatitis-B vaccine priced at US$20 per dose available at a price that is 40 times less, not just 40%?
• Can we make a high quality artificial foot priced at US$10,000 available at a price that is 300 times less, not even 300%?
• Can we make an ECG machine available, not at US$10,000 but a price that is 20 times lower, not just 20%?
Incredible as it may sound, all such impossible looking feats have been achieved by Indian technology innovators. And this has captured the imagination of the world to an extent that a new term `Indovation’ is beginning to do rounds now! Books are being written on frugal innovation – the rest of the world wanting to learn from Indian industry!
But with this good progress, there are other areas, where we can do far better.
The share of the R&D investments by the private sector in the overall R&D spend remains low with majority of investment, close to 70-75%, coming from the government. These proportions are nearly reverse, not only in advanced countries, but also in countries such as Korea, China, etc.
India lacks a robust national innovation eco system. Essential elements of a powerful ecosystem comprise physical, intellectual and cultural constructs. Beyond mere research labs it includes idea incubators, technology parks, a conducive intellectual property rights regime, enlightened regulatory systems, academics who believe in not just ‘publish or perish’, but ‘patent, publish and prosper’, potent inventor-investor engagement, adventure capital, and passionate innovation leaders. An earnest effort on building a robust innovation ecosystem with all these building blocks has already started.
There is some other good news too. On 4 March, 1995, I gave the Lala Karam Chand Thapar Centenary Memorial Lecture titled `India’s Emergence as a Global R&D Platform: The New Challenges and Opportunities’. Incidentally Dr. Man Mohan Singh presided over the lecture. Today, that prediction has come true with over 1000 multinational R&D centers coming up in India employing over 200,000 scientists, engineers and technologists doing cutting edge research, design and development, with significant IP getting generated here.
But how well are we ourselves doing in innovation?
India’s rank among 142 nations, as measured by the Global Innovation Index has moved from 62(2011) to 64 (2012) to 68 (2013) to 73 (2014) to 81 (2015). This is worrisome.
How do we reverse this trend?
For this, going forward, I propose a five point agenda. First, move from the penchant of doing `first to India’ to `first to the world’. In other words, for instance, in the case of drug development, move from `copying molecules’ to `creating new molecules’. This type of original and breakthrough research in every field will also lead to India moving up the IPR ladder, in which it is placed rather low. This will also mean that `make in India’ will move to `make in India based on Indian technology led innovation’. This means `make in India’ not just on the strength of our brawn but on the strength of our brain. Second, make India a leading `start-up’ nation, by implementing in practice Government’s declared (bold & welcome) intentions and policies on its ambitious `start-up India’ programe. Third, move our innovations from Jugaad (less for less) to affordable excellence (more from less), affordability will bring inclusion of our poorest of the poor sections of the society and excellence will bring global competiveness. Fourth, change the ratios of the Government to industry R&D spending from the current 80:20 to 20:80. Provide all incentives to our industry to achieve that.
Fifth, bring bold government policy innovation to back technology innovation. We missed the opportunity of making 200 million illiterate Indians literate in 5 years by using F.C. Kohli’s breakthrough on Computer Based Functional Literacy. Why? No Government policy support to back this disruptive and game changing technology. But during (2014-15) we did world’s fastest financial inclusion in less than one year by using JAM. Jan Dhan Yojna (J) was all bold policy and Aadhar (A) and Mobiles (M) was all Technology. India needs more such disruptive combinations of technological, business model, system delivery, workflow and policy innovations.
And just as I predicted in 1995 about `India’s Emergence as a Global R&D Platform’, which came true, I dare make another prediction.
If this five point agenda is followed, I predict that when Business India’s next 1000th issue is published 38 years from now, India will be amongst the top 10 in the Global Innovation Index.
Impact of science, technology and innovation on the economic and political power
In my essay, I will give some of my perceptions on the way science, technology and innovation is going to determine the economic and political power of the nations. The rapid paradigm shifts that are taking place in the world as it moves from super power bipolarity to multipolarity, as industrial capitalism gives way to green capitalism and digital capitalism, as information technology creates netizens out of citizens, as aspirations of the poor get fueled by the increasingly easier access to information, as the nations move from ‘independence’ to ‘interdependence,’ as national boundaries become notional, and as the concept of global citizenship gets evolved, we will be full of new paradigms and new paradoxes, there is no doubt that the rapid advance of science and technology will directly fuel many of these.
1.0 Linking Science, Technology & Innovation
1.1 It is interesting to see the evolution of science related policies in India. The pathbreaking Science Policy Resolution (1958) was followed by a robust Technology Policy Statement (1983), which was then followed by the Science & Technology Policy (2003), which took a more integrative view. Presently Indian Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (2013) is on the national drawing board.
1.2 The power of the idea that science, technology and innovation need to be seamlessly integrated has been driving the strategies around the world for over a decade now. Even the names of the ministries of science and technology in Argentina, Australia, Denmark, Malaysia, South Africa, Spain, UK, etc. have been changed over the last decade with the word ‘innovation’ explicitly included. In fact, Argentina now has a ‘Ministry of Science, Technology & Productive Innovation’!
1.3 But why this emphasis on innovation? The power of innovation to create social and economic transformation has been well recognized. In fact, Innovation has become a tool for competitiveness as well as accelerated inclusive growth. European Union (EU) had declared 2009 as the year of creativity and innovation for EU. Indeed, European Union is building itself as Innovation Union now. India has declared the decade 2010-20 as the Indian Decade of Innovation. There is a growing realization in India that research and innovation must go together. After all, research converts money into knowledge. But it is innovation, which converts knowledge into money. The introduction of the University for Research and Innovation Bill 2012 by the Government of India is one indication of this.
2.1 An often used definition of innovation is ‘Innovation is a process that translates knowledge into economic growth and social wellbeing. It emphasizes a series of scientific, technological, organizational, financial and commercial activities’. There are different types of innovations. These include technology innovation, business process innovation, workflow innovation, delivery system or supply chain innovation, public policy innovation and so on.
2.2 The Indian way of doing innovation has led to the introduction of new nomenclatures in the ‘dictionary of innovation’ with phrases that did not exist just five years ago! These include phrases like frugal innovation, Gandhian innovation, MLM ( more from less for more), reverse innovation, nanovation, and even Indovation! Some of the Indian innovations were driven by the power of the combination of scarcity and aspiration. Some of these have been truly game changing and are taught as case studies in world’s leading business schools.. The innovation leading to the cheapest mobile phone call rates in the world by the Indian Telecom companies is a typical case of game changing `business process innovation’. The fact that Aravind Eye Care can do a high quality cataract eye surgery at one by thousandth of the cost in USA or the fact that Narayan Hrudalaya can do a high quality heart surgery at one by twentieth of the cost prevailing in USA is due to the `work flow innovation’. However, when it comes to technological innovation, India has not done so well.
2.3 Science provides the base for technology, which in turn triggers technology led innovation. It was the science of precise control of atoms in semiconductor materials that eventually led to the creation of microchips with billion transistors. It was the science of creation of single crystals of silicon carbide and gallium nitride that led to cell phone displays. It was the science of laser crystallization of amorphous silicon that led to flat panel displays. It was the science of hot electron injection in thin films of insulators that led to digital cameras.
3.0 Paradigm Shifts in Science Led Innovation
3.1 The advent of modern biotechnology industry is a classic case of science based innovation. The scientific breakthrough that led to the elucidation of the structure of DNA led to genetic engineering and subsequently the creation of modern biotechnology as we know it now. The advent of strongly science based industry such as biotechnology changed the rules of the game.
3.2 Previously, it was not uncommon to have firms participate in basic science as a part of their grand innovation strategy. But the purpose was limited to reinforcing their `absorption capacity’. However, modern biotechnology start-ups led to a paradigm shift in terms of new scientific knowledge itself becoming a saleable product. Strong science oriented drug discovery necessarily required the firms to become participants in science rather than just the users of known scientific knowledge.
3.3 Industrial firms dealing with strongly science based sectors of economy realized that much of the generation of new scientific knowledge is done outside their firms – that means within the universities and public research institutions. Therefore, they started shifting the strategy from just the R&D (Research & Development) mode to C&D (Connect and Develop) mode, the new connections being with access to new science generated within the academic institutions.
3.4 Small and medium size firms are getting more and more specialized in the sale of scientific knowledge rather than the finished product in the marketplace, Creation of such firms was made possible by the design and implementation of new laws, where the intellectual property rights ( IPR ) could be used as the starting capital. Some key institutional measures and extension of the scope of patent system were concerning what could be patented (not only inventions) and who can patent (not only individuals and firms but also academic institutions). Thus, the prevailing division of labour of research between public and private institutions changed dramatically in the new landscape of science led innovation.
4.0 Why is India lagging in Science Led Innovation?
4.1 Why is it that India has not done well in science based innovation as against other in forms of non-science or non-technology based innovations that we referred to in 2.2 earlier? First, before 1991, in a protected economy, import substitution was the objective and, therefore, there was no incentive for creating new science-based products. The easy path was to copy the known products in the global market. First to the world product was a distant dream. First to India products, based on the existing body of scientific and technological knowledge was all that one aimed for. So new science based products did not get developed.
4.2 Second, the Indian intellectual property laws also led to this aversion to doing science led innovation, even in areas which are strongly built on science, such as drugs and pharma, biotech, etc. For example, in the area of drugs and pharma, India became a leader in the production of generic drugs by copying the known molecules already researched and productionized elsewhere in the world. But once the patent laws, which recognized product patents were introduced in the year 2005, it led to several Indian drugs and pharma companies going for discovery research, or in other words science led innovation to put new molecules, not just copies, into the marketplace.
4.3 Third, the journey from a scientific invention to innovation can be complex and arduous. The fact that a nation does great science does not mean that it will automatically lead to great innovation. The Raman effect was discovered in India. But Raman scanner was created outside India. The iron-mercury-ion coherer, which formed the basic platform for wireless technology was created by Sir J.C.Bose, but the wireless technology is attributed to Marconi in Italy. In order to monetize the knowledge, one must `own’ that monetisable knowledge. It is not often recognized that it is not `patenting or publishing’. It is `patenting before publishing’. One can cite several cases of Indian science, leading to potentially monetisable knowledge. But that science was monetised by others outside India, not in India and by Indians.
4.4 Fourth, it is only the `monetisable’ knowledge that is converted into money. When scientific breakthroughs take place, even to recognize that the new knowledge that is generated is monetisable, requires a special attribute of mind. Even when one has created monetisable knowledge, to convert it into money requires the presence of a robust innovation eco system. India is sadly deficient in this today. In this Indian Decade of Innovation, we must make an all out effort to dramatically change this.
5.0 Setting Indian Agenda for Leadership in Science Led Innovation
5.1 The essential elements of a powerful national ecosystem comprise physical, intellectual and cultural constructs. Beyond mere research labs, it includes idea incubators, technology parks, a conducive intellectual property rights regime, balanced regulatory systems, strategically designed standards, academics who believe in not just ‘publish or perish’, but ‘patent, publish and prosper’, some scientists, who have the passion to become technopreneurs, potent inventor-investor engagement, ‘ad’venture capital, and passionate innovation leaders.
Here is a ten point agenda for Indian leadership in science led innovation.
1. For science led innovation to flourish, there should be incentivisation for those who create `monetisable’ knowledge. The current systems are based on recognitions that rest on excellence in science alone. No doubt these are very important, because without cutting edge science, there cannot be breakthrough technology and impactful innovation. But side-by-side, there should be rewards and recognitions for those, who excel in science led innovation too. Simultaneously a new value system must be built that respects science that solves problems, technology that transforms and innovation that impacts the society.
2. Successful innovation is not a ‘solo’ effort. The journey from mind to market place involves a `team’ effort. The current systems reward individuals. India must move over to awards for teams, who orchestrate different parts of the puzzle of innovation, and finally assemble a successful marketable product or deliver a solution to a vexing problem.
3. Ideas need to be incubated. Therefore, we should build incubators across every Indian university, clusters of colleges, etc. These should be innovation clusters, which are sector specific, which bring all innovation players with domain expertise from academy, from industry, from finance, etc., together. There should be Research or Technology Parks. China has 300 Research Parks. India’s Research Parks cannot be counted beyond a single digit. Such parks should be funded by the Centre, by the State as well as through innovative public-private partnerships.
4. A conducive intellectual property rights regime needs to be designed and deployed. In the classical model, publicly funded academic research is done with a public interest character, whereas industrial in-house R&D is primarily done by industry for private good. In USA, the Bayh Dole act (1980) opened up the way for a new direction for the results of the basic research produced in academic institutions, by first creating the right of patent results of the publicly funded research and second, by granting these rights to exclusive licenses provided to private for profit firms. This significantly changed the relationship between the agents involved in the innovation eco-system. The bill `Protection and Utilization of Pubic Funded Intellectual Property Act, 2008’ is still pending with Rajya Sabha. Now the Government has introduced another bill, `The Research and Innovation Bill 2012’. Chapter 5 of this bill deals with `Protection and Utilization of Intellectual Property emerging from Public Funded Research’. The intellectual property proposals in this bill are far more balanced and nuanced in comparison to the 2008 bill, which had proposals for some unwarranted punitive measures. We do not have the luxury of unending debates if we are serious about making a difference in this Indian decade of innovation itself. This bill should be passed after a due debate as soon as possible and the necessary provisions put in place that will promote the creation of wealth from the science done in academic institutions.
5. Rigid and obtrusive regulatory systems, which are also non-efficient at the same time, can cause impediments in moving science led innovation forward. For example, it is new science that can lead to a new cure for a difficult disease.. But the delays in the regulatory authority’s approvals (may be partly arising from the fact it is dealing with new science based innovations for the first time in India) has meant that companies have had to shift such clinical research abroad, thus losing altogether the advantage of using India’s cost advantage in clinical trials. Similar is the case in other areas of life sciences, for example, in plant science, the research leading to the GM crops is getting held up due to the lack of a precautionary but a promotional regime. Lack of clarity on foreign direct investment in drugs and pharmaceuticals and new biotech is starving the new biotech startups of the much needed foreign direct investment. Strengthening of these regulatory systems, such that they do not compromise on standards and safety of people (patient first), but at the same time recognize the importance of maintaining India’s comparative advantage (India first) should be always borne in mind.
6. In science led innovation, when a new idea is born, which leads to the design and development of a new product, that the present market has not seen before, the ready provision of early stage financing is crucial. Risk financing in the form of venture capital, which acts as an intermediary for long term investment, and which supports young startups, becomes critical. Such `ad’ venture capital created must support the young firms from their creation till they mature. India lacks such funds. The Governments elsewhere are known to take bold initiatives. For example in the USA, every department has to set aside 5% of the funds to support innovative programs, SBIRI initiatives by NIH and DoD are classical cases. These grants run upto $ 1 million or more. Many small start-ups are catalysed through such funding. Some excellent initiatives by DBT, DST, etc need to be revisited to introduce systems that will support really high risk cutting edge science based innovation. The `New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative’ launched by CSIR in the year 2000, which funded entirely new technology leading to new products with an aim to create new markets was India’s biggest public-private partnership in post-independent India. It has many successes to its credit, but also some failures. Learning from the lessons, a new initiative to support truly cutting edge science led innovation should be designed and delivered at a national level.
7. The Government must create the support structures for creating the Indian leadership in science based innovation. That requires financial resource input as well as investments in capacity building. Patenting is expensive. So there must be dedicated national funds as well as special allocations to institutions. Skills in patent related endeavours are very special. For example, interpreting patent data for identifying the areas , where there is a freedom to operate, writing patents professionally so that the competitors will not easily bypass them, assessing the potential current and future value of an intellectual property, etc. are all highly professional jobs. We cannot expect our top class scientific inventors to either master or spendtime on these. The same is the case with technology transfer and licensing offices, which should be staffed with smart professional individuals They need to be incentivized suitably by linking to their variable pay to their performance in successful technology transfer and licensing .
8. Science based innovation will invariably lead to products that do not presently exist in the market. The Government must have tax exemption policies, excise duty reductions, policies to provide massive public procurement support for the early stage market seeding and market expansion of such products. Such inputs on public procurement in China for products based on indigeneous innovation, for instance, run into billions of dollars ! We have to design our own smart intelligent support systems to accelerate and promote science based innovation.
9. We need to ensure that different components that comprise and influence the innovation ecosystem need to synergize together as an `integrated whole’. For instance, an audit system that insists that each patent should be commercialized, would inhibit the patenting initiative. On the other hand, an overdrive on patenting systems will lead to unwarranted secrecy amongst the scientific community in free idea exchange, which is the hallmark of true spirit behind open science. Therefore, a National Oversight Board with wise thought leaders of eminence, which is able to look at such issues `holistically’, should be put in place.
10. Finally, and most importantly, we must develop a new mindset at the individual , institutional and national level. This means a change of attitude from risk averseness to risk taking, from ` from `safe venture capitalists’ to `daring `ad-venture capitalists’, from `mistrust’ of the private sector for public funding to `trust’ with a generous government support in a public-private-partnership mode, especially for the risky science led innovation based new product development. It is only science led innovation that will lead us to move awat from the syndrome of ‘ first to India products’ to ‘first to the world products’ More than ever before, the private sector must realize the potential of new value creation for it though new science based new business, and rather than investing only in the use of the `existing scientific knowledge’. It must become an active partner in science led innovation as an act of faith.
5.2 We feel confident that during this `Indian Decade of Innovation’, the adaptation and execution of this ten point national agenda can catapult India to be amongst the top leaders in science led innovation. The time to take the first bold steps is here and now.
The Nobel laureate Richard Feynman had famously said, ‘the difficulty with science is often not with the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones. A certain amount of irreverence is essential for creative pursuit in science.’
Irreverence is sadly missing from Indian science today. The ability to question the present in science to create the future science is the key to advancing scientific knowledge. But that questioning attitude that is present in the “argumentative India”, as the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen puts it, is missing when it comes to Indian science. Fundamentally, may be it arises from the Indian culture and tradition. The ancient saying ‘Babavakyam pramanam’ means ‘the words of the elders are the ultimate truth’. It advocates total intolerance against irreverence! The Indian educational system, which is text book centered rather than child centered, begins killing the questioning attitude at an early age. The rigid unimaginative curricula and examinations based on single correct answers cement this further. Bureaucracy inherited from the time of British rule still continues. It ensures that paper becomes more important than people.
On 3rd of January every year, thousands of Indian scientists witness the inauguration of the Indian Science Congress by successive Prime Ministers of India. In 2001, Prime Minister Vajpayee said, “for Indian science to flourish, the administration and government officials should serve as facilitators of science and not as masters of scientists.” In 2010, Prime Minister Singh lamented “it is unfortunately true that red tape, political interference and lack of proper recognition of good work have all contributed to a regression in Indian science.” The Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (SAC-PM) has brought out a vision document in 2010, which addresses the challenge of Indian science in our future and the future of Indian science. And again the de-bureaucratization of Indian science features prominently in its proposed path forward. So Indian Science is crying out for de-bureaucratization so that the spirit of risk taking and adventure can be fostered.
How does one bring the spirit of adventurism in Indian science? I tried some experiments to trigger the spirit of irreverence by innovative funding mechanisms. As the Director of the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), I created “kite flying fund”, where audacious ideas would be supported. I set aside only one percent of my research budget for supporting any idea, which had a chance of success that was one in thousand. The signal that was sent across the laboratory was that dreaming and failure was not a crime. And I remember the enthusiasm with which this fund was received. I cannot say that the world was set on fire by NCL creating breakthrough ideas, but it helped the scientists break the shackles in which they had closeted themselves. Some excellent papers in top journals, including in Science, followed.
As Director General of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which comprised 40 national laboratories, I created a “New Idea Fund” with a similar objective. Again, many good ideas started flowing in but not enough. It turned out that it was not the lack of funding but lack of disruptive ideas with a rebellion spirit that was the bottleneck!
Then I tried this on a nationwide scale. In the year 2000, the equivalent of ‘’Kite Flying Fund’ in NCL and ‘New Idea Fund’ in CSIR was conceptualized for the nation as a whole. It was called New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI). The key word was leadership. The initiative was to make Indian technology lead and not follow. It was recognizing the fact that India was busy in creating products that were first to India but not first to the world. But creating ideas that were first to the world meant creating ideas that were never tried before. This meant that there was always a big chance of a failure. So this possibility of potential failure was built into the funding mechanism for NMITLI. Some grand challenges were posed and proposals invited from across the country. 10,000 evocative pamphlets were circulated challenging the genius of India. Around 1000 ideas were received. Out of these only 7 were supported in the first year. The fund was supporting unique public-private partnerships. Even private sector was getting government funds as a very soft loan. This was an inducement for the Indian industry to take risks. When I left as the Director General of CSIR, there were over 100 industry players partnering with over 250 institutions. This was the biggest public- private partnership in post independent India.
And there were interesting ideas that were funded. If successful, some of them would make a big impact. These are in the areas of drug discovery, ultra-low cost treatments of some difficult diseases by following reverse pharmacology approach bioinformatics, low cost computer, biofuels, etc. It is too early to judge the ultimate success, of course.
However, having created these platforms, which allowed risk taking at the level of a local laboratory at the CSIR level and then at a national level, involving not only the research institutions but also the Indian industry, a legitimate question that anyone should ask me is the following. You tried very hard to evoke the rebellion spirit in Indian science and technology. Did you find the rebellion ideas? Did you find the rebels? My simple answer is no. I did not find them. And why is it so? At this old age, one tends to be a bit philosophical on these issues by looking back in a contemplative mood.
Speaking about rebellions, did not Indian science have great rebels at any time? Freeman Dyson in his book ‘The Scientist as a Rebel’ says, ‘for the great Indian physicists of the last century, Raman, Bose and Saha, science was double rebellion, first against English domination and second against the fatalistic ethic of Hinduism’.
One can go even further back into our past. A question that is often raised is if the Indians had the questioning attitude and made such major contributions to science and technology, especially up to about 1200 AD, then why did they fail to build on these further? Various sociopolitical and historical circumstances would have been responsible for India’s failure to build on this base. Opinions differ and they could be debated, but the factors that are often discussed include the Indian culture perceiving the world as “Maya” or illusion and no interest in worldly pursuits, rigid cast system that led to the separation of the head and the heart (with Brahmins exclusively doing the theoretical studies and practical art & crafts left to other castes), suppression of the scientific spirit, conflict between science and religion, tendency to accommodate conflicting opposites, handicap of oral traditions, etc.
The real Indian awakening in modern science took place through the efforts of a large number of outstanding Indians, who worked over the three quarters of the century prior to Indian independence. C.V.Raman, J.C.Bose, S.N.Bose, P.Mahalanobis and so on turned out to be a spectacular array of thinkers. These were the products of the ferment in Indian society which motivated the freedom struggle. They were greatly influenced by interaction with western liberal thought, and through information on the great new developments in science that were taking place in Europe, following the scientific and industrial revolutions.
So how can India bring back this rebellion spirit? Environment does influence the genes. It is often lamented that Indian genes express in silicon valleys but not in the Indus valley! Scientists of Indian origin have won Nobel prizes, but excepting Raman, all did their work outside India. The challenge is to create this environment within India.
India is at a cusp today. Raman did his Nobel Prize winning work when even paper clips were not manufactured in India. Today, India dreams of becoming an affluent nation within a generation. There is a massive expansion of higher educational system. Thirty new central universities are being created. Five new Indian Institutes of Science, Education and Research have been created. It is up to them to design their future to become the next Harvard or Cambridge.
The Government is working hard to get the young minds back to science. Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE) is launched to draw millions of young bright children into science with super-attractive scholarships. 760 R&D centres set up by foreign companies employ 160,000 researchers, many of whom have returned to their motherland, thus reversing the brain drain. Even industrial enterprises are suddenly championing world class achievements in basic sciences. Infosys Foundation has launched five prizes for basic sciences, each equivalent to $ 100,000, the value being about half a million dollars, if one considers the purchasing power parity.
And what has made me even more enthusiastic about the future is the great initiative taken by the Tatas to create an environment in which risk taking will be encouraged. It is the ‘Dare to Try’ award that is given by a competition across the Tata group of companies. And I remember the genesis of this award.
I was invited by the Tata group to speak to the senior executives of the company during the breakout session in Goa a few years ago. Ratan Tata was in the audience. The title of my talk was ‘Innovation as a Way of Life.’ I talked about the importance of risk taking. I said a friend of mine from USA said ‘ in our company, we do not shoot people, who make mistakes. But we do shoot people, who take risks. What do you do in India?’ I said in India, we shoot people, who take risks!
This triggered a conversation between me and Ratan Tata during the tea break on how one can institutionalize the spirit of risk taking. And the next thing that I saw was the creation of the “Daring to Try’ award. The idea is to look around the organization for the groups, who had attempted daring ideas but failed. The greatest daring tryers amongst them get the award. I was privileged to chair the jury for the first ever award in this category. And it was such a pleasure to see people diving boldly without the fear of getting hurt.
I wrote a brief piece on the theme of Irreverence and Indian Science’ as an invited editorial in the prestigious journal Science last year. The editorial team had to choose a picture to go along with the editorial, which reflected the theme of irreverence. And they chose the picture of Tata Nano!
And come to think of it, they were right. Tata Nano is the cheapest car in the world, priced at just around $ 2000! It was conceived by Ratan Tata. When the concept was announced it was considered an impossible feat to achieve. There were many skeptics around, one of them was the chairman of Suzuki itself. He had famously said, “may be it will be a three wheeler with the fourth wheel attached to it”. Well, he was proved wrong. Tata Nano is a reality now and it has proved to be game changing. There are several companies, who are entering the Nano segment. India has rarely done such game changing feats. As the twenty first century unfolds, may be this spirit of irreverence of Tata Nano will spread to Indian science.
If India leverages this Nano spirit by creating new organizational values, creating tolerance for risk taking and failure, creating innovative funding mechanisms to support disruptive and game changing ideas, and above all, build that spirit of ‘irreverence’ that Feynman referred to, then surely Indian science will create the Ramans and Ramanujans of the twenty first century.
The Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman had famously said, ‘the difficulty with science is often not with the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones. A certain amount of irreverence is essential for creative pursuit in science.’
The first grand challenge before Indian science is that of building some irreverence. Our students are too reverent. Our existing hierarchical structures kill irreverence. Promoting irreverence means building the questioning attitude. It means education systems that do not have the rigid unimaginative curricula, it means replacing ‘learning by rote’ by ‘learning by doing’ and to do away with the examination systems with single correct answers.
Paper or people?
More often than not, in our systems, paper becomes more important than people. Bureaucracy overrides meritocracy. Risk taking innovators are shot. Decision making time cycles are longer than the product life cycles. Therefore, the second grand challenge is that of creating an ‘innovation ecosystem’, in which questioning attitudes and healthy irreverence can grow.
The third grand challenge is of creating truly innovative scientists, who see what everyone else sees but think of what no one else thinks. The 2005 Nobel Prize winners for medicine, Warren and Marshall, for instance, were such innovators. Everyone had thought that the cause of gastritis inflammation and stomach ulceration is excessive acid secretion due to irregularities in diet and lifestyle. Warren & Marshall postulated that the causative agent was, a bacterium called Heliobacter pylori. They were ridiculed but they stuck to their guns. They saw what the others did not see. And they were proved right.
The fourth grand challenge is the ability to pose, rather than merely solve, big problems. For example, James Watson felt sure that it was going to be possible to discover the molecular nature of the gene and worked hard at it — even to such an extent that he was fired from the Rockefeller Fellowship that he had. Einstein, when he was 15 years old, asked himself what would the world look like if [he] were moving with the velocity of light. This big question led finally to his special theory of relativity.
The fifth grand challenge is to create new mechanisms by which out of the box thinking will be triggered in Indian science. In the early nineties, when I was the Director of the National Chemical Laboratory, we tried to promote this by creating a small “kite flying fund”, where an out of the box idea with even a one in one thousand chance of success of would be supported. Bold thinking was applauded and failure was not punished. The result was remarkable ‘free thinking’ that gave us a quite a few breakthroughs.
When I moved to Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) as Director-General in mid nineties, we created a “New Idea Fund” with a similar objective. Here, over time, it turned out that it was not the lack of funds, but it was lack of great ideas that was the bottleneck!
But great ideas did come to Indian scientists in the distant past. In 2003, Jayant Narlikar wrote a book The Scientific Edge. He listed the top 10 achievements of Indian science and technology in the 20th century. There are five before 1950 and five after 1950. Interestingly, the five before 1950 are all individual efforts, namely, the works by Ramanujam (the products of his mathematical genius are still researched on), Meghnad Saha (his ionization equation played a vital role in stellar astrophysics), S.N. Bose (his work on particle statistics was path breaking), C.V. Raman (his Raman effect discovery led to the one and only Nobel prize that an Indian scientist doing work in India has won) and G.N. Ramachandran (he was the father of molecular biophysics).
After 1950, Narlikar lists the other five achievements, namely the green revolution, space research, nuclear energy, superconductivity and transformation of CSIR in the nineties. In these, except for the superconductivity research, in which the likes of C.N.R. Rao made pioneering contributions, the rest are all government funded “organised science and technology”. Why is it that in the second half of 20th century, we could not recreate the magic of the early part of the century created by Ramanujams, Ramans, Boses and so on?
The potential Ramans and Ramanujams are there even today somewhere. We need to find them early enough and nurture them. For this, we need to recognise that there is no intellectual democracy; elitism in science is inevitable and needs to be promoted.
In the year 2005, the Nobel prize for physics was shared by Glauber, Hall and Hansch, a controversy erupted since many Indian scientists felt that it should have been shared by E.C.G. Sudarshan, a scientist of Indian origin. In the year 2009, we did better. A scientist of Indian origin, Venky Ramakrishnan shared the chemistry Nobel prize with Steitz and Yonath. The fact that Venky was born in India was a cause for great Indian celebration. Next, will we have a Nobel prize for an Indian working in India?
Why not? It certainly can happen. The government has created new institutions such as Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research. It has created schemes such as Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE), for drawing and retaining millions of young bright children into science. There are clear signs of reversal of brain drain. Infosys has taken a giant step forward by creating mini Indian Nobel prizes worth half a crore rupees each for different scientific disciplines. If we can leverage all this by promoting that irreverence in Indian science, creating new organisational values, creating tolerance for risk taking and failure, then Indian science will certainly make that ‘much awaited’ difference. Nobel prizes will then follow inevitably.
( Dr. R.A. Mashelkar, FRS, is chairman, National Innovation Foundation & president, Global Research Alliance.)
Keywords: Nobel Laureate, Indian science, CSIR, IISc, brain drain