Modern India has had a strong rhetorical focus on science and technology, considering it a key element of economic growth and the development of a rational and critical worldview. This rhetoric, while uplifting, failed to impact on poverty reduction and development. Careers in science no longer provide enough remuneration or prestige to draw top-level talent. Our translation of R&D into actual production has been weak. Technological imports, whether in electronics or fighter engines, have grown rapidly. Our scientific manpower was built on a small, educated pool of scientists, most of whom chose to leave for distant shores. Despite the dawn of the computing age, India missed out on semiconductors and silicon chips. We chose to adopt and purchase, instead of innovating.
A new science policy: India lies in the lowest quartile on R&D, both in terms of spending (<1% of GDP) and researcher count (<100 per million population). Our R&D allocation is dominated by the public sector (>80%), with universities left with a paltry 3%. In most countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, it’s the opposite — the private sector contributes the majority, with universities coming at around 20%.
We need to address our limited scientific base. This will require a three-pronged approach focused on knowledge creation and commercialisation, inclusive innovation and subsequent knowledge diffusion and absorption. This needs to be supported by a focus on higher education, information infrastructure and innovation financing. The private sector needs to be encouraged to take greater risks in innovation, bolstered by an encouraging policy and regulatory framework.
Public policy has its role to play. With a stronger Intellectual Property Regime (IPR), matching grants and tax subsidies, knowledge creation can be boosted. A simplified technology licensing policy, combined with good infrastructure and a stable macroeconomic environment, can work wonders.
More physicists, fewer managers: Gross enrolments in higher education continue to remain below 20%. Just 16% of Indian manufacturing firms offer in-house training. Basic skill deficits need to be addressed by investments in primary, secondary and vocational education, and by building manager and worker skills. The quality of India’s engineers and researchers needs to be improved substantially through investment in ITIs. Financial support for early stage technology development should be addressed by regulatory efforts to deepen the pool of early stage venture capital and a promotion of pro-poor inclusive banking. Micro, small and medium enterprises should be offered viability gap funding through existing government innovation programmes.
Expanding our technological base: Political prestige seems to drive our scientific allocation. Defence research and space are considered paramount, while our IITs are announced grandly and located in politically vital constituencies, with little consideration to their faculty and catchment area. Less than 20% of public research spending is allocated for civilian applications; 8% to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and 4% to the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR). Our public civilian research spending needs to go up. The CSIR, along with the ICAR and the Department of Science’s laboratories, needs to be restructured and refocused on the market, along with more fiscal and managerial autonomy. University R&D should be supported by competitive grants, along the lines of the US National Science Foundation, along with greater academic partnerships and researcher exchange programmes. The Sponsored Research and Development Programme and Small Business Innovation Research Initiative need to be expanded.
Indian Patent Offices should be upgraded to cater to individuals and organisations. A special Court of Appeals for intellectual property rights should be set up, along with a policy think tank. Links between industry, universities and public laboratories should be strengthened by providing support for technology transfer.
Private and inclusive innovation: Private firms need to be encouraged to spend on R&D, by expanding early stage technology development programmes and utilising public procurement to promote innovation. Tax regimes should encourage a favourable treatment of R&D. Technology parks and incubators should be expanded through fiscal incentives. Inclusive innovation is also necessary. Formal R&D efforts for the poor should be scaled up and focused on informal enterprises. The CSIR’s technology applications, like e-Choupal, should be scaled up across the country’s villages. The National Innovation Foundation’s grassroots innovation repository (>50,000 products) should be commercialised, with benefits flowing down to local communities. The Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network should be expanded to serve as an incubator for local innovation.
Grand challenges still matter. Cleaning up the Ganga or making India clean should be showcases for innovative products and practices. By making local communities and officials compete, we could solve our budding congestion and water crisis. A simple light-touch oversight mechanism that links such local initiatives with innovation hubs and provides viability gap funding will help provide appropriate monitoring to achieve realistic targets. ‘Make in India’ can mean high technology as well.