Dangerous Optimist Maps The Research Route

Amid the gloomy voices, Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, the former director-general of CSIR, is the lone evangelist for a bright future

By admin

Added 20th October 2010


EDU: How did the research agenda evolve in India?
R A Mashelkar:
Remarkable changes took place in post-Independence Indiawith the foundation laid by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. To Nehru, science was not just a tool for economic development, but a means to emancipate the country by bringing in qualitative transformation. It is fair to say that post- Independence Indian science may be viewed as a matter of national pride. Indian research and development (R&D) today is built on the four pillars of techno-nationalism, inclusive growth, techno-globalism and global leadership.

EDU: Why was the private sector so slow in getting involved with R&D?
R A Mashelkar:
In 1978, J.R.D. Tata had commented, If I was allowed to make a car, it would be as good as a TELCO (a Tata company) truck. But, he was not allowed to built carsnot until 1993, in a post-liberalised economy. And I believe that India celebrated its second independence in 1991, when its economy was liberated. Prior to that, tariff barriers protected the industry from the rest of the world.

There was no incentive for research and development since there was no competition in the marketplace. It was not a buyers market; it was a sellers market. After 1991, however, the situation changed as competition moved in. The Indian pharmaceutical (IP) industry also went through similar paradigmatic shifts. IP laws were designed in such a way that only process patents were accepted, and product patents were not. In response, the Indian industry created a strong base by copying new molecules introduced in the Western world. This was perfectly legitimate, but it also meant that there was no new research drive conducted to create new molecules. On 1 January, 2005, in fulfillment of its agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, Indian IP laws were changed. Product patents became acceptable. In anticipation of the change, the drug and pharmaceutical industry began investing heavily in innovation. Research portfolios changed from innovative process chemistry to innovative product development, including developing new molecules and new drug delivery systems. Investment in R&D, which had hovered around one to three percent of sales turnover, began to climb in some cases reaching 10 to 15 percent.

EDU: How do we get science and capital to meet?
R A Mashelkar:
The first challenge is to recognise that the goddess of knowledge and goddess of wealth can coexist. We should learn a few things from scientists such as George Whitesides of Harvard. Whitesides showed us how to capitalise work, while remaining a leader in science. For instance, Whitesides, who is also the highest-cited scientist in the world, has co-founded over a dozen companies (Genzyme, GelTex and Theravance). Together, the companies have a market capitalisation of over $30 billion.

Academic researchers in India should learn from people like Barry Sharpless. While conducting world-class research, Sharpless also managed to register the highest number of patents. I have analysed some data through CSIRs Unit for Research and Development of Information Products.

There were disturbing discoveriessome Japanese companies had brought out patents based on original work done by leading Indian scientists. The patents arrived right after the Indian scientists published their papers. Why should a country like India allow its scientists to publish research papers from which others create patents? We should make sure that the journey from mind to marketplace takes place right here in India.

EDU: What hurdles do the Indian researchers face in completing the innovation chain?
R A Mashelkar:
R&D converts money into knowledge. But, it is innovation that converts knowledge into money. We are good at the first, but fail at the second. Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT Madras develops a wireless local-loop technology and it gets implemented first in Madagascar, then Angola and then Brazil, before it comes to India!

CSIRs New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative gave the scope to fund a low-cost computer. Using it, Vinay Deshpande of Encore created Mobilisa mobile personal computer. The first Mobilis will be produced this year. But it will be launched in Malaysia and Brazil, and not in India.

Why do we fail in completing the journey from an Indian mind to an Indian market place?

Because, we lack a robust national innovation ecosystem. Beyond research labs, it includes idea incubators, technology parks, conducive intellectual property rights regime, enlightened regulatory systems, academics who believe in not just publish or perish, but patent, publish and prosper system, in potent inventor-investor engagement, in adventure capital, and passionate innovation leaders.

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