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India is often criticised for lagging behind other nations when it comes to developing cutting-edge technology. That may change. In May this year, the ministry of human resource development introduced the Universities for Research and Innovation Bill, 2012, in the Lok Sabha. The bill’s avowed objective is to give a much needed boost to the field of research and development (R&D) in the country by setting up specialised universities for the purpose.

Says Siddhartha Sengupta, principal scientist at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), “India’s R&D is weak except in a few isolated labs and agencies like the Indian Space Research Organisation and the Defence Research and Development Organisation. Most of the PhDs are aimed at just getting a degree rather than being the output of the love affair between a student and a topic.”

The importance of ushering in a good R&D culture in India cannot be overemphasised. Jandhyala B.G. Tilak, the head of the education finance department at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, an education policy think tank in Delhi, points out that only 0.9 per cent of the country’s GDP goes into R&D, while in many other countries, it ranges between 2.5 and 4.5 per cent. However, while welcoming the bill as a step in the right direction, experts feel that the proposed legislation falls short in several important areas.

According to Section 5(1) of the bill, these research and innovation universities will focus on particular “problems” and develop their solutions as well as generate trained manpower to tackle them.

Furthermore, as Section 6 of the bill lays down, these research and innovation-oriented universities will be completely autonomous. “Every university for research and innovation shall exercise autonomy in financial administration, academic and other matters in regard to the achievement of its objects,” the bill states. To top it all, they will be run as non-profit centres, and any additional revenue generated would be pumped back into the university.

So who can set up these universities? Section 9 of the bill states that accredited Indian universities 25 years or older, foreign universities that are 50 years or older and are internationally recognised, or even companies, societies and trusts registered under their corresponding acts (Companies Act, 1956, Societies Registration Act, 1860, and Indian Trusts Act, 1882) are eligible to set them up. The bill also allows an educational institution and a company to set one up jointly as a public-private partnership.

Says Amitava Gupta, professor of power engineering and director of nuclear studies at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, “To become a global player, we have to make sure we can get our research from the lab to the store shelf. That’s the need of the hour. It’s research and development, and we just have research.”

Gupta feels that getting industry and universities together for R&D, as envisaged by the bill, is a good idea. “Right now, industry is reluctant to go to universities for research and innovation, whereas it happens everywhere else in the world.”

However, Tilak believes that thanks to this mindset, there won’t be a lot of takers for the bill. “There is no reason to imagine that with the new bill Indian universities will start attracting huge amounts of investments in R&D. The whole approach of the government and the private sector in India has been that research and development take place not in the universities and institutions of higher education, but outside!”

There are other problems in the bill as well, say experts. As Sengupta points out, “This bill about universities for research and innovation leaves the definition of two essential terms up to wild interpretation: what exactly will the research be on, and how will the innovations come about?”

Moreover, the bill also falls short in that it lacks a system of monitoring the work of these universities. Says Sengupta, “While the objectives of setting up these universities are very noble, no mention is made of how you would measure or rate compliance by these universities. Unless the performance of a system can be objectively measured, it cannot be goal-directed. A quality control process has to be defined.”

Moreover, Section 28 of the bill, which deals with the intellectual property rights of the results of research, doesn’t encourage enthusiasm for scientific research, adds Sengupta. “According to the bill, even if a work is not fully funded by the central government, the government will own its intellectual property rights. If an Indian researcher quits the university, he or she will not be permitted to file any patent for five years. Foreign researchers have to sign a bond assigning to the government of India all patents they file within five years of quitting the institution,” he says.

Needless to say, this clause might end up discouraging researchers. “Bring in a patent culture,” says Sabyasachi Sengputa, professor of electrical engineering at IIT, Kharagpur, “That’s how things work in the West. Here, we look at a person’s published work. But if we look at patents, it is proof that they are doing meaningful work.”

The autonomy being accorded to these universities may also lead to problems, argues Tilak. “Universities — not only research and innovation universities, but also the existing universities — do require autonomy. But autonomy has to come with accountability. The bill places these research and innovation universities beyond the control of any public body. Given the experience with our private and even public institutions, a reasonably strong mechanism providing public control is necessary.”

Yet Sabyasachi Sengupta of IIT, Kharagpur, thinks the real problem with higher education in India lies elsewhere, and the bill doesn’t do anything to fix it. “What you need is a culture of postdoctoral fellowships, which we entirely lack. Even institutions like the IITs don’t offer postdoctoral fellowships. Flood the labs with thousands of postdoctoral fellows and you’ll see an increase in R&D results.”

At this point one cannot predict if the Universities for Research and Innovation Bill will indeed give a fillip to R&D in the country. But at least a beginning has been made. The scientific and academic establishment is keeping its fingers crossed.