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MAKING SCIENCE USEFUL

- Let laboratories be consultants and teachers for industry

Economies undergo turns of fortune: one moment they are riding the waves, and then they suddenly begin to drown. No one can predict when they will go up or down. Trade cycles have been going on for a couple of centuries. Many economists, consultants and politicians make a living predicting what would happen next. They are more often wrong than right; many will still remember how, whenever the economy turned down under his stewardship, the finance minister, P. Chidambaram, predicted it would recover soon. He was wrong every time, but that taught him nothing. The economy is doing badly just now, and our new rulers will soon start looking for an economic astrologer. But he will get it wrong just as often as his predecessors.

While the timing of trade cycles is a mystery, there is broad economic consensus on what causes them. Joseph Alois Schumpeter, a colourful, high-living economist in Vienna, wrote a paper about a century ago saying that trade cycles are caused by innovations. Both the timing of innovations and the magnitude of their impact on economies are unpredictable. So they cause much worry and suffering. But they are behind the enormous improvement in the standard of living over the last few centuries. So the longer they continue, the better. The alternative is even worse. The US economy has been doing badly in recent years; one reason is the dearth of innovations. As usually happens, there are fears that the great industrial revolution is over, and that the rich economies will stagnate from now on. Luckily, stagnation is just as unpredictable as the trade cycle. So it is best to grin and bear it.

The crucial role of innovation was one lesson from economics that made a deep impression on Manmohan Singh. To his mind, innovations begin with science. So he treated scientists with great respect. He had good reason: it was our nuclear scientists who set off an explosion and made India a nuclear power. That made India a pariah amongst Western nations. In his first term, Manmohan Singh assiduously courted leaders of rich nations. Finally he convinced George Bush, and with his help, got India readmitted to the club of influential countries.

Despite that, he continued to believe in scientists as magicians of innovation. He readily accepted invitations of their associations; during his decade as prime minister, he must have given a hundred speeches to scientists. And unlike uncivilized journalists, they listened to him patiently and quietly. No wonder he gave only three press conferences in his long tenure as prime minister.

Now that he is gone, the scientists will send their invitations to the new prime minister. He will have to decide whether to give them the same deference, or to ask them to get lost. Admittedly, they are generally not great company. They are serious people, and their jokes are not always comprehensible to common men. But thanks to our first prime minister, we have an awful lot of laboratories and scientific institutes. The country spends much on them. The money is largely wasted; the economic return on the cost is a fraction of the cost. Being a man of action, the prime minister would want to perk them up and make them productive, and if he cannot, he should close down the laboratories and turn them into tourist resorts.

Can they be turned into valuable assets? Not everyone was as undemanding as Manmohan Singh. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, which controls most of the government laboratories, once had a director general from a village in Goa called Mashel; no wonder he was called Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, or Ramesh to his friends. He discovered biomimetic switching hydrogels and demonstrated their self-healing properties. He worked out a model of industrial polymerization of polyethylene terephthalate. He got an American patent on turmeric revoked, and got it internationally accepted that traditional knowledge must be treated on a par with other intellectual property. He got into trouble later on because the report of a committee on intellectual property he chaired used some text without mentioning that it came from someone else’s paper — it plagiarized. Now he is member of Reliance Industries’ innovation council.

Mashelkar believed that government laboratories should commercialize their innovations; he pushed them to greatly increase their patent output. If he had lasted, he would have turned them around. Unfortunately, he ran out of time, and the laboratories slumped back into their normal slumber.

It is now time for another attempt. Obviously, not every kind of science can be commercially viable; some laboratories would have a better chance than others. Mashelkar’s main effort was towards patenting. Patents bring scientists and their laboratories in the limelight; some patents bring them some income as well. But there are other ways of commercializing research. One is to take contracts from business enterprises offering to solve their technical problems and making innovations for them. Another is going into their factories and telling them how they could improve their processes. A third one is letting their scientists and engineers come and work in government laboratories for some time. Essentially, laboratories should become consultants and teachers for industry, and earn money for it.

To do this, the prime minister will have to find another Mashelkar. He should not come from outside the community; scientists are quite parochial, and will accept an outsider less readily. He must believe in the commercial mission. He must be given wide powers: he should not have to keep running to the ministry of science and technology for support and money. And he must be explicitly backed by the prime minister; he should have access to the PM, who should solve his problems quickly.

If the prime minister gets this far, he can use his Man Friday for one other task: bringing together the research and development people in our industry. Giving them access to the government laboratories would establish contact with them anyway. But industrial R&D people are typically very isolated. Their business bosses are paranoid that their company secrets will leak out; so they do not allow much interaction between R&D scientists of different companies. And within companies too, R&D people are often quite isolated. The production and sales people think that they are the ones who earn money, and that R&D people just enjoy themselves in their labs. This is typical of the general Indian tendency to divide; but it does a lot of damage in the development and dissemination of technical knowledge. We need to encourage socializing amongst scientists; the PM’s science czar should set up clubs within laboratories that would bring people together.

If he finds the right czar, and the czar is successful, maybe the world will start looking at India differently — not as a country with a big population, chaotic cities and boring movies, but a country with clever people that make new things in new ways. Maybe they will come to India in search of not just a guru but of a problem-solving scientist.

Maybe the PM cannot do all this in five or ten years. But he is an entrepreneur; he should try. For the returns to the nation if the project succeeds are enormous.