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- R&D cannot make up for the lack of original discoveries

A distinction needs to be made between the terms blue sky or original research, innovation and R&D. For example, there is now ample proof that India’s high economic growth is being fuelled by the rising innovation intensity of its industries. Secondly, the country is described as one of the three preferred R&D destinations by multinational corporations, the other two being the United States of America and China. Furthermore, the claim to India’s R&D fame is encouraging India’s leading corporates, ranging from pharmaceuticals to software giants, to invest in R&D. But there is a stark absence of original discoveries and centres of blue sky excellence in India.

Thus, there are some disturbing facts which do not readily reconcile with the euphoria of India as a home of R&D. For example, with a handful of notable exceptions, blue sky research has not been undertaken in India now for a very, very long time. The culture of passionate pursuit of original scientific thoughts and ideas is virtually non-existent in Indian academic institutions. The quality of inspirational leadership dedicated to the pursuit of world-class scientific research has been eroded. As a consequence, Indians who have a passion for pursuing original scientific enquiry have preferred to emigrate to centres of excellence in the West. Indian scientists working in the West have made significant contribution to blue sky research and a few, like Har Gobind Khorana and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, have gone on to win the Nobel Prize for their original contributions and scientific discoveries in the United States of America. China has faced similar problems of erosion of the culture of scientific discoveries and experienced even greater exodus of eminent scientists and engineers.

Given that India and China are considered to be two of the three preferred global locations for R&D, is the absence of a culture of blue sky research and original discoveries of deeper long-term consequence? The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. There is basically confusion in the minds of people regarding the nomenclature of science; R&D has acquired an amorphous and catch-all status, which has led to the use of the term very loosely, giving a false sense of comfort and confidence to the uninitiated.

The US could not have been the world leader in science and technology, with the largest number of Nobel laureates, in virtually every field of science, medicine and mathematics, without its history and vibrant culture of scholarship and pursuit of philosophy, dedicated to the exploration of the unknown.

To cite just two examples — it was the discovery of the semiconductor by William Shockley and John Bardeen which gave birth to the IT revolution. The discovery of the structure of the DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson while in Cambridge University laid the foundation of modern genetics, biotechnology and medicine. These are the two pillars of the knowledge revolution.

The leadership of the US in scientific discoveries and advanced technology development as well as in innovation is firmly grounded in that nation’s culture and dedication to blue sky and curiosity-driven enquiry. Therefore, the ability of China and India to become global leaders without reviving the culture of discovery remains doubtful. The politics of technology denial makes this painfully clear.

Why has the culture of the pursuit of the unknown disappeared in India? Are we being lulled into complacency by a false picture of R&D? What is popularly called R&D in India is made up of two elements, derived from India’s wealth of highly talented human resources. India annually produces several thousands of extremely competent, skilled and motivated engineering and science graduates. These valuable human resources are a great source of strength to Indian industry and hence to its economy. Indian companies which invest in R&D basically pursue re-engineering of goods and services — a talent which is globally recognized. MNCs, on the other hand, recognizing the huge and cost-effective talent pool of Indian graduates, have started locating significant parts of their global R&D projects in India, especially those dealing with marginal or even significant beneficiation of outputs, but have nothing to do with original discoveries. These require commitment of time and resources as well as a critical mass which India lacks.

Some major MNCs, which have significant collaborative networks with universities in their own countries as a principal source of original ideas, have fostered similar partnerships with talented individuals and groups in selected Indian universities and institutes as an investment for the future. They have not only recognized that many Indian scientists are talented original thinkers but also the fact that such resources are scarce and not readily accessible. Networking with universities and institutions is still at an early stage as far as Indian industry is concerned. These developments have lulled us to believe that R&D has come of age in India.

Three recent articles (The Economist, November 10, 2007, Business World, November 26, 2007 and New Scientist, November 10, 2007) raise some fundamental questions, directly or indirectly asking whether India and China, in their present state of growth and development, should be piggybacking on the dynamic and vibrant knowledge base of the West or should they, in addition, themselves dedicate huge resources to revive the culture of original scientific thinking and blue sky enquiry, in order to leapfrog their way into the modern world of science and technology.

At least for the time being, the dazzling array of goods and services, challenging long-term global players in price and quality, overshadows the absence of original discoveries and original research in India and China. Craig Mundy of Microsoft has described the problem succinctly by stating that “India must go beyond renting out IQ and start creating Intellectual Property”.

On the other hand, there are vested interests which would like India to continue to be the world leader in reverse engineering, while being ever dependent on the intellectual properties of the West. Thus, even a few hints of the revival of original research, such as India’s Petaflop project — a computer which is as fast as any in the world, and China’s supercomputer and pebble-bed nuclear reactors, are seen as threats to American technological leadership.

India and China have hugely benefited by piggybacking and embracing a culture of innovation with their goldmine of talented human resources. But how long the dependence on the West as a source of new knowledge can be sustained remains a looming uncertainty. The task of leapfrogging remains challenging. It is immensely resource- intensive but unavoidable if India has to deal with a knowledge-driven world on equal terms. China recognized the problem much earlier and has been making big investments for more than 30 years now. India has recently announced major investments in upgrading some of the leading scientific institutions and building new ones dedicated to training in modern scientific education, research and building a critical mass essential for original discoveries. India’s future development will not only be driven by its power of innovation but, equally, by how it builds its power of invention.

If India has to fulfil its destiny to become the world’s top R&D destination by 2020, the time for revival of blue sky and original research has become overdue. Eminent Indian scientists, who had settled in the West to pursue their passion for original research, are now returning to India in large numbers. But the discovery revolution has yet to begin.

Things have already started to take visible shape in China, which wants to be known as an “Innovation Nation”. It is investing huge sums of money to fund original research in nanotechnology and renewable energy. The article in New Scientist makes an interesting observation: “Does China make faster and more determined progress because most senior leaders of the Central Government were trained as engineers (Politburo of Engineers)?”

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