INDIAN science is being made to go commercial. With funding cuts and a new technology policy that aims at enabling India to fulfill its role in the "global economic environment", the ministry of science and technology has been working to turn the various scientific institutions in the country away from their slack functioning and make them more profit-oriented.
Union minister of state for science and technology P R Kumaramangalam explains, "In the wake of liberalisation and globalisation, the contributions of our science establishment are crucial to prevent foreign technology from flooding the country and to enable our industries to compete globally."
Despite complaints by the behemoth, state-funded Indian scientific establishment that its operations are being curtailed by the fiscal disciplining, it is being firmly and unmistakably asked not only to pay for itself, but also to help others earn more. Research and development (R&D) institutes concentrating on pure sciences will be affected by the cuts in funding. But the ministry not only expects profit from the 325 Centrally funded national labs and R&D institutions in the country, but they also exhort industries -- both public and private -- to make increasing demands on the institutions.
Recently, department of science and technology (DST) secretary P Ramarao goaded the Bombay Chambers of Commerce to identify R&D projects that national labs could work on. "Only 13-15 per cent of the Rs 4,000 crore spent annually on R&D is for pure science," he said. "Surely, you should expect some benefit from the rest."
Already, there are signs the government's message is being taken seriously. An IBM team is planning to negotiate software packages for the supercomputer Param developed by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing; several countries, including Canada and Russia, have evinced interest in buying Param; the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) has won a $100,000 contract to develop petrochemical catalysts for Neste Ltd of Finland; the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) and Parke Davis of USA are engaged in a $40,000 project to screen medicinal plant extracts; the National Aeronautics Laboratory (NAL) is executing two civil aviation projects worth L30,000 for the British Civil Aviation Authority and it has also received Rs 20 crore from an Indian consortium to develop a light passenger aircraft.
NAL director R Narasimha explains his institute's present activity as a result of a major shift in India's technology policy announced this year. "The aim of the previous policy was attainment of technological competence and self-reliance to reduce vulnerability, particularly in strategic and critical areas". In contrast, he points out the preamble to the new draft policy asserts it has been "designed to further strengthen the Indian economy and to assist the nation in fulfilling its role in the global economic environment with a sense of urgency". He explains that while the earlier policy emphasised "the primacy of strategic considerations...the emphasis has now shifted to industrial productivity".
In effect, while science and technology (S&T) organisations concerned with atomic energy, space and defence hogged the limelight earlier and received more than half of the total Rs 4,830 crore spent on R&D in 1991-92, there are definite signs now of a shift towards apparently mundane research areas such as industry and agriculture (See table: Insert name).
The government's perception of S&T's role in the economic programme is shared by representatives of both industry and scientific institutions. Says K K Poddar, president of the Federation of the Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, "In the new economic context, Indian industry will depend heavily upon the mastery and management of technology for its survival."
NCL director N A Mashelkar agrees. According to him, deregulation and the opening up of the economy "has made it particularly urgent to restructure the productive system, develop new technologies and promote technological innovation to enable Indian enterprises to compete in the world market. Just as India is in transition, so are its scientific establishments."
In recent months, senior government officials and heads of the national laboratories controlled by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have become frenetic in their efforts to sell Indian science. N Vittal, secretary of the department of electronics asserts, "We must learn from Japan's ministry of international trade and industry, which had a seminal role in providing profitable interaction between science and industry in Japan."
Indian science policy makers admit they would do anything to develop linkages with the private sector. But, as a DST official points out, "This is easier said than done." He refers to the National Research Development Council, which until recently enjoyed a monopoly over "all CSIR technology but generated an average annual income of only around Rs 1 crore." The biggest reason for this failure, according to him, "was the abysmal marketing capabilities of Indian science".
Similarly, scientists of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) feel that though they have developed good hybrid varieties, the National Seeds Corporation has failed to capitalise on their effort. S K Joshi, director general of CSIR, admits the failure of scientific establishments to attract industry's interest was the main lacuna observed in recent industry-contact programmes organised by the national laboratories. Most CSIR institutes have industry liaison cells, but "almost none by itself was able to attract a significant representation of industry at these contact programmes". Most invitees came because of intervention by laboratory directors.
Senior scientists say the need for an adequate marketing network is accentuated by the redefinition of what Indian science can offer for sale. Mashelkar points out, "Up to now, CSIR saw only formal technology as a marketable resource. We now want to offer a far more extensive knowledge base, including intellectual property, patents and trade marks." In a classified report, CSIR has drawn up plans to sell results of all R&D undertaken by its laboratories, consultancy services in scientific and technical expertise developed by CSIR laboratories and technical facilities, including testing, certification and calibration of industrial processes.
Almost as a corollary, the document lists plans to develop professional departments that would make this range of activities profitable. They include recruitment of "high-level talent in business management (for technology marketing), law (for patenting and contracts) and chartered accountancy (for project monitoring and control).
The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and IARI are drawing up similar plans. But IARI director S K Sinha refused to give details and said only that "Indian agricultural research institutes should be allowed to float agribusiness companies". Pointing to the range of farm research carried out in Indian institutes, he said, "If commercialised, it can easily acquire a global clientele."
Nearly all heads of national laboratories admit the drive to sell can be sustained only if they are able to motivate the scientists to perform better. Mashelkar says, "Our scientists' frustrations are well known." He has suggested a scheme that would allow, among other things, Indian scientists to claim official recognition for work on externally funded projects, sabbatical leave for work in the private sector and setting aside 40 per cent of earnings from contract research projects and royalty payments for distribution among research teams.
Significantly, "technology marketing" prizes are also planned. Sinha's scheme for agribusiness companies will also allow scientists to hold company shares.
Hints of these changes have reached Indian industry. N N Dhuldhoya of the Bombay-based Polyolefins Industries Ltd, who is a member of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry, says, "It should never be forgotten that the work of government laboratories in the so-called medium technology areas of textiles, leather, paper, cement, dyes and dye intermediates is quite world class. These are the areas where we can durably develop our exports."
Hasmukh Shah of G E Plastics India Ltd in Bombay says the Indian scientific establishment "will have to accommodate" global industrial trends. "Modern manufacturing processes increasingly involve geographical segregation of production, with assemblies, sub-assemblies and servicing facilities located in various parts of the world, depending on profitability."
"Indian R&D currently operates in an integrated frame of mind that finds this differentiation difficult to conceive. I don't think we can be led by patriotic or composite product considerations," he contends.
In Shah's opinion, Indian science will have to "radically change attitudes and seek extremely focussed, time-bound and result-orientated collaborations with the Indian private sector." Other industry representatives, such as Shekhar Raha of ICI (India) Ltd, feel Indian industry will invest in innovation -- collaborative or otherwise -- only if it is convinced of long-term benefits. In the case of his organisation's niche in industrial chemicals, Raha implies patent protection for research in the market place would be "sufficient to recoup research costs".
Raha believes Indian patent laws outlived their utility long ago and refers to mutual patent exchanges either globally or in specific territories as a commonly acceptable business norm.
However, the Indian scientific establishment demands that industry revise its attitudes as well. Mashelkar contends, "It is all right for the private sector to tell us we are old-fashioned. But is there even one case of an outstanding technology development that can be credited to the private sector?" Several technocrats agree with him and say the private sector has failed to show any output efficiency based on their own R&D.
Asserts Mashelkar, "While it is extremely important for industry and the science establishment to build a working relationship, it should be realised we are culturally different." In his opinion, any substantial R&D activity can be carried out only in a long-term framework whereas business may be led by comparatively short-term considerations.
A segment of scientific opinion believes the government is erring in trying to make R&D activity economically self-sustainable. Says C N R Rao, director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, "S&T agencies are combating continuous funding cuts even as their potential to contribute to the restructuring of the economy is becoming increasingly clear."
Joshi argues current funding of CSIR and R&D institutions by the state government is "not even sufficient to pay staff salaries and maintain infrastructure. The demands being made on public-funded R&D institutions are akin to asking an industrial unit to produce without giving it working capital to buy inputs."
Both Rao and Mashelkar plead for continuation or even an increase of budgetary support for basic science research. They cite the examples of Japan and USA, whose governments have sustained support to basic science research even as R&D activity became more the privy of the private sector. Referring to the government's current technology strategy, Rao maintains a stringent financial approach and strict cost-benefit norms that are valid for a mission-oriented approach are not always applicable to institutions engaged in research in the pure sciences.
Government officials administering science policy feel budgetary support may be morally tenable but are unrealistic given contemporary economic considerations. They point out financial considerations are acquiring a premium even in the sacrosanct departments of atomic energy and space.
They refer to the recent establishment of the Antrix Corp Ltd by the department of space (DOS). U R Rao, secretary of DOS and chairperson of the Space Commission, explains Antrix was formed to allow Indian expertise to gain a share of the "global space market, estimated to be $6-7 billion annually. Since its formation three months ago, Antrix has gained orders worth $300,000.
Similar initiatives are also expected from the department of atomic energy. A liaison officer from the department points to the indirect benefits of atomic energy research: industrial radiography, health care isotopes and irradiated seeds of increased yield.
Experts from the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) assert sustained funding for defence sector R&D is already under pressure. R P Singh of IDSA says, "Much of the equipment produced by the Defence Research and Development Organisation can be produced more efficiently and cheaply by the private sector." He qualified his argument, saying this was "part of a process of coming to terms with reality".
---With additional reporting by P S Sandhu in Indore and Hyderabad and Koshy Cherail.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.