We must move from the reverse to the forward gear

Raghunath Anant Mashelkar is the director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and a former director of one of its constituent institutes, the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune. The 53-year-old chemical engineer and scientist has several awards and honours to his credit, the latest being the Fellow of the Royal Society of Engineers, London. But, Mashelkar is better-known as being the brain behind 'Vision 2000': a programme to globalise and corporatise CSIR's approach to research and development (R&D). Under implementation for over a year now, it is a much talked-about agenda to move CSIR from under the shadow of governmental suport. N Raghuram engages him in a frank talk about the achievements and problems of the CSIR

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

As the youngest director-general of the world's largest R&D organisation, is steering such a massive organisation through a process of change an unenviable task?
It absolutely is. But a good thing is that today, everyone talks about csir's vision 2001 and I am getting enthusiastic responses to it.

Do you think that your expression 'CSIR Inc' has generated a lot of fear and scepticism?
That is unfortunately true. If I were to talk about India Inc, people will not worry because they know that India cannot be privatised. But the moment I say csir Inc they fear that it would be privatised. Such fears are baseless because when I use the term, all I am referring to is a corporate-like structure, culture and goal. Such an approach is essential if we are to survive in the r&d business and if we want to be global players in what I call the knowledge market.

How have your laboratories, the industry and government responded to the changes in the CSIR?
Very well. I have visited 35 of the 40 csir laboratories since I took over and there is enthusiasm everywhere. The scientists are charged and are speaking in terms of their specific goals, targets and business plans. Some laboratories have also come up with their own versions of Vision 2001. Our industrial clients and partners are also excited about the changes. We have already signed memorandums of understanding (mous) with several industrial undertakings and financial institutions. Similarly, non-resident Indians are also showing great interest in these developments.

How far have you been able to translate your MOUs with industry into partnerships with individual firms?
Our industrial earnings had gone up by 50 per cent last year, which is a sign of better participation from the industry. In fact, many new partners have come up and said that they were actually discovering capabilities in the csir that they had not known about earlier. But now we have customers coming back to us, which is an indication of customer satisfaction. To forge stronger links with industry, we are opening four business centres in the country, starting with Mumbai.

But the growth rate of CSIR's external cash flow (ECF) for 1995-96 has not been as good as that of 1994-95. Are you happy with this?
It is not the quantity but the quality of our earnings that matters. As far as the ecf is concerned, I am keen on two indicators. Firstly, the ecf generated by industry should go up when compared to earnings from the government. It is important that our laboratories get more and more tuned to orienting themselves towards industry rather than looking to the government for improving their ecf. Secondly, the laboratory reserve should increase. Presently, it has risen from Rs 28 to 41 crore, in addition to the previous year's carry over of Rs 20 crore. The Rs 61 crore we have right now is practically twice the r&d budget of the csir. More importantly, this money is at the disposal of the laboratories to utilise on an autonomous basis for the modernisation of infrastructure.

Is it true that the modernisation of infrastructure has not received adequate attention for several years?
Indeed. As a matter of fact, we have had negative growth on this front during the last five years. We are addressing it now.

Is it largely because of a decline in budgetary support, especially in the post-liberalisation period?
Yes. Our r&d budgets have suffered a decline since 1991-92. We at the National Chemical Laboratory, in Pune, were badly hit during that period.

How do you plan to address this now?
We need to invest at least Rs 200 crore to modernise csir. The government has responded with an offer to match every commercial rupee earned by the csir with another rupee for the next two years, as a one-time grant towards modernisation. Now it is upon us to make the best of this and increase our industrial earnings to say, Rs 80 crore next year and Rs 100 crore the year after. I must say that I am happy about this because it is a performance-linked approach to the problem.

What are the major problems and concerns with regard to leading the CSIR into the 21st century?
My first problem is to get all the laboratories together. For several decades, all 40 of them have got used to functioning as 40 independent units. Synergising their efforts is a major challenge. We have made a beginning by bringing together 11 of our laboratories for a major plant-based bioactives programme.

Another major concern is the average age of our scientists. Currently 47 years, it is an age when one is not at her/his creative best. We have to induct young talent immediately. One also needs to undertake training constantly to improve the performance of our humanpower. We are seriously working towards setting up a centralised training programme in Delhi along the lines of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre Training School.

There is also the need for what I call succession planning. A proper mechanism for developing the second line of leadership in the csir is required. The lack of modern infrastructure is a problem which we have already discussed.

The mindsets of our people ought to undergo change as well. We must push our people to compete both nationally and internationally. We have been used to reverse engineering for too long. We must now move from the reverse into the forward gear.

One of the means of moving into the forward gear is to insist on international patents because it ensures that we have the first word not just in India, but the world over. Our foreign patent profile is far below satisfaction even though it has been steadily improving. If we examine it in detail, it turns out that about 80 per cent of our foreign patents are from our chemical laboratories, of which 60-70 per cent are from a single laboratory, the ncl. We need to broadbase our patent profile, especially in the fields of biology and engineering.

There have been complaints that excessive autonomy to directors has unleashed dictatorial regimes. Do you agree?
I have heard about this and we do need to worry about it. On my part, I have been making it very clear to all directors that transparency at the top level is of utmost importance.

There have also been some complaints about extensions being granted to retiring directors.
These have not been expressed during my tenure. It has happened earlier, but only in a few cases. The normal tenure of a director is six years. Depending on the date of appointment, the tenure may extend slightly beyond the normal retiring age in some cases. But during my tenure, I have not allowed any extension beyond the age of 60.

There have been complaints that in several laboratories, appointments as well as promotions are not in line with performance indicators.
This must be stopped. I have spoken to the concerned directors about the cases which were brought to my notice. In the case of others, the directors have offered explanations as to why they had to take certain decisions. There may be some problems here and there, which is why I insist on transparency. I have seen very bright young people destroyed because they have not received their due. It can be very damaging to one's morale.

Don't you see a contradiction in your approach to stringent intellectual property rights protection and the tendency among many directors and divisional heads to push in their names in research publications, regardless of their contributions?
Absolutely, I think that is not on. This message has to go out loud and clear. I do not approve of it at all. We do entertain such complaints and people do inform us, especially when gross injustices are done. Ultimately, it is a question of a change in culture and attitude. By the way, let me also add that this is not a problem peculiar to the csir. It is a larger issue which concerns Indian science as a whole.

The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute's (NEERI's) ECF earnings are mostly from environmental impact assessments and environment management programmes, many of which have been criticised on various counts. However, its R&D record, rate of publication and impact factor are poor. Are you creating more NEERIs by pushing CSIR labs into self-financing?
No, not at all. When I talk of self-financing, I also say that it is the quality of money that matters. I am not putting a premium on the testing of grants earned from the government. All I am saying is that if you earn Rs 10 by testing, I will only give you a reward of Rs 1 for it. But if you earn Rs 10 by way of technology premia and royalties, I will add another Rs 10 to it. I am sending different signals. I do not want my institutes to be reduced to testing labs.

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