Research in a Mess, But What’s the Alternative?

Research and Development

Research and Development

The 1950s & 60s were the heydays of Indian R&D, when scientists had the glamour, recognition and rewards. Those were exciting times for India that had just won its hard fought freedom from British rule and was still trying to find its feet. The country was poor and desperate for development in almost all sectors that touch human life.

Thanks to the encouragement, priority and funding received from the Government under Jawaharlal Nehru, scientists like Dr Vikram Sarabhai, the Indian physicist who pioneered India’s space programme, Dr Verghese Kurien, who pioneered the White Revolution in India, and subsequently Dr MS Swaminathan, who led India to the Green Revolution, all played a significant role in building a foundation on which India stands today.

They were not the only ones, the list is indeed long. Those were the days when scientists were publicly feted and got due recognition in a country where life was still very simple and frugal. There was excitement in setting up of the IITs and India’s thrust for large infrastructure projects such as the Bhakra Nangal Dam, Nagarjuna Sagar, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, ISRO – all were looked upon with respect by a hopeful nation.

Politics, Bollywood take centre stage

Somewhere along the journey we lost our way and the scientific temper. Politics and Bollywood began to take centre stage, while research & development (R&D) became just another activity for the Government. The private sector was discouraged to undertake any collaboration with the Government, on the back of a socialist belief that research was the purview and capability of the Government only. This thought led to the Government setting up one of the largest chains of State-funded research institutes in India, under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Thrust for developing India’s research in space was entrusted to the ISRO, the defence research was the purview of the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and the Department of Atomic Research led the mission to make India self-reliant in civil and military applications based on atomic research.

Failure of Indian research

Today, India boasts of one of the world’s finest infrastructures in research and development that would be the envy of many developed nations. However, the fact remains that India has not been able to use this infrastructure to address and solve many of the problems.

Large sums have been invested through five-year Plans but the nation is yet to benefit from the research organisations that should have made India stand out on the forefront of cutting edge technology. The truth is, India has got bogged down in building huge infrastructure but has been unable to create a conducive ecosystem that drives innovative research.

Today, Indian research is being held back by an obsolete, hierarchical bureaucratic system mired in red tape from top to bottom, where a scientist’s opportunities depend more on extraneous factors than on the contribution to innovative research, the situation arising out of the fact that the State as well as the stakeholders lack in capabilities to devise efficient alternatives. Obviously, the system opens itself to favouritism and corruption at various levels and this along with political interference, has been the bane of Indian research.

This author has had the opportunity and privilege to interact with several scientists over the years from various CSIR and DRDO units and one conclusion that was drawn was that the atmosphere within the organizations was bureaucratic, stifling and frustrating for scientists.

Research is a collaborative work

This is serious, as the feature with research is that it is essentially a collaborative work with the need to work towards a specific goal, using inputs from all stakeholders who have expertise in their respective niche specialization. If any member of the team within or outside the organization is not emotionally and psychologically committed to achieving the stated goal, he or she holds back the entire team from achieving the stated goal within the defined time line.

Unfortunately, our scientific community is heavily male dominated and this too comes in the way of earning peer respect. Our institutions do have an underlining of discrimination based on gender, caste and sometimes even religion. Raise this with any head of a research institution and the person would vehemently deny any of this even exists. The problem is that when institutions exist in denial, the problem continues to manifest over time, impacting the output of the organization, as a whole. The rot is a lot deeper than what is publicly acknowledged.

In addition to discrimination, another murky aspect of the scientific community is the usurping of intellectual ideas by seniors. Several young scientists have spoken about their ideas being used to develop and publish a paper by a senior scientist, without permission, information or credit to the young scientist. This has led to extreme frustration for scientists at all levels and only results in demotivating scientists from sharing and collaborating scientific ideas, which happens to be the backbone of research.

Scientific research is a lot about passion and obsession, about trying to go deep into a subject to find a solution to a problem and somewhere deep within, it is driven by ego and a sense of challenge to overcome the problem. When this passion and zeal to research is stifled, it only kills any chance of enthusiastic research thereafter.

The one major reason for repeated and ongoing success of leading universities like MIT in achieving major breakthrough in research by its alumni, is the fact that all students are encouraged to think and explore any idea that is of interest to them. The institution then facilitates and provides them all support by way of infrastructure and peer inclusion.

Any collaboration with any individual or institution is encouraged and is never a factor for any young student. This encouragement along with high quality of peer presence helps rather than limits the student from conducting cutting edge research. This is lacking in our universities and research institutions.

Lack of funding

The country has not invested adequately on research. The Government has created a large number of institutions but has spread itself thin in terms of per capita investment. Research takes time and patience and without adequate investment in infrastructure, people and training and development, pioneering research will not prosper.

Lack of collaboration with private sector

Private capital invests only on defined return on investment terms. So when the private sector enters or invests in R&D, it’s always with an objective and time defined agenda. This is backed by deployment of the best available human resource and thereafter, all infrastructure and funding support is provided. In other words, optimization of investment remains the goal. Due to lack of Government incentive, the Indian corporate sector has failed to adequately invest in R&D although this is now beginning to change.

The way forward

The picture is not all bleak. Government-funded institutions like ISRO have demonstrated to the world that India is capable of delivering cutting edge research with the most efficient fund optimization achieved by any institution in the world. However, more is needed by way of collaboration with the private sector to ensure that the best human talent is deployed and encouraged.

Recently, the Government had begun to encourage CSIR and DRDO institutions to collaborate on project specific research with the private sector and the results are very encouraging. India must develop research organizations that are modeled on institutions like the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany and the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI)in Taiwan.

Both institutes are conducting cutting edge and time bound research on behalf of the industry that uses their services to find solutions to real world problems. The industry pays them handsomely and this ensures that the funding received supports further independent research. India needs to nurture several institutes like these to harness the true scientific potential of our very talented human resource.

In Narendra Modi, we finally seem to have a Prime Minister who understands and appreciates the role of R&D in nation building and is willing to recognize its role. It’s time the nation stood up and developed an ecosystem to encourage, recognize and reward our scientific community.

The nation needs to bring back glamour and content to research. But how?