Go for the moon shot
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This is inspired by our newest Bharat Ratna, even though he may not know the proper way to swing
a cricket bat. For those scratching their heads , here is a hint: he knows how to take a pretty good swing at our national attitude towards science. Yes, I speak of that other Bharat Ratna, C.N.R. Rao, who had the misfortune of sharing headlines with the little master when he criticised politicians for inadequately funding scientists like him.
A scientist bemoaning the lack of support to science may seem ironic, given that we are still in the glow of a rocket that recently took off for Mars. But Rao's outburst is the perfect launchpad for a general rant on the topic of how we approach science, technology and innovation in India. Rest assured, this will not dwell on the wisdom of sending rockets to other planets when we cannot send electricity or toilets to the inhabitants on this one. That argument has been made many times and I don't subscribe to it. India's economy, despite the recent setbacks, is the third-largest in the world in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms. We ought to be a nation that can walk and chew the proverbial gum at the same time; we should have the ability to make headway on the immediate challenges without sacrificing investments for the long haul.
There is also no point in extolling the virtues of "frugal innovation" as others have done in the context of the Mars mission. The last time we were this excited about frugality was when the Tata Nano was making the rounds as Exhibit A in innovation conferences worldwide. The Nano appeared more frequently on PowerPoint slides than it did on Indian roads, so let's take it down a notch.
Instead, let's return to the notion of India being the world's third-largest economy in PPP terms. This means we should have the audacity to imagine an economy that is sufficiently complex; it is not entirely bad if news of a Mars mission crowds out headlines on whether the redoubtable Kameshwar Baitha, with a career spanning several charges for murder, attempted murder, assault, theft and extortion, should really be considering a career in public service.
Indian inventiveness in science, technology, business and the arts — as opposed to inventiveness in extreme contradictions — should of course be celebrated. But this is the perfect moment to remind ourselves that much of this inventiveness has been an outcome of "jugaad", the process of working around obstacles and deprivation. It is time we started acting like the third-largest economy on earth, and this involves preparedness to invest in the longer term.
In India, as elsewhere, the government is a crucial investor, particularly in laying foundations that others can build on. It has been 10 years since then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee promised that India's investment in science and technology would rise to 2 per cent of GDP by 2007 from a measly less-than-1 per cent. In 2007, his successor Manmohan Singh postponed the promise by another five years. We are still waiting.
Clearly, there is talent and inventiveness in India waiting to be tapped. The private sector has sensed this already; inflows of foreign exchange for R&D have increased fourfold from 2004-05 to 2010-11. Culturally, highbrow research is not an alien concept in India. How many countries can boast of a recent president who was a space and nuclear scientist? Concurrently, the country's prime minister, despite his political ineptitude, is a winner of at least 25 academic honours and has a stellar record as an economist.
These luminaries, among so many others, are products of India's educational institutions, even if many topped-off their learning from universities abroad. It is ridiculous to think of how difficult it is to get admission to the IITs, the St Stephen's and Presidency Colleges and the IIMs. MIT, Yale or Harvard are a breeze in comparison. Yet, Indian institutions do not factor in most international rankings. One major reason is that there is so little research with global impact coming out of these institutions.
Coming back to the Mars mission, the country that inspired India's "Sputnik moment", China, has been on a tear as far as investment in long-term research is concerned. China's R&D investments have grown 12 per cent annually in recent years. The government's goal is to increase R&D investment from 2 per cent to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2020. It is estimated that China will beat the US in R&D investment by 2022. Despite the pedestal on which venture capital is placed in the US, it is useful to remember that the greatest of foundational inventions there, from biotech to the internet to shale gas fracking, originated with government-funded research.
As far as India's investment priorities go, we have seen many arguments in favour of the Mars mission, that it signals India's technological prowess or its competence in frugal innovation. Other advocates cite all the NASA spinoffs as inspiration: CAT scans and MRI, orthodontic braces, mobile phone cameras, nutrients in infant formula. These are, however, somewhat specious arguments in the Indian context. We need an entire ecosystem and institutions with tinkerers funded and motivated to make the connections between space forays and earthly applications. In the absence of a deeper commitment to R&D, the chances of Mars missions delivering anything of real use or pushing new scientific frontiers are as remote as a Martian mission making a landing in India.
All said and done, Indian innovators have done well under conditions of adversity. It is remarkable that we have enterprises with scrappy beginnings that have scaled-up innovative solutions to serve the needs of millions, with little public sector support. It is remarkable that we have a Rao, who can publish 1,500 papers and 45 books and has synthesised two-dimensional oxides, nano-materials and graphene with minimal equipment. But this is no way to run an innovation machine for a country the size of India.
It is time to stop crossing our fingers and hoping for success through jugaad innovation. Our policy mandarins should set their sights on something bigger, with longer odds and higher returns, and to think in terms of a different form of innovation. This is innovation that taps into the deep reservoirs of talent and grassroots entrepreneurship, and the even deeper reservoirs of unmet need. It is time to develop a policy for juggernaut innovation.
The writer, senior associate dean of international business and finance at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, is the author of 'The Slow Pace of Fast Change'.