Innovation doesn’t grow on trees

Published: Sunday, May 29, 2011, 2:38 IST
R Krishna | Place: Mumbai | Agency: Reuters

Environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh is absolutely right when he says that the research output from our IITs and IIMs is dismal; what he doesn’t point a finger at are the roots of this intellectual poverty.

Students at IITs and IIMs are world-class, the faculty is not — this proclamation by Jairam Ramesh stirred the scientific community in the country, even as the environment minister went on to point a finger at the poor quality of research being conducted at these premier institutions. Ramesh’s diagnosis is that the research is suffering because the faculty is of a low calibre.

“But whose job is it to recruit and retain good quality teachers?” asks Satyajit Rath, scientist at the National Institute of Immunology. “For instance, the government decided to increase the number of students in the IITs by 27%. But what was their solution to improve the student-faculty ratio? They increased the retirement age of professors from 60 to 65 years. How did that help in improving the student-faculty ratio in any way? Isn’t all this part of government policy?”

Poor quality of faculty is not the only reason India has lagged behind in its research output. It has failed to build large R&D institutions with up-to-date equipment and a system that rewards creativity — ironically, these are the very things that attract bright teachers. Further, India has failed to take enough initiatives to simulate industry-academy linkages, and instill an entrepreneurial spirit in universities.

China’s ambitious plans
India doesn’t have to look too far to study how things are done right. One analysis of research done in the field of computer science by Suresh Kumar and KC Garg of National Institute of Science Technology and Development Studies, suggests that India’s research activity was significantly higher from 1971 to 1985. From 1986 to 2000, India’s research activity declined while China’s rose.

A recent study by the Royal Society, London, titled ‘Knowledge Networks and Nations’, ranked China No. 2 in the world in terms of the number of research papers filed. India is placed at No. 10. Even when it comes to the quality of research, judged by the number of times research papers have been cited by other researchers, China is ranked No. 7. India does not figure in the top 10.

China’s rapid rise is a result of ambitious, clear-cut policies and targets set by the government, say experts. “The Chinese government has given a strong message and a clear policy has been defined at the highest level. Road maps for implementation are clearly articulated. In India, on the other hand, we simply state that building science parks is important. How these science parks can be made functional is not clearly stated,” says Sujit Bhattacharya, who is part of a group studying China’s and South Korea’s approach to upgrading their research.

According to Bhattacharya, the State Science Technology Commission of China has several programmes to promote research in the country. “The Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), which is one of the largest research labs in the world, underwent a major restructuring where some researchers were asked to leave. At the same time, the Ministry of Education with the CAS started attracting the best talent from the world by giving huge financial and non-financial incentives to head new world-class research centres. Provinces get into the fray by funding the programmes set at the central level. And as a result, today, universities, industries, and foreign affiliates are part of a chain of science and technology parks. In fact, some universities are inside these industrial high technology zones. These parks compete with each other and you will find special economic zones nearby, thus creating major technological hubs,” says Bhattacharya.

India’s tardy approach
Far from such tightly integrated ambitious policies, India continues to grapple with basic issues. Funding and infrastructure are not the only areas of concern. The current systemfails to take into account the quality and relevance of research. According to Ram Puniyani, former professor of bio-medical engineering at IIT Bombay, policies should be tailored to reward people who are producing quality research relevant to India. As things stand today, number of papers published is the main criterion to get promotions or even grants for research. “There should be a way to gauge and reward creativity,” says Puniyani. But little can be expected from babus in government departments to direct funds to scientific fields and people who show promise.

Moreover, before pointing a finger at the quality of research being conducted at the IITs, the government should consider the way they are operating currently. “In the IITs the facilities are reasonable, but the average teaching load is more than that in a university in the west. This leaves little time to do research. On the other hand, in the universities, the teaching load is less, but the research facilities are poor,” says Ashoke Sen, professor, Harish-Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad. He adds, “In contrast, the research institutes, which have good research facilities and almost no teaching responsibilities, have suffered from the absence of young minds. In my view, this separation of teaching from research has been one of the main reasons for the current shortfall in research output in Indian science.”

The government also has to do its bit in promoting linkages between universities and industry. According to Chris Llewellyn Smith, chair of the Royal Society report, the UK government is taking several steps to stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit among researchers. “For instance, consider an academic who has an idea which looks promising but not at a stage where a company or serious investor will put in money. This idea will need an amount of money which is larger than the academic budget usually available to researchers. The UK government has now put money in the hands of universities who can internally fund such ideas.”

In India too, the government is finally rethinking its strategy, says Bhattacharya. For example, the government may adopt ‘utility-model patents’ which is expected to give a fillip to patent filing and innovation, because they are not as difficult, expensive, or time-consuming as it would be to produce ‘invention patents’.
But while India trudges along, globally the situation is changing rapidly. As Bhattacharya says, “Look at Google and Facebook. Products coming out of universities are changing the world.”

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