The Indian Space Research Organization (Isro) is planning to set up a university to train scientists to staff the space programme, says a report published in Mint last week.
The fact that Isro plans to train its own scientists and not take the products of our university system says a lot about the paucity of such skills, and the poor research environment, in the existing system. Shortage of trained manpower and poor research are interlinked.
Why is the research output of our universities so poor? Besides the usual explanations such as brain drain, the lack of resources, developmental problems, etc., one can also focus on the gap between demand and supply of research and, in turn, inventions.
Soon after independence, the research sector was split into an “advanced” sector and a “low voltage” teaching-cum-research apparatus in the universities. The latter were left to their own devices and soon degenerated into poorly run and politicized teaching shops. The advanced sector, then and now, includes the atomic and space sectors. They are amply funded and management in the sector has been efficient.
This sector, however, did not meet the needs of industry and the private sector. Since then, companies have preferred to pick up technologies “off the shelf” with little or no involvement of the local research establishment. Automobiles, textiles, telecom equipment and electronic equipment, among other such sectors, have seldom had any input from university research departments.
As soon as the private sector turned elsewhere (mostly abroad) for its requirements, the demand tap dried and the one stimulus that could have spurred research output from universities ceased to be available. To make matters worse, the government decided to “do something” about it, and the universities have not recovered from these efforts.
The statistics are revealing: Output measured as the percentage share in world publications, declined from 2.5% in 1980 to 1.9% in 2005. There are hardly any Indian papers in the Science Citation Index (SCI) that represents a rough measure of a research paper’s relevance. This has happened after the government sunk in endless amounts of money into the university and research system.
This is changing now, but at an excruciatingly slow pace. The changes are coming from the private sector. The growth of knowledge industries, and the outsourcing of some research and development work to India are likely to once again open the demand tap for scientific talent.
Critics are quick to point out that our success in these sectors would not have been possible without the government-run and funded higher education institutes. While public investment in higher education has helped, it is now time to establish a stronger link between industry and academia—this is in the interest of both.
Part of the solution is more private funding for academic research. Perhaps equally important, industry and the universities must work in close collaboration to establish an innovation ecosystem in many parts of the country. This is what has happened in many other parts of the world, most famously in Silicon Valley, the innovations of which have been nurtured by intellectual capital from the neighbouring Stanford University and financial capital from venture capitalists.
Academic departments in universities can be big partners in the process of sustaining research and innovation in industries such as pharma. This process is already at work, but in a fragmentary manner.
What is needed are institutional mechanisms of the kind that link government and industry in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but between industry and the academy this time around.
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