To boost commercial application of research in government laboratories, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, or CSIR, the government’s largest research body, is considering allowing its scientists who own patents to float private companies and yet continue to be part of the government.
Existing laws prohibit such endeavours and restrict the scientists only to monetary rewards. In the current system, CSIR owns the intellectual property (IP) over the patent and sells or licenses it to industry for a fee.
However, the proposed law allows individual scientists to own the IP, raise capital through a joint venture with a private financer, and get right back to the lab, if the technology doesn’t perform as well as expected or the scientist sells his stake. Mint has independently confirmed the government’s move from three government officials, who did not wish to be identified.
“If it comes through, it is certainly a major policy shift,” said Sujit Bhattacharya, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a former CSIR scientist. “Merely licensing technology doesn’t work as very often it is only the inventor scientist who best knows how to commercialize their technology. If you encourage them to be entrepreneurs, it could certainly be win-win.”
CSIR had tried a version of this scheme earlier, but discontinued it in 2004.
At that time, scientists interested in being part of a private venture were granted “extraordinary leave” for two years. At the end of that time, they had to choose between working with the lab or continuing with their company.
“But it didn’t work; scientists were afraid that their company would fail and didn’t want to compromise their job security,” said a CSIR official, who didn’t wish to be identified.
The proposed new scheme essentially does away with the two-year time limit.
“We feel that government has to take a risk and let scientists free,” the official added.
At a recent gathering, science and technology minister Kapil Sibal publicly emphasized with the need for marketable research output. “The government is willing to invest, but research has to be targeted and marketable. I don’t want our scientists to be involved in irrelevant research,” he said.
Though a prolific patentee, CSIR doesn’t generate much revenue from its patents. In 2004-05, the latest period for which data is available, CSIR filed 50 patents and generated Rs4 crore in royalties and licensing. However, it also spent Rs10 crore in filing for the new patents and in maintaining existing ones.
“CSIR had got into a patenting rut. Policymakers believed that a critical mass of small patents would automatically translate into blockbuster patents that would bring in the revenues. That never really happened,” said a CSIR scientist, requesting anonymity.
Another reason for the scheme, say officials, is to ensure that top scientists continue their research.
“Though scientists could form companies, our feedback suggests that scientists want to serve as technical consultants in the company, make their money and then come back to their research in the lab,” said the CSIR official.