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Bengaluru: India has improved its ranking in the 2019 Global Innovation Index by five places to 52nd from 57th position in 2018. However, a lot still needs to be done especially in terms of multidisciplinary research and greater industry participation. Since many years, Infosys Ltd has been focussing on nurturing fundamental research in the country through its Infosys Science Foundation (ISF). In an interview, S.D. Shibulal, co-founder of Infosys and president of ISF talks about the role of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research, public private partnerships, and academia in driving innovation in India. Edited excerpts:

What is the need for multidisciplinary research to drive innovation in India?

Over the last few years, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research has been getting more traction with many new innovations happening at the boundaries of different fields. For example, bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field of science which combines biology, computer science, information engineering, mathematics and statistics to analyse and interpret biological data. Some of the modern methods of cancer therapy are at the boundary of biology and physics. Hence, it is necessary to create conversations across different disciplines in order to identify new areas of research and innovation. While it is already happening, we need to create more forums and opportunities for researchers in different fields to interact and engage, in order to drive more innovation. Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research can play a critical role in boosting India’s innovation potential. We need to raise the bar of the quality and quantity of research to become more competitive globally.

Despite some improvement, India still ranks low at 52nd position in the global innovation index. Why?

As per the 2019 Global Innovation Index, we have improved our ranking from 57 in 2018 to 52. If we look at innovation related to our GDP per capita over the past nine years, we are one of the top. Since everything is relative, we have to measure our innovation across those lines also. Historically, the boundary between teaching and research is clearly defined in India, whereas if you look across the world it is jointly done. That is the reason why we took a longer time to reach where we are today, but now we are seeing that many universities are moving towards a model where teaching and research is happening simultaneously, and that is a good step.

How can research aid and benefit startup innovation in India? At what stage are we now and where can we go?

Today, the boundaries between universities and startup ecosystem are clearly defined. But in some premier education and research institutes, such as the Research Park at IIT Chennai, startups have originated within the institution and moved out to create scale. I feel this is a good model to have. Many universities in India, especially the larger ones are setting up research centers. The outcome of that has already been visible, and that has to continue. Fundamental research is long term and meant for applications of the future. What they propose today, will go through a rigorous process of evaluation before being converted into real-life applications. For example, many of the technology applications we use today such as mobile phones, GPS etc. are the result of fundamental research many years back. It is a clearly visible path and the entire ecosystem has to work together to encourage the development and deployment of these basic ideas which can emerge to become licensed technology products or successful startups which are commercially viable and impact lives.

What is the role of public-private partnerships to drive research funding in India? Do you think it is sufficient or does India need more funding in R&D?

Research funding in developed countries are from both sides – public and private. Fundamental science comes under the ambit of public funding, whereas private funding happens mostly to solve problems; and it is important to strike a balance between the two. We are seeing progress on the public spending front. The 2019 Union Budget proposed to establish a National Research Foundation (NRF) fund to coordinate and promote research in India. As per the National Education Policy (NEP), 1% of GDP (or 20,000 crore) has been set aside for research, and this is a good start. However, private funding currently is low in India mainly due to the huge barrier between industry and academia compared to other parts of the world. When these barriers are reduced, private funding in applied sciences will increase. While we are seeing progress, private funding needs to increase from 0.1% of GDP currently to 1.5% of GDP in a step-wise manner.

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