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Home / Opinion / Views /  The Pfizer R&D facility at IIT Madras is great news in more ways than one

The Pfizer R&D facility at IIT Madras is great news in more ways than one

India’s first university-based research park, the IIT Madras Research Park, also houses the institute’s incubation centre

This will have far-reaching implications for knowledge generation in India. If Indian industry develops the ambition to make use of India’s scientific talent, angling its vision a little higher than those low-hanging fruit it has traditionally fixated over, it would not be constrained by the lack of qualified personnel

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It is a welcome development that global pharma major Pfizer has set up a drug research and development centre, the 12th addition to its global network of research facilities and the first one in Asia, at India’s first university-based research park, the IIT Madras Research Park, that also houses the institute’s incubation centre for ventures started by students, alumni and faculty.

It is a welcome development that global pharma major Pfizer has set up a drug research and development centre, the 12th addition to its global network of research facilities and the first one in Asia, at India’s first university-based research park, the IIT Madras Research Park, that also houses the institute’s incubation centre for ventures started by students, alumni and faculty.

The centre will work on active pharma ingredients (APIs) and assorted formulations and delivery mechanisms. It will host work on both research to identify possibly useful molecules, and development of the molecule into usable drugs, whose safety and dosage are established through trials. It will involve a variety of scientists and technical personnel, apart from managers of R&D.

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The centre will work on active pharma ingredients (APIs) and assorted formulations and delivery mechanisms. It will host work on both research to identify possibly useful molecules, and development of the molecule into usable drugs, whose safety and dosage are established through trials. It will involve a variety of scientists and technical personnel, apart from managers of R&D.

The centre is bound to create multiple benefits. One is drawing a greater and deeper pool of talent towards advanced degrees in the sciences. Two, it would introduce the latest research methods and techniques of managing research in the area of pharmaceuticals to India. Three, it would serve to illustrate the utility of industry-academia linkages. And, four, it would diffuse the knowledge and capacity Pfizer instils at its centre across the pool of Indian knowledge workers in pharma and bio-sciences, which would ultimately benefit Indian industry and, through its subsequent efforts, all humankind.

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India’s education system suffers from multiple blights. One is the utilitarian approach to study. Getting a good job is the primary motivation, and the jobs that have traditionally been valued are those of the civil servant, the doctor, the engineer, the accountant and the manager. This, of course, is gross simplification but it would not be grossly off the mark to assume that only a fraction of the talent that could have gone to extending the frontiers of knowledge in the sciences actually filters through to these disciplines.

When an advanced research centre like Pfizer hires PhDs at high salaries, it dispels the notion that for a bright young student, to give in to her passion for plumbing the depths of any discipline, without any thought to its applied benefits, is to forgo a lucrative career and, further, to get locked into the bureaucracy of India’s statist research bodies or be condemned to struggle in India’s underfunded and under-equipped university departments, the only two alternative futures open to someone studying the pure sciences, for the most part.

This will have far-reaching implications for knowledge generation in India. If Indian industry develops the ambition to make use of India’s scientific talent, angling its vision a little higher than those low-hanging fruit it has traditionally fixated over, it would not be constrained by the lack of qualified personnel.

Managing research and development is a special kind of management that Indian industry has not had much use for, essentially because it does little original research. This has to change. India has the largest demographic that is engaged in, or ready for, higher education. If their brains and passion are not harnessed to do cutting edge research, it would be everyone’s loss. Centres such as the new one by Pfizer at Chennai can avert this.

The linkage between universities and new hubs of innovation, creativity and world-beating business success could not be clearer than at Silicon Valley, given its proximity to Stanford and the give-and-take between the university and Silicon Valley startups. In India, the colonial legacy of keeping universities primarily as teaching outfits while research is done, if at all, at specialized government labs, has been changing for a while. But it is still rare for such research to come out of university campuses to fuel a new business or feed into an industrial ecosystem. The IIT Madras Research Park was set up to nurture the linkage between academia and industry. Pfizer’s presence on the campus would give added momentum to strengthening the connection.

Non-compete clauses and binding contracts of confidentiality protect the intellectual property developed at industry-owned research centres. But that cannot prevent people who acquire a certain muscle memory with regard to research moving jobs and carrying their skills and aptitude with them, even if they leave behind specific learnings.

William Shockley, one of the creators of the modern transistor at Bell Labs, New Jersey, set up Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in what used to be called Santa Clara Valley, so as to be near his ailing mother in Palo Alto. The world should thank his poor people’s skills and insufficient recognition of the importance of what today is called talent management, for the creation of generations of Silicon Valley successes. Eight key employees left Shockley Semiconductor to start Fairchild Semiconductor. Those who left Fairchild founded Intel, AMD and National Semiconductor.

Our intent is not to jinx Pfizer’s India development Centre with a high degree of manpower attrition. The simple point is that places like these breed new high-tech businesses, because people are people, and have not just ethics but also what Keynes called animal spirits that turn them into entrepreneurs.

We wish Pfizer’s India centre all success and proactively wish its prospective alumni greater success in their own ventures in India’s knowledge economy.