Briefly said, RA Mashelkar's story is about a small-town boy from a modest background making the most of his tremendous talent to scale the peaks of achievement. Currently the director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) with 40 laboratories and some 23,000 employees, the largest institution of its kind in the world, Mr Mashelkar is widely recognised as one of the country's foremost technocrats.
An outstanding scientist, Mr Mashelkar's pioneering research in polymer science and engineering has won him many laurels. Much as his genius in the field of science stands out, Mr Mashelkar is equally gifted as an administrator. This was evident during the period between 1989 and 1995 when he was director of the Pune-based National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), the organisation that pioneered India's emergence as a global platform for research and development (R&D). Dr Mashelkar's contribution to CSIR has been in similar vein, transforming it into an institution that has used innovation to increase India's economic and social wealth.Other articles related to innovation:
Nominated for numerous awards and other honours nationally and internationally, Mr Mashelkar is a rare amalgam of scientific brilliance, administrative acumen and nation-building vision. Here he speaks to Christabelle Noronha about innovation, knowledge creation and how cutting-edge R&D is advancing India's cause.
Nearly 80 per cent of India's spending in the science and technology sphere is done by the government. How can spending by industry in this area be increased?
If you look at the western world or at Japan, the ratio is exactly the reverse. The reason for this is simple: India grew in a protected economy till 1991, with little or no competition. Indian industry thinks of innovation only when faced with competition, but the situation is changing. For example, in the pharmaceutical industry expenditure on R&D used to average 1-2 per cent of turnover a year; now it is about 10 per cent. This is happening because on January 1, 2005, patent laws affecting the industry will change. Pharmaceutical companies won't be able to produce copycat drugs anymore; they will have to discover their own.
Another industry where R&D is in the ascendant is automobiles. Today, the wheel has turned full circle: from the days when the British Morris Oxford was sold as the Ambassador on our roads to the Indica is being sold as the 'City Rover' on London roads. The Tatas are investing in R&D, Bajaj is investing in R&D, Mahindra and Mahindra is investing in R&D, all because competition has come marching in. As the industry faces more competition and protection is reduced, you will see R&D spending increase.
What do you think is hampering such breakthroughs in other industries?
It will happen. Take the telecom industry, for instance. As India's telecom share gets larger and larger and as the market expands, innovations will happen, and different people will invest differently. Some companies will get into knowledge partnerships to derive more from the same investment. Reliance has a partnership with NCL for its polymer and polypropylene business. NCL helps Reliance understand the polymer at a molecular level, compare and contrast it with the competition, and improve it. This is not the kind of R&D where you try to create your own parts; it is about getting more out of your investment by doing process innovation in diverse sectors.
Unless you are threatened with extinction, innovation happens far too rarely. It is equally true that profitability is linked to innovation; if you innovate, there are profits to be made.
What are CSIR and other such organisations doing to turn India into a knowledge power?
There are several steps that are being taken and I will highlight some of the more important ones. To emerge as a knowledge power we must not only create new knowledge, but knowledge that can be protected, so that we can secure wealth from it. Six to seven years ago, CSIR hardly got half-a-dozen US patents a year. Last year, it had 142, which is 40 per cent of all the patents that have been granted to CSIR. It is not just important to be aware of patents or to file for and get them; it is equally important to validate them. Today CSIR has created partnerships with five companies, three in the US and two in India, to see how its patents can be licensed.
CSIR is also creating public-private networks where the excellence of the network, rather than individual institutions, is emphasised. We have launched what is called 'the new-millennium Indian technology leadership initiative'. Under this the government gives soft loans at 3 per cent interest, which are written off if the project does not succeed. We bring public and private partners together and look at areas where we can lead and have a sustainable comparative advantage.
Within two-and-a-half years of the programme being launched, more than150 private institutions have been networked. It's the biggest public-private partnership, or knowledge partnership, this country has seen. New products are emerging from this initiative. For example, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has been involved in a major effort to develop new software in biotechnology and a product called Biosuite is to be launched soon. TCS and 20 other institutions worked together to create this new product.
If you want to become a knowledge power, your strength in science, technology and engineering has to be high; you have to develop human capital. We have just one Indian Institute of Science, which is why the government has decided to set up four national-level institutions devoted to fundamental research. Since a large number of Indian Institute of Technology graduates choose to emigrate, what we did in 1999 was set up a committee which recommended that regional engineering colleges (RECs) should be lifted to the status of 'national institutes of technology'. It was also recommended that RECs' governance structure be changed and that funding be taken over by the central government so that these colleges are not impoverished.
This report was accepted in 2002 and has already been implemented. Today all 19 RECs have been converted into national institutes of technology. Similarly, there are 100 engineering colleges all around the country that have been identified for modernisation and upgrading in a similar way.
The government is continuously increasing the resources allocated to science and technology. India's investment in science and technology has gone up in recent times from 0.65 per cent of GDP to 1.1 per cent, with the immediate goal being to raise it to 2 per cent. Whether it is increasing human capital stock, enhancing investments, creating public partnerships or developing an intellectual property wave, there are several individual steps that have been taken to move down the path of knowledge creation.
The basic criterion in the granting of patents is that innovation must have elements of novelty, non-obviousness and utility. But most of our R&D institutions and industrial firms focus on imitative research and reverse engineering. How does one address such a challenge?
I was faced with this dilemma when I was the director of NCL back in 1989: any time we did something novel and went to the Indian chemical industry, they would ask me whether they had done it before, because, if they had not done it, how could we? I used to wonder whether we were destined to just copy and reverse engineer all our lives. The problem was it was the national context which defined our content, and the national context was that we were a protected industry. I could not change the national context, but I could change the local context and the local content. So I said NCL should look at exporting knowledge.
Now, I cannot export knowledge to American companies by copying their product; I had to be ahead of them. That's how we started creating a culture of patenting. It helped enormously since we raised the bar on innovation.
The point I'm trying to make is that it is the frame of reference within which you work that has to change. Some of us change it ourselves, some of us wait for others to change it through competition, liberalisation, opening up, etc. Five years back, no Indian company figured in the top 50 list in patent applications. Today the list has 15 Indian companies, mostly pharmaceutical and biotechnology enterprises. This is a continuing phenomenon; you will see a dramatic change for the better in the next three-four years.
What have major innovators such as the US and Japan done to merit their status of being knowledge economies?
Well, different countries have followed different models. What Japan did was invest in international technology transfer and then move forward aggressively through strong local R&D to create globally competitive products. This happened in cameras, cars and electronics. Cleverly designed national policies do stimulate this drive towards 'learning by doing'.
Innovative ways of linking universities and industry, creating fiscal incentives to promote R&D by private firms, venture capital financing etc are just some of the proven ways of promoting this process. The difference between Japan and us was that when we acquired a technology, we did nothing to assimilate it.
As far as the US is concerned, it has always placed a premium on being No 1 - being a leader in technology and being open to ideas to such an extent that anybody with a great idea, no matter where he or she comes from, is welcome to participate. The US has an open-door policy in attracting the very best talent in the world. Europe, on the other hand, did not have this culture, but that is changing. By 2010, Europe, as a whole, is going to have 3 per cent of its GDP invested in R&D. This will require 7,00,000 additional researchers, and officials say they will complete these numbers with talent from the third world.
That would mean a big opportunity for Indians?
A tremendous opportunity, but one that will create competition for us in terms of brain drain. We will be at greater risk of losing more people, which entails being more attractive. This automatically implies that we will have to create a hassle-free environment to keep these researchers with us.
Indian industry will have to offer competitive salaries and challenging and fulfilling jobs that match those offered by foreign R&D outfits.
What is the next big business opportunity for India?
I personally believe that biotechnology is going to be a big opportunity for India and the reasons are simple. You require human capital in biotech, which we have. You require genetic diversity, planned diversity of a huge kind, and that too we have. You also require markets, whether in agriculture or biotechnology, and we have them in both. We have a huge agriculture base and, when it comes to medical biotech, we have a huge population, so we have large internal markets. Additionally, this is an industry with extraordinary potential for technological growth.