The observations of NR Narayana Murthy, former chairman, Infosys, that even the best of our research institutions, with the century-old Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore as a reference, have not made even one invention of relevance to society, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has over 100 that have changed the world, have led to a debate.
As an alumnus of IISc, it hurts to digest such an unfair comparison. Space and defence establishments use IISc expertise for technical evaluation of different kinds. The contributions of IISc to rocket fuel technology or launch vehicle drag are only understood in knowledgeable circles.
The US imposed sanctions on IISc, stating that its supercomputer was used for the design of the Pokhran nuclear bomb.The charge is not true, but the action acknowledges the capabilities of IISc. Every major technological initiative in the power, communication and transport sectors in the country makes use of IISc experts.
The challenges in a poor, developing country are different. We developed the recombinant hepatitis B vaccine and this, along with the same vaccine, developed by Shantha Biotech established India’s footprint in the global biotech arena. A vaccine selling at Rs 475 a dose became available to Unicef at Rs 20 a dose.
The educational institution generated leaders like Vikram Sarabhai, Homi Bhabha, Satish Dhawan and CNR Rao. Many leaders in the country’s defence and science and technology establishments are from this institution.
One needs a separate article to list the number of major R and D institutions that came out of IISc, seeding of institutions such as IITs, establishment of public sector institutions and the birth of even private sector institutions.
Why is IISc not developing its own innovative products? A major issue is inadequate funding. The funding requirements of upstream and downstream research are different.
Regulatory systems in the country are unfriendly. I am struggling with the regulatory system for the last eight years to take forward a drug combination to treat cerebral malaria, where mortality is 25-35%.
A colleague and I developed a DNA vaccine against rabies (the first of its kind), but the industry, despite all approvals, did not proceed to make a cheaper vaccine for commercial reasons.
Are we doing cutting-edge research? Not really. It is very good research, but not the breakthrough kind. Even senior scientists do not want to leave the comfort zone to risk an untrodden path. It’s still ‘publish or perish’ that decides the future of scientists.
Even IISc’s four-year UG programme was questioned by the HRD ministry. The IISc is clubbed with the latest Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, which functions from a rented building. No wonder, the IISc is on top in India, but globally ranks below 300.
In short, the eco-system in India has to change to encourage innovation. We need industries to work closely with academia and absorb the risks involved in developing technology and commercialisation.
We need foundations to invest substantially in product-driven research and work with academia. The government support system for R and D is piecemeal and bureaucratic.
Opinion leaders have a responsibility. We should not kill the golden goose. The problem with the IISc is its laid-back environment.
G Padmanaban is former director, IISc
The views expressed are personal