Indian scientist are divided on the issue of public spending on obtaining US patents. In the eye of the storm is the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which has metamorphosed its 38 laboratories from patent-poor to patent-prolific in just five years.
The schism — underscored by the recent report “Is India’s ‘patent factory’ squandering funds?” in the science journal Nature — comes in the wake of CSIR being granted 543 US patents in the last four years, more than the number granted to its counterparts in Japan, Germany and France combined.
According to CSIR, on an average, each US patent costs Rs 6 lakh to obtain and Rs 6.3 lakh to maintain over 20 years. This year, CSIR expects returns exceeding Rs 25 crore from some of its licensed US patents. But sceptics are concerned that most of the other patents may turn out duds at the expense of the state exchequer.
Arguments are flying thick and fast on both sides. Says Knowledge Commission vice-president PM Bhargava: “Worldwide, only five per cent patents are commercialised. Are we being choosy enough to file foreign patents only after being reasonably certain about the exploitability of the inventions? I am also uncertain whether many of these patents are reproducible.”
Society for Scientific Values president and former IIT Kharagpur director Professor KL Chopra says: “Several patents have been filed in the IITs and CSIR labs which do not necessarily have commercial potential. Patent filing is a costly process and should be done after stringent screening.”
Renowned NRI scientist Ananda Chakrabarty, who patented the world’s first living organism, says: “Simply submitting US patent applications to show India has so many patent applications is a losing proposition.” An IIT professor who is also a CSIR Bhatnagar Awards laureate is more blunt: “CSIR is wasting taxpayers’ money. I myself hold US patents and know it means nothing.”
But outgoing CSIR director general RA Mashelkar thinks the criticism is unjustified. US patents, he says, are important as a key technology achievement index of the UNDP. “The fact that we are becoming smart about our intellectual property might be causing a high degree of discomfort to some,” he points out. On allegations that the Council is going for number over quality, he argues: “When people call us a patent factory, they should see that CSIR with 20,000 people and 38 labs is only producing about a 100 patents a year. The University of California alone produces over 400 a year.”
Scientific Advisory Council chairperson CNR Rao says: “India is just beginning to exhibit an ability to take international patents. It will be suicidal to start self-criticism at this point.” Rao wants India to have a target of “at least a couple of thousand patents a year”. National Knowledge Commission chairperson Sam Pitroda agrees: “Patents are part of the global game. They will not give you results overnight... We need to be patient.”