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Friday, Jan 11, 2002

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Indian S&T: Looking ahead

M. Somasekhar

THE end of year 2001 saw two important events in the Indian science and technology arena — the exit of Dr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam from the leadership role and the formulation of a draft S&T Policy. These apart, the year was more `steady state' than big-bang.

The stepping down of the `missile man', Dr Kalam from the top slot of Principal Scientific adviser to the Prime Minister was a significant event, considering his domination of the technology scene over the 1990s and his role in shaping the country's defence and technology policies.

Not only was he the second scientist after Sir C. V. Raman to win the Bharat Ratna, Dr Kalam achieved the highest position for the scientific fraternity — Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government — thus propelling S&T to greater prominence in national development. During this time, as Chairman of the Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC), he formulated the Technology Vision 2020 for the country, in collaboration with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

Dr Kalam, who set in motion several streams of industry-academia joint initiatives to realise the Vision 2020 passed the baton on to Dr R. Chidambaram, the former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), both as scientific adviser and TIFAC Chairman. Drs Chidambaram and Kalam were jointly responsible for Pokhran-II in 1998.

In the post-economic reforms period, since 1991, there has been tremendous pressure on the Indian scientific establishment to move towards application-oriented, industry-related and competitive technology development. The focus on applied research vis-a-vis basic research and discovery, and the opening up of sectors for foreign competition, have thrown up new challenges.

A technology policy statement (TPS) prepared in the early 1990s was an attempt to integrate this changing scenario. But it never saw the light of day though a series of discussions on the draft was held in different parts of the country.

However, towards the end of 2001, a draft S&T policy statement and an action plan/implementation strategy for the policy were prepared by an expert committee of scientists at the initiative of the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

The move appears to be a step in the right direction, as it proposes a balanced approach to the creation of knowledge, scientific manpower training and application-oriented technology development initiatives. Broadly, it proposes to reconstruct the academic science system; modernise infrastructure for science, engineering and medicine; find new funding mechanisms for basic sciences; and focus on human resource development, technology development, transfer and diffusion.

With concurrent efforts to solicit views from various groups already undertaken by the DST, we could look forward to a firm S&T Policy statement by mid-2002.

There are two big challenges before the S&T community — the shrinking base of science graduates or students interested in science and the serious problems Indian industry faces in terms of upgrading technology or obtaining new knowhow that is competitive with the foreign companies entering the country.

If one adds the emerging patent regime and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) commitments, the difficulties for industry worsen. Thus the need for rapid technological development. In the pharma sector, for example, Dr. Reddy's Laboratories, Ranbaxy and Cipla — to name a few — have been able to take advantage of the patent situation for now. But in another four years, their present gains will be diminished and they will have to invest substantially in research and innovation to remain competitive. The question before the pharma sector is: Will it innovate and survive, or perish in the face of imminent competition?

Still on the patent front, the interest among multinationals and researchers in developed countries on indigenous knowledge and traditional herbal wealth remains strong. India, on the other hand, from being a spectator, has set in motion steps to protect and prevent any unlawful patenting of its traditional knowledge. A Geographical Indications Bill has been passed, and a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) is being set up so that patent offices abroad will have access to the existing knowledge in India before they grant patent protection. Are these steps enough, or should the Indian research community utilise the existing knowledge to better exploit the natural wealth for the benefit of the country?

The global economic slowdown and the technology crash cast a gloom on the IT industry and impacted the software sector, putting big question marks on the huge number of engineers and tailor-made IT professionals churned out by IT training institutes that mushroomed in the past couple of years.

While the mortality rate among these institutes has been high, the question in 2002 would be how this trained manpower could be utilised, especially in the face of job cuts and closed doors for opportunities in the US.

The global economic slowdown and the technology crash cast a gloom on the IT industry and impacted the software sector. But as IT witnessed a downslide, biotechnology became a thrust area, with several States setting up biotech parks.

As IT witnessed a downslide, biotechnology showed signs of rising. Several States, including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, established biotech parks and a host of industries are rushing in to set up shop there.

The industry-laboratory synergy was a welcome flavour of year 2001, especially in the biotechnology sector. With trained IT professionals and a large pool of scientific manpower, will we see a better exploitation of the opportunities that have been forecast in the biotech area, consequent to the unveiling of the human genome map and insights into the human genes?

In terms of funding of technology-driven initiatives, the setbacks in the IT sector have made the venture capitalists very circumspect. The financial institutions and banks, which have been traditionally reluctant to fund technology projects, would have to adopt a more `open-minded' policy.

The Technology Development Board (TDB), which has been funding a range of projects aimed at translating indigenous technology to commercial scale, needs to become more pro-active to lead the way. So far, it has funded many projects, but experts say that it has mostly taken a play-safe attitude.

The slew of incentives for Indian industry to undertake indigenous technology development, such as the 150 per cent weighted tax deduction on R&D expenditure, tax sops for exclusive R&D companies, concessions on import of capital equipment and R&D consumables, excise duty exemption for three years on goods developed by a wholly-owned Indian company and patented in two foreign countries, etc., also need to be re-examined as the response has been far from encouraging. What is Indian R&D, especially in the industrial sector, looking for to attract investments and efforts?

The proposed S&T Policy documents under process would perhaps have looked into several aspects of these challenges.

The time is opportune to put in place mechanisms that will first stop India from sliding down the S&T ladder and then place it on the route to capitalising on such emerging technologies as biotechnology, nanotechnology, communications, space-based applications and other hi-tech areas.

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