Research is not only about bagging patents, but also about the ability to absorb technology.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently bemoaned the absence of a research culture in the country. He certainly wasn't the first, nor is likely to be the last in making this sad confession. Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee too went on record, when he was Prime Minister, expressing a similar anguish. It is true that the country doesn't have a research culture; this is borne out as much by the less than one percentage of R&D spend by the corporate sector as by the absence of an impressive collection of patents (Bosch, the German engineering behemoth, often goes to town with its claim that every working day it registers as many as 14 patents). Yet, there is reason enough for hope.

FICKLENESS OF PATENTS

The Japanese, and more recently the South Koreans, have been in the dock for their egregiously ambitious skills in reverse engineering, as if to make up for their inventive skills. Samsung has shrugged off the patent violation charges of Apple with singular nonchalance. Indeed, even in a product patent regime, the charge of patent violation is difficult to prove, especially given the country-specific reign of patents. There is as yet nothing like a global patent. What's more, evergreening through incremental patenting towards the end of the life of a patent is the subterfuge employed in the advanced West to make a patent a monopoly in perpetuity.

What is more important, therefore, for India, is willingness and ability to assimilate and absorb technology. While it is definitely edifying to one's as well the nation's ego to be in the forefront of invention of a cutting-edge technology, simultaneously one needn't despair over its absence, given the fact that the wheel need not be reinvented, and the more sobering thought that it soon becomes available to humankind at large, either gratis or for a price.

The Western transnational corporation, sitting on a pile of active patents, upwards of 40,000 at the last count by IBM, cannot take comfort from such accumulations alone. For them, profit comes when the patents are worked as far afield as possible, no matter if the place where it is worked is a respecter of intellectual property rights or not. Indeed, patent holders are not only tormented and humbled by copycats and peeping toms, but also by the dawning realisation that a patent which isn't worked on large scales ultimately proves to be counterproductive, though in the short run, one can also make profits through fleecing a small band of customers with the capacity to pay exorbitant prices.

RESEARCH RECOGNITION

But this is not to undermine the importance of research, because if everyone takes such a cynical attitude towards it, all inventions would dry up, and in its wake, fresh challenges would go unaddressed. It would certainly be a matter of pride if Indians shine on the research front. But for that to happen, a lot needs to be done.

Research is a long haul. Patience and appreciation are the valued assets in a research establishment. Money can go down the drain. A tax break of 200 per cent of the research spend can be meaningful only if charlatans can be separated from the serious ones, and as it is, there seems to be no machinery in place to do that.

The government has been gushing in its unthinking enthusiasm to grant voting rights to NRIs. Instead, it should improve conditions at home, so that an NRI looks forward to homecoming. There is no reason why the experience gained by them in the rarefied western research labs cannot be used by India to surge ahead. While the compensation package cannot be anywhere near the US levels when converted into rupees, appreciation and recognition can go a long way in bridging the gap. How many scientists figure in the list of honours at the Republic Day as indeed at other times?

The nation that worships Sachin Tendulkar, alas, spares little thought to the likes of E. Sreedharan, the metro man who has given the nation the true feeling of catching up with the West in terms of technology adoption.

The seeds of scientific temper are sown early in one's life. It cannot spring into one's consciousness all of a sudden. ‘Catch them young' applies to not only sports, but to research as well. Rote learning should yield to inquisitive learning, right from the school level.

JUGAAD IS IN OUR DNA

We are basically innovative, and given the right incentives and climate, we can invent as well. The intrepid Punjab farmer uses his tractor motor for a tubewell as well. And his friends in Patiala won grudging admiration not long ago, by using a washing machine to churn lassi (sweetened or salted churned curd). Raman Pillai was hounded out when he made claims of making petrol out of herbs. That the plant Jatropha lends itself to mixing with diesel should make us take a more charitable view of his claims. At least, the claims should have been allowed to be vetted by a hard-nosed venture capitalist who doesn't bring money to the table lightly and readily.

And why did we throw in the towel and kowtow to the WTO when nations such as China and Russia have, at some points of time, stubbornly persisted with measures deemed fit in their national interests? Yes, we stifled the creativity of Ranbaxy and Cipla which took on the might of Western pharmaceutical giants to manufacture medicines for the dreaded diseases like AIDS cheap, by succumbing to the WTO diktat that the process patent would no longer be countenanced. The point is jugaad (innovation) is in our DNA, and the spark, if kept alive, can blossom into inventions.

(The author is a New Delhi-based chartered accountant.)

(This article was published on January 13, 2012)
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