MOHAN MURTI

Reforms in the science and technology research area are urgently needed and India can learn much from the German experience.

Excellence comes when work is done without anxiety, apprehension, disquiet, in the calm of self-surrender, says Bhagavad gita Mahabharata. Like Lord Krishna said in Bhagavad gita, science and research in Germany are characterised by a pursuit of excellence in unperturbed calm.

With a splendid research infrastructure, a wide variety of disciplines and competent staff, Germany offers various forms of research locations, such as universities, non-university institutes and companies.

Facts and Figures

There are about 750 public-funded research institutions and about 130 research networks and clusters. The total staff in R&D in Germany exceed 500,000 of wom over 300,000 are scientists and scholars. Gerrmany's gross domestic expenditure on Research and Development annually is about €61 billion.

Germany is home to 373 universities that do not see themselves as “schools” for undergraduates and doctoral students, but as centres of the “unity of research and teaching”. This principle has a long tradition and was coined by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), philosopher and founder of Humbolt University in Berlin.

And, that makes Germany one of the world's most attractive research and higher education nations of the world.

R&D Policy Framework

The quest for 'excellence' is turning Germany's best universities into top research universities, thereby sponsoring the best brains in the country and attracting talented students and top foreign researchers from all around the world.

For instance, each year, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation enables more than 2,000 researchers from all over the world to spend time researching in Germany. To date, over 1000 Indian scientists have benefitted from the research opportunity. The Foundation maintains a network of more than 24,000

Humboldtians from all disciplines in over 130 countries worldwide — including 44 Nobel Prize winners.

Again, Indian scientists have benefitted from Max Planck science fellowships. Indian researchers make up the largest foreign group of scholars in international Max Planck research schools.

Triadic Patents

German companies are among the most actively engaged in research in Europe. After the US and Japan, Germany registers the highest number of triadic patents worldwide — patents that are submitted simultaneously in Europe, Japan and the US. German companies collectively spend over €50 billion in internal R&D expenditure.

Now lets take a look at where India stands. Science has to fight parochialism. The Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) ranked India in the 58th position in international innovation. Even with a large talent pool, the country is unable to be the source of major innovations on a sustained basis.

So, what could be the reason for this? Addressing the Indian Science Congress, Prof. Amartya Sen, Chairman of the Interim Governing Board of Nalanda University, hit the nail on its head when he said “Science has to fight parochialism, and Nalanda University (which existed in Bihar during the early fifth century and the 12th century) was firmly committed to doing just that”.

For good reasons, we need precisely the same mindset today, in the Indian science and research set-up.

Creativity Demands

Tranquility, time and trust. These three magic words sum up what is required to spout excellence and creativity in human beings. The demands of science and research in India seem to be just the opposite: haste, quick results and mistrust. What counts is the number of 'papers' published and how many times you are ‘cited'.

Progress of technology, humanities and natural science often springs from clear, calm thinking, questioning ability and originality of thought. And, originality needs to be recognised and accepted. But, reality in India is that often, new and unusual ideas are outright, rejected.

If the inventor of X-Rays, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen or, young Albert Einstein who propounded the theory of relativity had worked in an Indian research lab, a research project proposed by either of them would never have found financial support and, neither of them would have become Nobel Laureates or attained a position in the academic world.

We all know that noble laurate Dr. Venky Ramakrishnan, Ph.D, Physics from Ohio University, was considered a no-good substandard material to adorn the portals of IIT (he was rejected by them) as well as the medical colleges in India.

innovation laggards

India is not realising its potential for innovation, because its education and research institutes do not encourage a culture of questioning, experimentation and exchange of ideas.

Funding pressures have diverted scientists away from their core abilities to deal with red tape to cater to the requirements of funding agencies.

Reverse Engineers

India is still known in Europe as a country that picks up obsolete technologies at throwaway prices and reverse-engineers products. We urgently need to reinvent ourselves as a research and development powerhouse where innovation flourishes.

Although India's potential is high, it is not nurturing innovation. India's education system seems to stunt any spirit of innovation by failing to close the gap between the industry and the academia.

As a rigid society, we are unable to cope with failure. And, failure is an essential ingredient for innovation to prosper.

We should recapture the 'spirit of excellence' in the Bhagavad gita. We ought to recognise and pay tribute to good work. We must spot and encourage talent. After all, excellence means constant improvement and innovation — thinking in curves instead of logical straight lines, introducing simple procedures, time and labour-saving devices, better health care, cheaper wares and making our agricultural yield higher. There is nothing in India that cannot be improved. As for ‘Indian excellence', the best is yet to come.

(The author is a former Europe Director, CII and lives in Cologne, Germany. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 10, 2011)
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