Science and Technology

CSIR aims for the stratosphere with high-risk research

| Updated on January 03, 2021 Published on January 03, 2021

Shekhar Mande, Director-General of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research   -  SANTOSH PATNAIK

With more autonomy to units, eye on business, the organisation focused on industry-related research wants to contemporise itself

A project to build high-altitude platforms (HAP) for wireless communications and broadband services that are ten times cheaper than satellites, and a wind-cum-wave current energy plant are among the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) proposed new stream of research projects — high-risk, high-impact, and self-funded.

In 2019-20, CSIR earned ₹1,000 crore from sponsored projects, consultancies and technology licensing. “This has allowed us to do risky, futuristic projects,” says Dr Shekhar Mande, Director-General of the government-owned body whose 36 units do diverse industry-related research.

HAPs are unmanned aerial vehicles which fly in the stratosphere (70,000 ft) and can be moved to wherever they are needed. CSIR sees this as the future of communications. “We are already into the design stage; you will see good progress on this in a couple of years,” Mande told Quantum.

Likewise, the integrated wind-cum-wave energy project would start “modestly” with a demo plant. It would involve the CSIR units National Institute of Ocean Technology, Structural Engineering Research Centre, and National Aerospace Laboratories.

Getting into big-bang research is one of the ways in which CSIR is trying to re-invent itself as it enters its 80th year (in September).

Focus on returns

A key shift is the renewed focus on securing appropriate value for its research. Often there is a mismatch between the price that a CSIR lab gets for its research and the market value of the technology developed. In one instance, a private company paid a CSIR lab ₹3 lakh for a research job; with that technology the company secured a ₹10-crore contract.

“We are learning,” Mande said, stressing that the focus in future would be on income generation, so there would be less dependence on external funding — whether government or the private sector. Many different models are being considered, including a company like ISRO’s Antrix Corporation, to handle commercial aspects.

“By March or April we would have a much clearer idea of what we are rolling out,” he said.

He observed that there has been an emphasis on business since 2017 at least, when the Council developed guidelines for negotiations and technology transfer. These guidelines were revised six months ago in order to generate enough funds for “our own research”.

More autonomy to units

There is also a move to give individual units (labs) more autonomy. “We would like Delhi (headquarters) only to be an enabler and empower the labs more and more for doing their own work,” says Mande, adding that strategic decisions would be made in Delhi only to serve as co-ordination when multiple labs are involved in a single project — such as the ocean energy venture.

Lack of autonomy has been the bane of CSIR units. Dr Vijaymohanan Pillai, a former Director of the Central Electro Chemical Research Institute, a CSIR unit, once told this writer that approval delays have in the past scared away foreign sponsors of research.

He said that nine years ago, a Spanish company offered a “large amount of money” to CECRI for research into zinc-bromine redox flow batteries (used in large-scale energy storage), but the government rejected it. Similarly, another project for Boeing took a year to get the go-ahead.

Pillai had then said that only about a fifth of the scientists did all the work. The government wants global quality but “I can’t fire even an attender if he is not good”. Funds are measly — for example, the travel budget for 117 CECRI scientists in 2018 was ₹8 lakh.

There is more autonomy in the utilisation of sponsored-research money but there is a paucity of long-term funds, such as for hiring high-quality MBAs or chartered accountants for industry interface.

CSIR’s headquarters is aware of these issues — hence the emphasis on more autonomy to individual units in future.

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Published on January 03, 2021
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