Getting innovation wrong

| July 26, 2015 | 0 Comments

Getting innovation wrong . P.M. Bhargava. The New Indian Express, 26th August 2010.

The idea of universities for innovation defies all logic and it is inexplicable how a mature country like India can think of setting up such universities and move a Bill in Parliament to make that possible. Innovation is not ordered. It does not take place in isolation from the rest of the society. It is also not the sole prerogative of the organised sector which includes academic and research institutions. Zipper was not invented in the organised sector. In India, far more innovation has taken place in the unorganised sector than in the organised sector. It is just that the government and the organised sector have largely ignored it.

Some ingredients of an environment that would encourage innovation in the organised sector, are:

* Recognition that knowledge has no boundaries and that all areas of knowledge are related. The important and unsolved problems in all areas of knowledge, including science and social science, lie on the border line of more than one conventional discipline.

* The encouragement of curiosity and questioning from childhood onwards which is virtually absent in both our social and educational system from Class I onwards.

* Recognition, through early education, of social needs at that given point in history.

* A collegium of excellence all-round. Mediocrity dilutes excellence in an insidious way. Thus, if the output of one outstanding person is ‘x’, the output of one outstanding and 10 mediocre persons will be ‘x/10’.

* Freedom with accountability, in a democratic environment which emphasises equity and equality of opportunities. Thus, curbs on human freedom (such as on women in Saudi Arabia), dictatorship (as in Hitler’s Germany), and religious fundamentalism which we see everywhere (especially in many Islamic countries),  discourage innovation and destroy the creative instinct.

* Recognition of the importance of an innovation, and a mechanism to follow it up in real time.

We have failed on all the above counts. Thus, a large number of outstanding innovations in the unorganised sector as well as in the traditional sector remain unexploited. For example, the ICAR (Indian Council of Agriculture Research) has produced a series of volumes describing over 4,000 traditional agricultural practices, nearly a hundred of which have been validated and some  40 cross-validated. We have not exploited even one. The government, before even thinking of setting up universities of innovation, must state what proportion of innovations in the repertoire of National Innovation Foundation have been tested and commercialised if they have been shown to work.

We have over 40,000 distinct plant-based drug formulations that have come to us through four documented (ayurveda, unani, siddha and Tibetian) and one  undocumented (tribal) indigenous systems of medicine, using close to 10,000 different plants. Some of them have even been exploited in the West. Why have we not done anything substantial? Even if 4,000 of the above formulations could be validated using the stringent modern system of validation, in the next 50 years, India would acquire world leadership in an important area of healthcare, remembering that, as of today, not more than 20 Indian drugs come into the market every year, each new drug costing $1-1.5 billion in development.  

The Bill does not recognise that if we reform our school, college and university education system so that every child receives good education up to Class XII and has equal opportunities after that irrespective of the individual’s means, we would, become leaders in innovation on account of the many other unmatched assets we have. We have dismissed the idea of a common school system to be run by the government, and given a burial to the excellent report of the Yash Pal Committee on higher education.

How much innovation has taken place in our IITs? We have not realised that ours is a systemic problem. Unless we take care of the system by, for example, setting up a common school system and implementing Yash Pal Committee report on higher education, we would never be able to fully utilise our innovative potential. Most of those who have the capacity to innovate, live on less than `20-25 per day. They will be excluded from the Universities of Innovation which will obviously be meant for the children of the rich and the powerful. The idea of setting up such universities has clearly come from those who have never discovered, invented or innovated. Such universities would become only a channel for transferring public money into private hands.

Anyone can make the vision document required under Section 9. Were central universities such as JNU not based on such vision documents? Are they counted among the world’s hundred best universities? The Bill fails on other counts as well. For example, how is the proposed funding and operational mechanism of the new universities going to be different from that of the existing ones, except for the setting up of a research council? I do not know of any outstanding university which has a research council. It is not required if the faculty is outstanding and interacts with each other, for maximising which interaction ways and means are well established. If the faculty is not outstanding, no research council can help. And Section 16.2(b) will lead to inbreeding which is an anathema to excellence.

Chapter 5 of the Bill is a copy of the Bayh-Dole Act of the US which does not seem to have worked even there. Again, it will only be a means of transferring public money into private coffers without accountability. Thus, an industry can set up a university, receive government money for its research on the outcome of which the government would have no control. And how can continuing the policy of reservations ad infinitum, help emergence of excellence?

In our country where, using multiple criteria, more than 50 per cent of people are poor, the absence of a means-blind admission policy in a university (as will be the case in the proposed universities) would exclude over 80 per cent of our gene pool and make the universities a retreat for the rich. The proposed universities can prescribe any fees that they like.

Industry will invent a hundred ways of converting these universities that they would be happy to set up, into profit centres in spite of the requirement that they shall not be set up for profit. We already have a weighted 150 per cent rebate on tax available for research institutions set up by the industry and recognised by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. We must first determine what the return of this facility has been to the country.

Shouldn’t we learn from universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, MIT and Caltech which have produced an enormous number of Nobel Prize winners on a sustainable basis over a long period? They were not set up as universities of innovation on the lines proposed in the Bill.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *