Every year MIT Technology Review celebrates 35 innovators under 35 years of age. This year, we have reason to celebrate as four Indians got into the coveted list. Of the four, two have their work bases in India. The fact that Indians have been recognised for their work done in India is especially inspirational for the young researchers here. Stanford and MIT stand besides other US universities in incubating new technologies and delivering products and processes that improve the quality of life. It is an often-levelled criticism that innovations seldom happen in India although we boast the third largest scientific manpower in the world. Comparisons are often made between technology institutions such as IITs and universities such as Stanford or MIT, forgetting the fact that the resources poured into research in IITs are no match for the funding Stanford or MIT receives. Money alone cannot drive innovations, it requires, more than anything else, the ability to think out of the box. Innovation also requires identifying a problem and working out solutions that are not conventional. The atmosphere is also important, as most innovations happen where critical thinking is considered as important as critical learning.
The Indian system more or less has encouraged rote learning in most schools in lieu of critical learning and thinking over the years. Thinking out of the box is a phenomenon that is generally not appreciated in our educational systems, as we have not evolved any yardstick for assessing these two parameters in any learner. The research done even at a doctoral level places undue emphasis on generating publications irrespective of whether the published work has a significant impact on advancing our understanding of science or technology in a given field. In other words, quantitative output is considered more valuable and desirable than qualitative output.
Indian universities, especially the state universities, are governed by archaic Acts, statutes and ordinances, and have become outdated in their approach to research and innovation. The university system, especially in the states, that produces the largest pool of graduates, postgraduates and doctorates is undisputedly the largest innovative space in higher education, but unfortunately doesn’t cater to the need for quality research and innovation. As state universities are governed by Acts of the states, little intervention is possible by the Centre and there is little hope for rejuvenating these systems in the near future.
Autonomous institutions such as IITs, until a few years ago, considered that their main objective was to impart quality undergraduate education with little emphasis on research. Most IITians go abroad, especially to the US, for postgraduate and doctoral studies and have been contributing significantly to American technological and economic advancement. The scenario is gradually changing with many IITs setting up research parks and technology incubators to facilitate innovation. Maybe the culture should spread to our state and Central universities, where a large pool of talent is waiting to innovate new products and processes that would enhance the quality of our life. Venture capitalists looking for innovative technologies and processes to invest their money are also coming to India in a major way. This was not even heard of till a few years ago.
The Indian industry also needs to allocate at least 5 per cent of its profit for research and innovation. Its record in research and development is pathetic. The industry would do well to recall the management maxim, ‘a passive industry is doomed, an adaptive would survive, but the innovative would succeed’.
Jayakrishnan is a professor at IIT Madras and former VC of the University of Kerala