By Arati Nair:
The war of words between renowned IT industrialist, N.R. Narayana Murthy and celebrated scientist, Professor C.N.R. Rao is at a crucial juncture, exposing the lacunae in our innovation paradigm and industry’s contribution to the same, or lack thereof. With his barbed comments a few months back at the IISC convocation, Mr. Murthy had lamented the dearth of Indian scientific inventions, in the past sixty years, worth global acceptance. Though his opinion opened a Pandora’s Box among industrialists, innovators and the scientific community at large, an open verbal confrontation did not take place. However, the scientist in C.N.R. Rao did not take the veiled insult lightly. Now, in what is deemed a befitting reply to the jibe, he has highlighted the lacklustre role of industry in ensuring a competitive environment for innovation in India.
His article published in the journal Current Science was a strongly worded reply to Narayana Murthy’s claims in which he said- “It would not be entirely fair of me to ask Narayana Murthy to ask what the industry has done for the society other than making products and profit. It would be wonderful if Narayana Murthy and others collect a few billion dollars so that we can set up a university such as Stanford. I would be delighted to work full time to build such an institution without any remuneration.”
The price of innovation
In his controversial convocation address in July, Murthy credited western universities like MIT for having nurtured young minds to think out of the box. He extolled the virtues of scientific temperament, its diligent cultivation and the role of his own company, Infosys in devising the two revolutionary ideas for productivity of global corporations – the Global Delivery Model and the 24-hour workday- a modest pat on the back for himself, no doubt.
Mr. Murthy, like others of his ilk, failed to look beyond the smokescreen of westernized technical innovation. The long strides taken by developed countries are incomparable to the baby steps we have managed back home, but the lack of talent was never the cause. For a country plagued by poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, epidemics and climatic vagaries, the prerogative for groundbreaking inventions takes a backseat. The pseudo-socialist economic setup, partial to quick fix fiscal solutions, provides limited options for heavy public expenditure on science and research. In such situations, industrialists like Narayana Murthy can step in to bridge the monetary gap, taking a leaf out of the book of his contemporaries in the western world. While businessmen and industrialists contribute almost 40-45 percent of the funding for universities abroad, such symbiotic culture is yet to develop in India, where even the government’s share in research and development is a meagre 2 percent of the GDP.
Avant-garde trends at home
C.N.R. Rao has rightfully described the capitalist tendencies of Indian industrialists, whose sole contribution to public welfare has been the mandatory dues imposed as CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). If only Mr. Murthy had chosen to broaden his perspective on innovation, he would have discovered a raging trend in small town India, with its dizzyingly innovative ideas. From an advanced investigation analysis and data recording system to electric vehicle manufacturer Ampere, the bylanes in India are teeming with fresh ideas at low cost without the aid of first world expertise. In fact, our indigenous technology is being adopted elsewhere while our skewed civic system leaves innovators hanging. A prime example of the same is India’s ‘Plastic Man’, who has invented a means to build durable and cost-effective roads using plastic. Sadly, his hard work is being used by the Netherlands while his nation turns a blind eye.
Ultimately, groundbreaking inventions have materialized in India over the past decades, sometimes in flashes, but are largely ignored as the industry that ought to absorb such ideas, has been risk-averse to invest in technologies that are not entirely profitable. Laurels such as the Nobel Prize may be few and far between, but our scientists all over the world are associated with path-breaking projects. Even Mr. Rao, who has worked diligently in the domain of superconductivity and carried out pioneering research that helped enrich the field, finds his work apparently unacknowledged without an approval from the West.
A difference of opinion that transforms the lackadaisical attitude of the government and the industry could benefit the weary research and development apparatus in India. However, a rhetorical blame game may not be in the best interests of the nation at large and the scientific strata in particular.