Higher education is at the core of the R&D ecosystem in a country. In India, research in universities / institutions has not been supported as strongly as in other countries, and that is one of the reasons why its universities do not compete well globally. I am giving here an article I wrote with Prof. Jitendra Malik, Arthur J Chick Professor at UC Berkeley for Time of India some years back. The article is even more relevant today, as there is a much stronger desire and push to have some of our universities reach the global rankings.

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Ideate and Innovate: The Weak R&D System in India must be fixed if we are to compete in the global economy (with Jitendra Malik), Times of India

R&D in India was earlier not really tied to the economy as the industry did not really need R&D. Now with integration of Indian economy with the global economy, there is dependence of some segments of economy on R&D. And in future, the value of R&D to India will only increase, as countries that have the ability to innovate through R&D will be better placed on tapping new opportunities and compete in the global market place.

Due to this changed scenario, there is a need to strengthen our R&D ecosystem. R&D is globally done in three types of organizations – Universities, Government owned labs, and labs of companies.  The last is outside the purview of public policy (except perhaps fiscal incentives), but the first two are influenced a great deal by the Government policies and investment. The world experience is that out of the two, except for some focused defense, space etc. related R&D, the efficiency and effectiveness of the University is higher. Most research output comes from Universities, and most of the Nobel Prize winners work in academia. Furthermore, besides the direct R&D output, universities also produce PhDs and Masters which forms the main resource for the corporate as well as government research centers (and, of course, for the Universities themselves.) It is clear that universities form the nucleus of the R&D ecosystem, and unless this nucleus does well, it is not possible to build a strong R&D ecosystem in a nation.

In the US, which has the most vibrant R&D ecosystem, importance of Universities was clearly articulated in the seminal and highly influential report in late 1940s by Vannevar Bush, which led to the creation of National Science Foundation in the US. Over the years there has been a dramatic increase in Federal funding to R&D in academia, and now of about $110 Billion Federal expenditure in R&D, academia gets the lion’s share of more than 30% while Government agencies get about 25% (private sector gets about 20%, and rest goes to other categories.)

In India, the critical importance of R&D in academia is not appreciated and the investment on R&D in universities is extremely inadequate – of the Central Government spend on R&D, only about 5% goes to higher education, while government bodies spend about 90% of the expenditure! This lack of research funding to higher education is a key factor in decline of the erstwhile good universities to teaching-only places, and the continued weakness of our R&D eco system. If India is to build a strong R&D eco-system, R&D in Universities must be heavily supported.

Large investments in R&D in universities must be supplemented by methods that will push the Universities to excel. And the best method for this is the competition. Consequently, the second area which needs reform is strengthening of competition at all levels in the R&D setup. It is known, that competition gets the best out of business organizations. It is not fully appreciated that it is also extremely important for Universities. In the US, competition has been built at all levels. There is competition to get good students – all the main universities vie for them and compete to get them. There is strong competition to attract the best faculty – universities go out of their way to get good faculty and vigorously compete, even with corporate research labs (incidentally, universities often win in this competition with private labs). And there is strong competition for research funding. For the NSF research grants both private and public universities compete, and the competition is really tough today – upward of 90% of the proposals are not funded. The situation with DARPA and NIH (the other major agencies for research funding) is not much different.

Contrast with the system in India. There is little competition for getting research funding – the Govt labs simply get their funds, and for research funding to academia, there is little competition for the few places that do decent research, like IITs, IIITs, IISc, etc, as other places are in poor shape for conducing R&D. There is some competition among IITs for PG students and faculty, but there is limited competition from outside. Now with the emergence of corporate research labs in India, an external competition is emerging for recruiting faculty in some sectors.

Competition among universities can be strengthened considerably by having independent and rigorous evaluation of Universities on a regular basis using proper frameworks that compares Indian Universities and their departments with each other, as well as with universities across the world. Rigorously done independent evaluation (with perhaps rewards like government grants tied to it) will generate a sense of competition between the universities, and if done in a proper manner, can also provide universities some directions for improvement. Establishing a center like the Center for Measuring University Performance in the US can be a major step in this direction.

It should be clear that supporting competitive spirit among universities will necessarily require them to have much more autonomy and control – an organization cannot compete if it does not have basic tools like deciding compensation, incentive structure, etc.  (Here the argument that since the government provides most of the funding and hence must exercise control does not hold – universities in US, Europe, Singapore, Australia etc are heavily funded by the government, yet they are very autonomous in deciding their salaries, their incentives, and processes.)

It is essential that we build a large and vibrant R&D eco-system in the country. This requires universities to be at the epicenter of the research eco system, which requires a large number of research universities that are autonomous and are well funded for R&D. It also requires an independent and rigorous evaluation framework be built for assessing university performance, which will push universities to compete and provide the much needed drive for improvement.

Jitendra Malik, Arthur J Chick Professor, University of California Berkeley and Pankaj Jalote, Director, IIIT-Delhi. Views are personal.

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