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Building a vibrant science ecosystem


Written by N Dayasindhu

It is commendable that in a difficult year, we have managed to complete an expert-driven, bottom-up, evidence-based and inclusive draft of the fifth National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP 2020). Our fight against COVID-19 has shown us that we will take science and technology more seriously than before. Thanks to our continued focus on science and technology, India is among the few countries in the world that is developing an indigenous vaccine for COVID-19 and that, too, in record time. STIP 2020 is the collective aspiration to ensure that we get the benefits of our national investments in science and technology. It is a comprehensive policy framework. A couple of interesting technology policy facets in STIP 2020 are the focus on translational research and clusters.

Fundamental research is the systematic study directed toward understanding fundamental aspects of phenomena and gain knowledge about them. Practical applications are not an objective of fundamental research. Translational research is built on fundamental research to create new applications — products and solutions — that can be consumed by users. For example, in the late 1960s, Willard Boyle and George Smith at Bell Labs conceived of a design where a series of metal oxide semiconductor capacitors in a row when connected, a suitable voltage could be used to step a charge from one capacitor to the next. This fundamental research-based invention was called Charge Couple Device or CCD. Fairchild Semiconductor’s translational research took this invention and developed a 100×100 pixel CCD device for the market. Kodak used Fairchild’s CCD device to develop the world’s first digital camera in the 1970s. Today, it is estimated that 1.4 trillion photos are taken every year on digital cameras powered by CCDs, including those on our smartphones.

Recognising the exponential benefits of translational research, STIP 2020 rightly aims to create a research ecosystem for promoting translational and fundamental research in India. The focus is on an outside-in perspective of translational research with inputs from stakeholders in society, industry and government. This is welcome, since strong collaboration networks among different stakeholders are required to create a conducive environment to foster translational research.

Indian higher education institutions (HEIs) are important nodes in these collaboration networks. These networks result in translational research powering technologically advanced industry. Large companies and SMEs may need to develop their capacity for converting translational research to production activities. Translational research is also fountainhead for deep-tech startups that are at the forefront of innovation. It is also worthwhile to note that STIP 2020 aims to ensure a conducive regulatory environment that facilitates industry to leverage translational research. The proposed Science Technology Innovation Observatory will have an important governance role in the collaboration networks. The importance given to collaboration networks in STIP 2020 for converting translational research to applications is a good start. How do we operationalise these collaboration networks? Clusters are one way to operationalise collaboration networks.

Clusters consist of multiple organisations including suppliers, producers, customers, labour markets, HEIs, include financial intermediaries, professional and industry associations, regulatory institutions and government departments. They nurture strong science and technology research capabilities in a specific domain and help translate these capabilities into applications. Other features of clusters include spinoffs that are a never-ending source of new ventures and strong informal supplier-customer relationships that go beyond contracts. An example of an electronics hardware cluster is Silicon Valley. Though this cluster had its origins in the first decade of the 20th century, what catapulted Silicon Valley into the world’s foremost cluster that perfected the art of translating research into winning products was Fredrick Terman and Hewlett-Packard Company (HP). Terman, a professor of electrical engineering in Stanford, actively assisted two of his students William Hewlett and Davis Packard to commercialise an audio oscillator Hewlett had designed for his master’s thesis. Terman provided them with initial funding and arranged a loan for them. HP, created in 1937, saw its fortunes soar during World War II when its oscillators were in great demand. In fact, the US Department of Defense was liberal with research grants during World War II and the Cold War and it was among the biggest investors in Silicon Valley in that era. Terman was instrumental in creating three institutions that laid the foundation of the Silicon Valley cluster. They have created a network of relationships and enhanced knowledge transfer between organisations in Silicon Valley. Stanford Research Institute was founded in 1946 to conduct government-sponsored research, Stanford Industrial Park that provided infrastructure to organisations was established in 1951, and Stanford’s Honors Cooperative Program that allowed employees of local organisations to enrol in graduate courses was started in 1953. From then on Silicon Valley became the epicentre of electronics hardware.

While the Silicon Valley cluster model is very successful, it does not mean that we have to mimic this model. It may not even be possible to do so. It is important that we build our unique clusters based on our national priorities. For example, can the STIP 2000 nurture the green shoots of a bioscience cluster in Bangalore, a pharma cluster in Hyderabad or a high-performance computing cluster in Pune? It is important to reward behaviour that nurtures clusters. Apart from the hard incentives, we need to celebrate industry-academia collaboration on translational research and its conversion into applications like it has been happening through the pandemic till it gets firmly rooted in our public imagination. While it will be tempting to earmark a geographic region or an industry in a region upfront as a cluster, this may not result in the benefits that accrue from a cluster. Rather than force-fit clusters, we may want to allow clusters to evolve organically. Our ability to realize the benefits of knowledge transfer, innovation, specialisation, and increased trust between organisations that clusters provide is important. There are also cost savings in a cluster, usually from increased market power, availability and use of specialised facilities, shared physical and human infrastructure, and reduced risk for entrepreneurs.

While the benefits of science and technology are often felt and seen; technology policy aspects like translational research and clusters are often intangible. Alfred Marshall states in his seminal Principles of Economics, “The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but as it were in the air.” While Marshall mentioned this in the context of industrial districts, it is appropriate to keep this in mind while we are nurturing mechanisms that foster translational research and clusters. Over time, we need to build the tangible and intangible aspects of a vibrant Indian science and technology ecosystem. This is an ongoing journey and STIP 2020 shows us a way forward.

(The writer is co-founder and CEO of itihaasa Research and Digital. Views are personal.)





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