In the contemporary world, innovation and investment in science and technology is a priority. There is no country that does not want to harness the benefits of expanding and supporting the tech corporations and scientific behemoths working with and within them. The majority of unicorns – privately held technology start-ups valuing at $1 billion or more, are centred in the United States and China. But currently India is experiencing one of the most explosive growth stories internationally. India now has more than 100 unicorns now, having seen Neobank Open as its 100th entry in the elite league! And this boom is not just a reinforcement of crony capitalism, since the advantages of this evolution has been seen in everything from fiscal and medical to agro and pedagogical technology sectors. Recently, Shri Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Union Minister of State for Entrepreneurship, Skill Development, Electronics & Technology, expressed optimism and support for India’s unicorn culture by predicting a tenfold increment in the country’s unicorn population over the next 2-3 years, which will he envisions approaching more than 1,000. The Indian government also stated that it anticipates the country’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities to produce the majority of the country’s upcoming young entrepreneurs, underlining the egalitarian approach in the deployment of such technology. Given India’s human resource and the quality thereof, coupled to a surefooted stride in the direction of enhancing skills and technological innovations propelled by the Government of India under the leadership of PM Shri Narendra Modi, it was inevitable that India would become a hub for technological innovation on a global scale, even in unforeseen directions and dimensions.
In his Independence Day speech in 2021, PM Modi announced the launch of the National Hydrogen Mission to make the country a hub of production of green hydrogen, while the Pilot-sonde Method of Upper Air observations helps to gather data in all weather conditions with minimum human intervention. The National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) is one of the pioneering initiatives that the Indian government has made to address the issue of big data in healthcare, while the Atal New India Challenge (ANIC) program has been launched to directly aid startups with technology-based innovations. The nation now has been undertaking a concerted push in the direction of Quantum Computing and Communication, with the government having invested $1.2 billion in quantum technology development under the aegis of its National Mission on Quantum Technologies & Applications (NM-QTA), which was launched in 2020, while Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning is seeing a much-needed surge of activity and interest, with PM Modi having announced Digital India Bhashini with its focus on building AI-based solutions for Indian languages and creating multilingual datasets as well as ‘AI for All’, a website dedicated to AI and raising awareness of the same in citizens. Budget 2022-23 was focused on the sunrise sectors like drone technology, genomics, geospatial systems, clean tech, semiconductors and space tech. But the key question is: what is the way forward? Are there any key areas of S&T policy, both for the public and private sectors, that can make this growth story reach newer heights in the next 25 years?
Capacity Building and Development
Bharat Ratna Shri A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, 11th President of India, once said,“Building capacity dissolves differences. It irons out inequalities.” We must aim to achieve sustained investments in science and technology that are required to spur innovation, instill a scientific mindset in citizens, and meet the nation’s varied requirements. India needs to create an ecosystem that relies on its own capabilities, power, and resolve rather than borrowing from others, with a multivariate framework that rests on a stable platform. By instilling a genuine scientific temperament, discipline, and integrity, as well as national pride and a sense of fair competition and camaraderie. As a result, national as well as decentralised benchmarking (in a hierarchical mode) is needed, both in the formal and informal learning environments, to ensure that no silos of ignorance are formed and the human resource of the country is used in a competitive and efficient manner. A new culture of Atmanirbharta (self-reliance) must be promoted that has as its pillars the triumvirate of Atmachintan (self-assessment), Atmavishwas (self-belief) and Atmasamman (self-respect). This would be true for individuals as well as institutions and companies working in science and technology. We must be able to create a self-sustained S&T environment that has the capacity to equip the other critical requirements of the system and the country, with assurance and quality. The government has been trying to promote Cluster School and Innovation hubs in partnership with higher education institutes, private industries and local communities. The idea behind these semi-autonomous entities is to facilitate the sharing of resources and capacities across the different stakeholders. The Pradhan Mantri Innovative Learning Programme – DHRUV has been started by Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India to identify and encourage gifted children to augment their skills and knowledge.
While we must strengthen our indigenous and intra-national core in the S&T sector, we also must facilitate Internationalization of R&D in India to encourage brain gain. Innovative programmes like the GIAN (Global Initiative of Academic Networks) and Visiting Advanced Joint Research (VAJRA) must be presented and their scope must be expanded for international faculty, scholars as well as students. There has to be an increased focus on skill-building through hands-on training, in a decentralised manner, possibly with tieups between local educational as well as research institutions and regional MSMEs and industrial players. Young minds must be given a piece of the cake when it comes to decision making, to promote novel thinking paradigms. Diversification as well as increase of extramural funding in line with national priorities is essential. Optimizing the STI financial ecosystem by giving extant financing organizations more power and independence with the aim of fostering both multidisciplinary and intersectoral research as well as sector-specific innovation. It will be reinforced to have suitable methods for financing decisions that are predicated on responsible peer assessment and a balanced expert committee in terms of expertise, maturity, and gender. To ensure easier access for private actors, the incentivization framework will be distinguished by effective regulation.India must become a leading force in the world of science and technology, from the bottom-up, across the distinct research-sectors and levels of research-pursuits.
Greater Industry-Academia Integration and Indigenisation
There is a need to promote utilitarian aspects and avenues of science in the country. Science for science’s sake is key, given the nonlinear ways in which science progresses, but tempering or balancing it with the highlighting of applications is also important. We must establish a supportive ecosystem for the germination, maintenance, and expansion of specific applications of science and technology pursuits undertaken in India. In the west, this is done with industry-academia tie-ups, such as of Hitachi and Toshiba with Cambridge University and IBM with Harvard University. A natural question to ask is why can we not have the same here? We have eminent institutes like IISc, IITs, IISERs and state universities along with companies like Wipro, Infosys, Tata and Reliance. Why can the two planks be brought together, possible even with intra-university hubs of some of these S&T giants or greater opportunities to work on the technical and innovation-oriented side of the workings of these companies in-house? To assist science and technology-enabled entrepreneurial advances from conceptualization to prototyping, we must have a continuum of well-integrated financial and technological support programs. In order to better support early-stage S&T-enabled enterprises, we must increase program implementation reliability, timeliness, coherence, and accountability. We must also consider how to include grassroots innovation and Traditional Knowledge Systems (TKS) into the larger academic, scholarship, and innovation system. This requires the establishment of an institutionalized framework on the premises of various technical and research institutions so that we can identify and assimilate grassroots visionaries into the mainstream, thereby inspiring youngsters to be innovative.
In order to create technologies in a way that is both aligned with national interests and works toward building an economy that is self-sufficient, a two-pronged strategy will be used, involving both producing homegrown innovations and adapting imported ones. The exchange of nuances of work between cooperating agencies, technical institutes, and industry would improve indigenous innovation and development of essential goods and components with the necessary financial resources being provisioned mostly from the stakeholders themselves. Even if better technology is available elsewhere, indigenous innovations should be supported by the government, along with seeing how to develop such technologies so that they bridge the conceptual and technical deficit as well as are more effectively positioned in the international marketplace. Recently, an umbrella organization called the “Strategic Technology Board (STB)” was proposed by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, to serve as a liaison between various strategic agencies and to monitor and suggest technologies to be purchased or made in-house in the strategic agencies, private sector, or educational establishments in line with India’s goal of becoming self-sufficient, along with a Strategic Technology Development Fund (STDF) to encourage the private sector and higher educational institutes to develop strategic technologies. To evaluate the innovations produced in academic and research institutes, funding methods will be established. The terminologies, hazards, and financing patterns alter at diverse levels – higher education institutions, industry, and grassroots are quite distinct. To develop a conducive atmosphere for translational research, interaction and collaborative gaps between these levels will be overcome. Wherever possible, novel approaches with institutional links for translational research resulting in emerging companies and scalability chances will be established. Furthermore, funding organizations will be recommended to establish sector-agnostic but stage-specific programs to support all stages of research and innovations. A policy enabling stage-specific lateral admittance into projects would enable a scientist or researcher, who has the understanding and freedom to constructively reinforce the project, to reach out for deployment based on the project’s ‘Readiness Level.’
Open (and Responsible) Science: Increased Accountability of Science
Open science is a set of initiatives intended to increase the openness and accessibility of scientific outputs and procedures. It does this by utilizing new tools, adjusting motivations, and transforming mindsets in order to create a more rigorous and verifiable science. As per the Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy (STIP) document released in December 2020, the government intends to establish a National STI Observatory, which will a central repository for all sorts of data related to and generated from the STI ecosystem, and has also declared its move to develop a dedicated portal – Indian Science and Technology Archive of Research (INDSTA) to provide access to the outputs of all publicly-funded research. When it comes to journal access, one problem is that of subscriptions that a common man who is not associated with a research institute cannot access. The government’s One Nation, One Subscription model can help get around that, with a centrally-negotiated subscription for all citizens. I think we must also shift the focus on our own journals in India, so that research done in our country does not seek constant validation from the West. Science may be borderless but many-a-times it is afflicted by biases and systemic barriers. An encouragement of Indian journals as well as greater outreach, with strict measures against fake journals and any semblance of pseudo-science, can help bring forth good science in India to the world. Besides in the world of journals and outreach, we must also build towards making learning spaces more universally accessible, as per international guidelines and standards, especially for people with special needs. This, however, has to be done with efficiency and performance as preeminent, be it with a tiered model wherein there is a pyramidal access structure based on how involved and sophisticated the research-procedure is or through the use of an outreach and access cell for research institutions across the country. There are various questions still to be addressed in this policy-area: what data really needs to be shared, when must they be shared and exactly how easily reusable must it be? The question is about standards and accountability, and given the monetizable as well as public expenditure aspect of S&T in different sectors, we have to raise the bar when it comes to what can be and cannot be funded.
The need of the hour is to create a comprehensive and nuanced policy framework for S&T in India, building on the achievements of the NDA government led by Shri Narendra Modi. Inter-sectoral linkages, optimisation of existing elements, disruptive policy strides and pursuits, increased accountability of research, greater integration of academia and industry, indigenisation of strategic technologies, promotion of grassroot innovators as well as general capacity building and development are all priority areas in this direction. India is poised to reclaim its place as a Vishwaguru in the innovationscape at the empirical level, and all we must do thereof is to ensure that it has the firepower and capability to push forward full-steam. I look forward to seeing the government, institutes of excellence, industry, state agencies and universities as well as civil society come together to help facilitate a more competitive and yet egalitarian scientific and technological thrust for our nation in the next 25 years. That alone shall help us come into our own on the 100th year of our modern existence as well as manifest the soul of India, which was always about the pursuit of realisation and knowledge for an ameliorated human condition.
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