Back in July, in his convocation address at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, N.R. Narayana Murthy threw down the gauntlet to the Indian scientific establishment. What, he asked, were the contributions of the products of such institutions? Had India produced a single invention in the past 60-odd years that could be said to be indispensable to lives across the world? C.N.R. Rao, distinguished scientist and chairman of the scientific advisory council to the prime minister, has responded to Murthy in Current Science, pointing out that though the government has hobbled scientific research for its own sake with its insistence that engineers and scientists focus on solving specific problems or building on existing technology, private enterprise has failed to step into the space vacated by government.
Murthy was right, but so is Rao. Several of the truly groundbreaking inventions from the last half-century or so, such as the internet, cellphone or the global positioning system, originated from research subsidised by the United States military. But besides Darpa, the US defence research agency, the common thread running through many of these technological innovations is private partners. The US government played entrepreneur, taking risks to support such future successes as Tesla Motors and Apple. And Google Maps, for instance, owes its existence to an MIT project funded by Darpa. The Indian government, on the other hand, has chosen to apply its energies to reinventing the wheel with the doomed Akash tablet, for instance.
Certainly, much of the blame for the lack of similar stories coming out of India lies in the state’s wearying paranoia and lack of vision when it comes to allowing private players a role in defence research. But corporations have also failed to put their money where their mouth is. Murthy name-checked MIT in his speech at IISc, to which he unfavourably compared the IITs. But, as Rao noted, Indian billionaires have not, separately or together, founded institutions like MIT or Stanford — both of which have trained and nurtured the best minds to enable scientific advancement. Separate reports by Bain and McKinsey this year find that philanthropy levels in India remain low by global standards. According to Bain, in the UK, 74 per cent of people made charitable donations in 2013, compared with 28 per cent in India. And McKinsey notes that Indian donors tended to prefer direct interventions to help beneficiaries immediately, rather than indirect interventions that seek to build organisational capacity at scale. As the American example makes clear, it is the willingness and ability of both public and private economic agents to take risks that produces new, gamechanging advances.