India needs sustained economic growth for the next 40 years. This is necessary in order to improve the living conditions of millions of poor, hungry, undernourished, unemployed masses. Technological innovation and development is critical for sustaining the current pace of economic growth. They increase productivity and create new economies and industries. It has been proven beyond doubt that increase in level of resources spent on technological research leads to extraordinary rate of productivity improvement which fuels continuous economic growth.
An increased level of technological research and development can come only with a better industry-academia-government collaboration.
Private sector industries often find funding basic research unprofitable or lack means of doing that. Academia also lacks access to advanced research facilities. But these two sectors have a large pool of trained professionals and hardworking ambitious students. While the government has run a programme of developing much needed critical technologies, the efforts did not bring in the expected results. The R&D labs run by the government have failed to introduce any revolutionary new-economy technologies. This is largely due to the bureaucratic controls, as well as the poor incentive system that these labs have set up for the scientists.
India needs a strategic system in which the government funds critical basic research that companies and academia are unable to undertake by themselves, while it allows them significant freedom and control over technologies that they develop. The crucial point here is the fact that, scientists and researchers should be allowed to own or at least have partial control over the product of their hard work. This may look like a case of private interests benefiting from public money, but in the long run as these technologies give rise to new economies, this will ultimately benefit the public and the government in the form of greater economic opportunities and taxes received.
In a synergistic framework that can maximize the benefits to all the three players, the incentives have to be balanced properly. One such framework can be the silicon triangle framework, called so because silicon is regarded as the material symbolizing the new-age knowledge economy. It is a trilateral framework, derived from ‘Iron Triangle’ of the Military Industrial Complex fame, but this time with much nobler intents. It consists of three sets of relationships between academia, industry and government.
The academia-industry relation will have elements of funding and resource support from industry to academia and intellectual exchange between the two. There is also a scope for skill enhancement programmes for students and faculty from academia (by working for short periods in the industry) and for employees from the private sector (by teaching/studying/researching for short periods in academia). Joint R&D efforts, in which researchers from academia and industry belonging to different backgrounds get together to provide solutions to problems requiring multi-disciplinary knowledge, form a vital part of this relationship. The recent example of a professor from IIT Madras, with training in mechanical engineering working on development of artificial heart, along with heart surgeons illustrates this well.
The government-academia relationship will also have a similar pattern of mutual intellectual exchange of employees, faculty, scientists and students for skill enhancement as well as improving the knowledge base of each. The programme for the students can be called National Internship Programme, where every year the best selected students get to work at different govt. run laboratories, enhancing their skills and research capabilities while exposing them to good research infrastructure. The government also has to provide resource and funding support. It should enable the setting up of such a framework by friendly legislation and establishment of collaborative strategic and non-strategic research projects. Govt. funding is critical, in spite of financial support from private sector, as it will ensure that researchers do not end up crowding in areas which the private sector finds ‘hot’ or economically profitable to research into. Also, Government funding is necessary to ensure that industry funding does not crowd out non-profitable small scale research activities undertaken by individual researchers and students.
In the third relationship, between industry and government, efforts should be made to improve the general investment climate within the country. Low amount of regulation, lesser bureaucratic hurdles and friendly investment policies and legislation will go down a long way in inducing investment in high-technology industries. Improving the existing state of infrastructure, even a little bit will result in better investments in technology areas. Also, India needs a model similar to Skunk Works system, derived from Lockheed Martin’s group of the same name, which has developed some of the most technologically advanced aircrafts produced by the US. Such groups, with a high amount of operational and financial freedom and very few bureaucratic restrictions can work on advanced or secret projects. US was able to use this model very effectively and some of the top-line military hardware like SR-71 ( or Blackbird-world’s fastest and highest-flying aircraft), F-117 (Nighthawk- first stealth aircraft), F-22 (world’s only fifth-generation stealth aircraft) and the upcoming F-35 were developed through the skunk works system. In India, recently, L&T worked with ATV (Advanced Technology Vehicle, the nuclear submarine project) project in a similar manner and successfully developed the hull for the submarine. Recently government has shown its willingness to throw open defense contracting to Indian companies (giving them a share of at-least 40% in defense spending of close to $100 billion spread over 5 years), and such a skunk-works will be ideal for development of cutting edge technologies which require high level of expertise, funding and secrecy. In this kind of set-up the initial development will be done with the understanding that the research is for advancing the technological capabilities of the nation and the companies. If it is successful, then the cost and the benefits will be shared according to the development effort undertaken by each, while the company is free to sell and market the technology as it wants, subject only to national security concerns. They can also use the experience gained from collaborative efforts to develop market oriented technologies, which may have the potential to create new economies.
Needless to say, this is not the only design that can be implemented, but creation of such a framework is very essential in order to utilize the large pool of scientific and engineering talent for technological innovation and development and creating more economic growth.