Indian R&D Management- Bringing Together Universities and Industry: 4 *Urgently* Needed Steps

It was an innovation project outside the regular product development. We needed advanced Image processing expertise. And, we did not have the right specialist who could do the research.

“Why don’t we use this premier govt research institute? ” A good suggestion from somebody.

I immediately swung into action. Reached out to the coordinator from our organization. He coordinates all research requests from our organization with this institute.

Jawaharlal-Nehru-Technological-University-Hyderabad-300x200

Representational image

I explained what we needed.

  • Image processing expertise with with 3D object detection.
  • The institute shall do this small prototype which proves that using video camera you can do certain things. Once that happens, we can create industry grade software with right architecture and quality considerations.

The coordinator said – “You need to fund the interns. These would be the students of this institute. Also consulting charges”

“sure. We have budgeted this”. This was easy for me.

“There is one problem – you can not have the engagement the way you outlined. they can not take the responsibility of prototype. They can guide from academic side. They can assist in image processing technologies – like how to do ‘kalman filter’.”

I was not too happy.

“But this will not help much.  Essentially means I get support on theory part. Actual research is not just pure theory of algorithms. It is about how I could actually solve real world problems. This is little different than the research done by -say – pure physicists.”

If the professor and his team can not create a prototype, it is lot of responsibility on me.

” So essentially I need to lead this research. I need to manage these interns myself. The professor can be consulted on academic know how”

This coordinator was honest. “Yes. That’s what you will get”

Disappointing. I have not interacted with universities outside India. But I know people who got few things done from universities. There are relationship models in which prototypes are done mainly in university. Then it is taken out and productized in pvt businesses.

Now my question : Why don’t they do more?

“Well. Their entire funding comes from Govt of India. they are not answerable to anyone in the industry. ”

This is the interesting part. To increase level of practicality of Indian universities, should govt funding for universities decrease?

  • How about routing govt money to university through private enterprises? May be they can make things more practical?
  • Look at Indian private sector R&D culture – It practically does not exist. Every paise spent is tracked for successful output. In R&D, you would work on problems and you are less certain about its outcome. Even within organization, R&D management does not happen. They are not in state to outsource R&D to universities and get meaningful output.
  • At the moment, both academia and industry are at different extremes. Both have lot of gaps to cover.

Only practical way seems to be, an iterative approach to come closer.

Here is how industry and universities can collaborate:

1. Govt shall push universities to show practical prototypes: This way, the culture of solving real problems can come to Indian universities. May be there are rules, but nobody heard of any major research output in this form.

2. Govt shall publish the industry problems solved by professors in the right forum: This will bring some more focus towards industry relationship. May be – even ensure that they earn partly by industry.

3. Grant some R&D funds to private enterprises: Today private enterprises are not much used to R&D spending and R&D management. Yes – there are contracts by govt controlled bodies. But the norms are not easy. The rules need to be eased without losing accountability.

Hopefully, this would help the pvt research and hence talent to manage R&D would gradually improve.

4. Educate Govt Auditors and Govt institutions on R&D spending and management: This is the most important step.

India currently has highly active auditors. And equally sensational media and people who have zero tolerance for any hint of corruption and mismanagement of funds. The problem – R&D is not black and white.

CAG (Controller and Auditor General) The auditing group which audits Indian govt institutions and how govt spends money. These are very sincere and can smell corruption – sometimes wrongly. Media and public opinion gets formed without right understanding of the situation. Nothing works after that.

  • Those heard of 2G allocation scam, it was a scam where ‘imaginary value’ was lost due to corruption. Leaving the actual corruption part aside – there was basic flaw in the valuation.
  • There was another perceived scam where the outsourcing by ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) was reported to be not as per norms.

The above examples were less about scams and more about lack of understanding of technology/R&D management and valuation of virtual assets by auditors and those who define rules for auditing. Fixing this will go a long way in improving R&D management and monetary controls.

Do the above 4 steps iteratively. Start with simple scenarios and small scale. Down the line, it can be scaled up. Good R&D ecosystem may get developed as a result.

Okay. We can have universities pushed more towards industry. But, there may be other side to the private participation too.

Possibility of conflict of interest- An example:

IOWA State university. It is a pioneer in Genetically Modified food. GM food is very emotionally debated topic. There are two opposite claims:

  • Against GM: That over period of life time and next generation health can be compromised. This can cause random gene mutation and inexplicable problems.
  • Pro GM: There is lot of research goes on in this university and there are claims that it is scientifically proven that this food is safe.

To declare something this sensitive as safe, there must be extensive testing done. I searched for detailed test report probably involving large number of test subjects spanning across decades and across geographies, life styles and food habits. Nothing available.

However all the claims fully support use of GM food. How is this possible?

A key sponsor at this university is Monsanto – the leading Agro-chemical company. It has every benefit from positive report and much more at stake from any negative result.

When it comes to conflict of interest like this – this is better off controlled by govt.

Thus, there are pros and cons. But these can be managed.

To sum it up –

  • The university relationship and Industry is yet to evolve. It can be improved with the 4 steps suggested above.
  • Many industries stand to get benefited. The large industries, specialized SMEs and tech start-ups and may be more.

Hopefully the industry and govt sit together to figure this out. From me, these the 2 cents for this cause.