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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Science, The New Frontier

Less bureaucracy in granting patents and fewer votaries of pseudo-science will help India occupy its rightful place at the high table of global science

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When the pioneering universities of Europe – Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna, Heidelberg and the Sorbonne – were founded around the 1200s, their mission was ecclesiastical. Religious teaching dominated learning. Science had little place in their curricula.

In England, Oxford initially taught courses in Latin. English hadn’t developed as a coherent separate language. Over the next three centuries, it grew out of Latin and French but at heart remained Germanic. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written during 1387-1400, is in barely recognisable “Middle English”. Two centuries later, in the late-1500s, when William Shakespeare began writing plays, English had finally acquired form and content, still replete though with words from Middle English.  

The scientific revolution in the 1600s laid the foundation for the industrial revolution a century later. For the next 250 years, the West dominated science and industry, helped by rapacious colonialism and the brutal slave trade from Africa to the new American colonies. The tide began to turn in the 2000s. China and Japan led a wave of Asian nations using technology to leap frog over several eras of the industrial revolution and create modern societies. 

In 2017, the United States still led the world in the number of patents filed. According  to  the  World Intellectual Property Organisation, the US filed 29,84,825 patents in 2017. But the big revelation was the number of patents filed by China – 20,85,367, overtaking Japan (20,13,685 patents) to take second place worldwide. India was way behind with just 60,777 patents filed. 

A key reason for India lagging behind is bureaucracy. It takes 1,560 days for a patent in India to be granted from the time it is applied for. In Poland it takes just three days. In Sri Lanka it takes 15 days. Even the Honduras takes only 30 days.

The real story in China’s emergence as the world’s second largest economy is its relentless focus on science and innovation. As The Economist wrote: “The huge hopes China has for science have promoted huge expenditure. Chinese spending on R&D grew tenfold between 2000 and 2016. The spree is reminiscent of the golden years of ‘big science’ in post-war America. Between the International Geo-physical Year of 1957 and the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in 1993, America’s government unfailingly invested ever more resources of an ever more powerful economy into the things which the leaders of its scientific community most wanted. From the creation of quarks to the cloning of genes to the netting of Nobel prizes, American science came to dominate the world. 

“Measured against that boom – one of the most impressive periods of scientific achievement in human history – China’s new hardware, grand as it often is, falls a bit short. It has been catching up, not forging ahead. It has not been a beacon for scientists elsewhere. And far from benefiting from a culture of inquiry, Chinese science takes place under the beady eyes of a Communist Party and government which want the fruits of science but are not always comfortable about the untrammeled flow of information and the spirit of doubt and critical scepticism from which they normally grow.” 

Despite this criticism, and Beijing’s brazen theft of intellectual property rights (IPR), China’s scientific revolution should encourage the Indian government to change the way it handles scientific innovation. But far from instilling a scientific temper in the country, there has been a concerted and ill-advised effort to use India’s “vedic” science as proof that an alternative science can be created in India. It can’t. 

In January 2019, the Indian Science Congress (ISC) in Jalandhar was rocked by presentations that bore little reality to modern science. In a strong indictment of the “pseudo-science” that was allowed free play at the ISC, Dinesh C. Sharma, managing editor of India Science Wire, wrote: “The just-concluded Indian Science Congress (ISC) session in Jalandhar attracted widespread attention, though for the wrong reasons. Like its previous sessions, this one too had a fair share of absurd claims – falling in the realm of pseudo-science and mythology. Some such anti-science talks were delivered by those who occupy high academic positions. Even this is not surprising because, in the past, even ministers have made comments mixing mythology with modern science.” 

Pseudo-science has powerful adherents in India. For example, the book Bharatiya Vidya Saar published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan made several outlandish claims. Among them: Rishi Agastya invented the electro-voltaic cell; Rishi Bharadwaj wrote Vaimanika Shastra 5,000 years ago on the construction of aircraft; and the Rig Veda mentions the speed of light and the theory of gravitation. 

Such claims do nothing for the credibility of Indian science. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has put India on the global space exploration map while the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) are respected globally. Instead of building on these centres of scientific excellence, the government has failed to leverage the brand equity of even the IITs which have produced some of the finest tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. 

Science is the building block of technology. Most innovations over the past 20 years have emerged from Silicon Valley and sprouting tech hubs in China. Indian tech companies like Infosys, Wipro and TCS have focused on low-hanging fruits: outsourcing services and back-end technology management. The interface between the IITs and the corporate sector needs to be deepened so that innovation has the funding to flourish. 

A bright spot is the surge in Indian tech start-ups. Companies like Oyo, Ola and Swiggy have used smart technology to build global businesses. The secret to successful tech innovation is a triangular collaboration between money (VCs, Angels, private equity, family offices), tech entrepreneurs and academia. The profusion of excellent universities like Stanford and CalTech, ample equity funding and risk-taking entrepreneurs have created an enabling environment for innovation in Silicon Valley. 

Much the same is now taking place in China. India too has emerged as the world’s third largest hub for tech start-ups. Less bureaucracy in granting patents and fewer votaries of pseudo-science will help India occupy its rightful place at the high table of global science.

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china magazine 19 January 2019