In a thought-provoking exploration, Dr. Akhilesh Gupta, Secretary, SERB and Senior Adviser & Head, DST delves into the intricate relationships between government, industry, and academia, deciphering their dynamic interplay in driving advancements in research and development (R&D). Recognizing the transformative potential of collaboration, Dr. Gupta sheds light on the historical challenges stemming from mutual distrust between these entities. He highlights the evolving landscape, emphasizing the crucial role of digitization in enhancing transparency and reducing corruption. Dr. Gupta advocates for a paradigm shift, urging the establishment of trust and active collaboration between the private and public sectors. As the Deputy Director-General of the Department of Science and Technology, his insights pave the way for a more cohesive and synergistic approach to R&D, setting the stage for innovative breakthroughs that can propel India to the forefront of global scientific advancement. Dr Akhilesh Gupta spoke to Dataquest at the IIT Mandi iHub HIVE conclave held in New Delhi Last week.
DQ: Current priorities and key focus areas of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and SERB
Dr Akhilesh Gupta: I believe a global transformation is underway, and India stands as a unique case poised for significant change in the next five years. The prevalence of disruptive technologies is reshaping the world, with India emerging as a crucial player in this dynamic landscape. The implementation of two pivotal missions—the National Mission for Introducing Cyber-Physical Systems and the National Quantum Mission—is set to usher in substantial changes. These missions will not only impact research methodologies but also reshape technology development, business practices, and industrial operations. Gone are the days of traditional approaches in these domains; technology’s pervasive influence demands adaptation. Every year, technology’s dominance intensifies, requiring us all to acquire new skills. This imperative extends beyond those who intend to use these technologies actively; even those witnessing the applications should familiarize themselves. Much like the universal proficiency in operating mobile phones, understanding and integrating these technologies into our lives is becoming a necessity for individuals across all levels of literacy. Just as everyone now navigates mobile interfaces effortlessly, the same ease should extend to comprehending and utilizing emerging technologies like those encompassed by the cyber-physical and quantum missions.
DQ: What strategies are being employed to enhance collaboration between the government, industry, and academia to promote research and development in India?
Dr Akhilesh Gupta: I would assert that academia and the private sector operate at opposite ends of the spectrum, necessitating the establishment of trust between the government and private entities. Currently, there is a mutual lack of trust, with the government fearing that funds allocated to the private sector may be wasted or misused, leading to a lack of accountability. Conversely, the private sector often views the government as corrupt, believing that bribery is necessary to secure funding.
Over the past decade, significant transformations have occurred, largely attributed to digitization. This technological shift has greatly enhanced transparency and reduced corruption. However, there is still room for further progress in this area. I firmly believe that collaboration between the private and government sectors is essential. Moreover, the private sector should be empowered to enhance product quality and affordability. Presently, certain products from specific companies remain prohibitively expensive, and improving conditions can drive prices down. The government’s promotion of quality partnerships is encouraging, and over the next five years, we anticipate substantial changes in this collaborative landscape.
DQ: Measures being taken to promote STEM education and inspire the next generation of scientists and researchers in India?
Dr Akhilesh Gupta: In the traditional education system, the focus has long been on teaching subjects like physics, chemistry, and mathematics, with students memorizing information to excel in exams. However, there has been a paradigm shift with the government now actively promoting innovation in education. Recognizing that fostering innovation should start early, the Ministry of Science and Technology has introduced the Inspire Manak program. This initiative targets students in grades 6 to 10, a crucial age range where young minds can be encouraged to think creatively. The program challenges students to conceptualize innovations related to assistive technology, water, agriculture, health, and more.
A 6th-grade student, under this program, not only envisions innovative solutions but also translates them into tangible models. By engaging students in the process of innovation, the government aims to nurture a generation of forward-thinking individuals. The Inspire Manak initiative extends beyond the standard curriculum, encouraging students to explore and innovate alongside their regular studies. This approach is designed to create a pipeline of future innovators who will contribute to India’s progress. The government’s commitment to promoting young innovators is evident, with support available at various educational levels—from undergraduate to postgraduate and even at the Ph.D. level. This comprehensive model aligns with international practices, ensuring that innovation becomes an integral part of the educational journey from early schooling to university. India is taking a significant step towards fostering a culture of innovation, recognizing its importance in shaping a progressive and dynamic future.
DQ: Given the rapid pace of technological advancements, how is DST adapting its policies and programs to stay ahead of the curve and foster innovation?
Dr Akhilesh Gupta: Two significant changes are currently underway. Firstly, the government is actively promoting innovation within academic institutions. This is evident in the substantial research support provided to academic entities, with a strong emphasis on fostering innovation. Even the national education policy now advocates for incorporating innovation into school education. The second major change involves the government’s integration of technology and innovation into its routine official operations. Notably, a majority of the ministries in the Government of India have transitioned to digital and online platforms, eliminating the need for physical files.
This shift has resulted in heightened efficiency, as exemplified by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) transitioning from receiving lengthy, physical proposals to an entirely online submission process. This transformation not only saves time but also contributes to the reduction of corruption. The elimination of physical files diminishes the potential for underhand dealings, as files are securely stored in computers. Overall, these comprehensive transformations signify a remarkable enhancement in efficiency and transparency within the government’s functioning.
DQ: How do you see the landscape of scientific research evolving in India in the coming years?
Dr Akhilesh Gupta: As reiterated in my address, research has traditionally received support predominantly in fields such as physics, chemistry, and mathematics, focusing on invention-centric or basic science-driven approaches. However, the government is introducing a transformative model through the National Research Foundation, shifting the paradigm to innovation-driven research with a direct path to the market. This shift indicates a departure from conventional thinking, transcending the realm of basic research. The foundation’s core principle involves engaging the private sector in funding research endeavors. Currently, private sector contributions to research in India stand at a mere 39%, significantly lower than the 80% observed in countries like the US, Germany, or the UK. With this groundbreaking initiative, the expectation is a twofold increase in private sector funding for research within the next five years in India. This strategic shift in the research support landscape underscores the government’s commitment to fostering innovation and aligning research with market needs, a pivotal step in advancing India’s research ecosystem.