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View from India: Investments in research required for better technology solutions

With a population of 1.3 billion, India’s problems are multifold and complex. This can be a bottleneck for the country’s development. Science and technology should converge to offer sustainable and affordable solutions.

Lasers, nuclear energy and quantum computing are considered must-haves of today’s world. We can’t do without them. If you scratch the surface, you’ll find that lasers, nuclear energy and quantum computing are the outcome of a collaborative effort between scientists and researchers.

Fundamental science and research forms the basis of many of today’s requirements. This area needs to be encouraged to solve many issues for the masses. All that is required to encourage the next generation is a dose of encouragement and some push. “Can our youngsters find a vaccine for dengue? Can they find an inexpensive solution to desalination of sea water? Can they improve the productivity of our farmers by a factor of five,” said NR Narayana Murthy, founder, Infosys. Clearly, fundamental research is essential for addressing the most pressing issues.

For instance, we require an inexpensive solution for purification of the polluted air. Likewise, a device to conduct non-invasive tests for blood sugar measurement and for detecting certain kinds of cancer that require biopsy is much required. Farmers are weighed down by extreme weather conditions, such as drought and deluge. Tech tools are required to predict weather conditions ahead of time.

Simply put, engineers should tap the power of science to demystify basic problems and offer real-time solutions. Engineers need to collaborate with researchers and scientists.

Collaborative research is required for solving India-centric problems. The most common problem is related to traffic. “As vehicular traffic will increase, the problems related to road infrastructure will get compounded,” said Kris Gopalakrishnan, co-founder, Infosys.

Coming to road construction, it would be great if tech entrepreneurs could create a strong yet inexpensive concrete to build roads that withstand wear and tear for 100 years. Alternatives to concrete and tarmac are already well underway, although it’s not just enough if we have strong roads. It’s a bigger issue and optimum results can be achieved by planning our cities along with road layouts.

“Research-led solutions can contribute towards the country’s growth. India will remain a low-cost economy for many years to come,” observed Gopalakrishnan. This can happen provided India’s population data is well represented across domains, especially in the case of medicine. “Many medicines are being manufactured internationally and sold globally. They are also available in India. However, many of these medicines may not have been tested on Indians as their data may not be available,” reasoned Gopalakrishnan.

The Union Budget in July proposed establishing a National Research Foundation (NRF) to fund, coordinate and promote research in the country. NRF will assimilate the research grants being given by various ministries independent of each other. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has said that NRF will ensure that the overall research eco-system in the country is strengthened with focus on identified thrust areas relevant to our national priorities and towards basic science without duplication of effort and expenditure.

Along with this, impetus needs to be given to students. The number of professionals and students inducted into research labs should scale up. This can happen by encouraging them right from the school days and providing access to research labs. Right now, most research labs are in the metros. Even their numbers need to increase and also spread to tier cities for a balanced mix of talent. Better salaries and incentives can help attract students to make a career out of research. Though we do have a sizeable number of students pursuing research, the numbers need to grow. 

Hopefully, such investments will lead to the creation of new innovative products and services that can improve many of our existing systems.

One is reminded of the words of theoretical physicist Edward Teller who said that the science of today is the technology of tomorrow.

These thoughts were shared at the Infosys Prize 2019 event, hosted by the Infosys Science Foundation.

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