Ms. Dhanasree Jayaram, Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University and Editorial Coordinator, Science, Technology & Security forum (STSforum) interviews Dr Anil Kakodkar on India’s three-stage nuclear programme, energy security, and R&D. The second part of the two-part interview series deals with the status and priorities of Research and Development (R&D) in India. In this interview, he also provides his expert opinion on the emerging technologies and priority areas that India must concentrate on, through pertinent policy recommendations.
Does India have a set of priorities when it comes to technology development?
We must have a national strategy for defining priorities in terms of technology development. As a part of that,in January 2016 to be precise, TIFAC (Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council) which I chair, brought out a document titled “Technology Vision 2035” that was released by our honourable Prime Minister at the Science Congress in Mysore. This document looks at technology in the civilian domain. It excludes technology necessary in the military domain but let me mention here that the whole range of technologies that would be important for India – particularlyin the year 2035 – havebeen listed. This technologyvision document is backed up by a number ofsectoral reports in which the technology horizon and perspectives in individual sectors like education, transportation, habitat, materials, manufacturing, ICT, health, food and agriculture and so on and so forth have been described. Five of the sectoral reports have already been released in the public domain and the remaining seven will also be made available in the coming months.
What are the fundamentals that India needs to follow while improving its R&D programme?
One of the things we must remember is that technology is never static. We should not only develop new technologies but we must ensure that technologies are in fact globally competitive. That is an important aspect of R&D. You need R&D not just to develop a particular technology but also to keep that technology at the state of art level by constantly updating it.
We can all visualize that technology is a very important part of national security. As a matter of fact you would find that in many countries which are technologically advanced, technologyoriginated from military effort, whether it is a question of developments in steel or it is a question of, what one may call the moving platforms for various offensive or defensive purposesor for the purpose of communication or communication security. For that matter in the US there is an organization called Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which promotes cutting edge R&D. There is a framework in which they visualize what are likely to be their needs in a few decades from now. Then they create challenges, and demand for different researchers to respond to those demands and get technology developed in the process. It is a very successful programme that got replicated in some manner in the energy business by the Department of Energy in the US whichis also known as Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). And these are the kind of demand driven programs for technology development for meeting the needs of the country.
If you go 20-30 years back, you would find most R&D was essentially about gettingtechnologies developed for military purposes and then they got translated into the civilian domain. Today things are somewhat different. There are great many strides taking place in technology development in the civilian domain, so much so that many of these technologies are finding applications in the military domain. We are much used to recognizing technology or Science and Technology (S&T) as an essential thing that society must be engaging itself in. That of course, is important. You have knowledge activity and connected with that, you have R&D activity that leads to technological benefits to the society. That issupply-driven development. We should also be conscious of the fact that if you want to develop a strong national capability you must create special impetus to technologies that you need. This means that demand must be created and that demand-driven development actually gives a very special impetus. That is how various important technologies were developed in the past, whether it was the ambition to create new fighter planes or to put man on the moon or to create platforms like large ships and submarines. I think this subtle distinction between supply-driven R&D and demand-driven R&D should be recognized. While we have the connotation of supply driven R&D in the S&T system we must also create a special emphasis in terms of demand driven R&D. That is very important to make a country strong in terms of technology.
Do you have any recommendations when it comes to emerging military or civilian technologies which India may need to cultivate?
There are many component technologies that we could master.It looks to me, for example, sensors are becoming one of the most important area. Even for things like wearable devices – smart soldier – greater the backing that the soldier receives using sensors of different kinds, greater will be his ability and performance capability. Autonomous vehicles that can move on ground, air or water are also notable. Imagine a whole armoured battalion or brigade consisting of tanks without people, all controlled from a control room that is an intelligent control room backed up by Virtual Reality (VR), so that the people in the control room get the feeling as if they are in the battlefield sitting in the tank; but the tanks are without any human beings fighting in the battle. It is a completely different dimension but not unthinkable.
Electromagnetics is another example. It is not necessary that only explosives need to be the means of explosive power or means for creating damage to the enemy. You can also do a lot of damage using electromagnets. You can create area damage with critical electronics power systems, without damaging infrastructure like buildings or bridges.
We need to identify what it is that we want in terms of systems and then identify what disciplines we should be working to build those systems. At the next level we could identify what are the disciplines where the country should be strong. The country should be strong in the field of electromagnetics, not only in the context of communication but also high power electromagnetics or electronics, where you can deliver megawatts or even gigawatts of power in a fraction of a second. This is a huge capability.
How does India prioritize its R&D and are there any policy reforms that you would recommend?
Countries like the US are thinking big when it comes to technology development. I think it is equally important that, if we want to ensure India’ssecurity we must also be able to think through our challenges and requirements. Clearly, it is not necessary that our challenges will be identical to that of some of the advanced countries in the world. So we should be able to custom design and custom develop products to meet our requirements.
India is a country of young people. It is the country with the largest demographic dividend. We have a large education system. We have a large enough R&D system. It is important to explore ways and means of leveraging these assets. Our ability to translate our investment into technology and make India technologically strong needs to be improved considerably. Look at our expenditure on R&D. Countries like the US, China, and Israel spend around 1-2 percent of their GDP on S&T. We spend only 0.8 percent.
This is one aspect of policy correction that we need to make but there is also another side to it. If you compareour total R&D expenditure with that of countries like Israel, Finland, Sweden Switzerland or even the UK, the data shows that we spend more money than them. The question to ask is – why are we not as strong as these countries technologically then? When I was discussing this anomaly, somebody responded by saying, “no, no, no but we are a big country. We have a large number of people, so our resources must be getting spread very thin.” Now, let us make another back-up envelope calculation. Look at the total R&D expenditure and divide it by the total number of full-time equivalents in S&T, and the number that you get – per scientist expenditure – is comparable with the best in the world. To say then that resources are getting spread thin at least on a gross basis is not valid.
We must do a very deep soul searching about what it is that we need to correct. There is also another point about the priorities we must have. For example, look at the top 10 or 15 items of exports from our country and also the top10 or 15 items of import. I would have thought that these two areas would be entirely different because we export some areas of our strength; and something that we do not have, we import. For example, we do not have crude oil andso we import a lot of it. That is understandable; though even there we should use technology to artificially create hydrocarbons. But that is another story. However, most items, say 12 out of 15, in this list are common items. We export and import the same items but our imports far exceed exports. That means this country is just exporting the low-end stuff – raw materials – and importing the high end stuff – finished products. This becomes a huge issue in terms of balance of payment. Does that not decide or dictate our priority? Why is it that our R&D does not focus our priorities to reverse this?
What are the areas that need special attention to reverse less constructive or perhaps damaging trends?
In pharmaceuticals we export far more than what we import. In the automobile industry, there was a time when we were net importers but today we export much more automobiles than what we import. That is because in these areas there has been a very significant amount of R&D, particularly on part of the concerned industries. Clothing is another area (garment industry), where this is happening.
It is not happening, though, in the context of iron and steel or many other sectors. What I have told you is the complete list of areas where we have done better. In all the other areas, we are not doing well. So, our priorities of R&D where we make positive impact on marketplace must be dictated by some system.
The point I wish to make is that while R&D is important, it is equally important to understand how the technology would impact society, while taking into consideration what will determine the relative capability in terms of security – I think all of this must ultimately culminate into strengthening national capability. It cannot be the case that we keep importing things which ‘look better’. We have to change our mindsets. We have to culturally transform ourselves to pool our efforts together to achieve these results.
As advances in S&T take place in the rest of the world – particularly in advanced countries – we must recognize that the Indian S&T system is also capable. After all, as a country we have developed missiles, rockets and atomic weapons. So, our country can deliver things. We must have a structure or collective programme where we develop technologies to meet our needs and can we develop a mindset where we would encourage such local development. Not just the government, or a particular lab, or a particular institution, but the country and the society as a whole have to partake in it.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.