Technology Transfer in India

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It has long been held that economic growth of a nation is closely dependent on its openness to generation and transfer of knowledge, which cannot be kept within the confines of an arbitrarily drawn national boundary. Thus protectionist policies that are often adopted to safeguard the interest of domestic players of a nation become an impediment to its growth and development potential.

India inherited a poorly defined and monopolistic domestic sector from its colonial past. However, Indian industry has been growing steadily since liberalization from its normal interactions with probable tech donors. It now has policies like automatic approval to all industries for foreign collaborations, so long as there is a decent lump sum payment (although there are regulatory ceilings on royalty payments). The result has been a blossoming of a few primarily Indian biopharmaceutical groups into multinational enterprises. Also, India has seen that projects with international collaborations have recorded minimal economic dispersion. This has enhanced the confidence of India, a nation that already has conspicuous human resources primed for research and development activity.

Still, India has not reached anywhere close to the biotech global top spots, despite its solid positioning in the low technology sectors, such as agriculture and dairy. Clearly something has gone amiss in this whole process. Either Indian corporations do not see a good market for hi-tech products, or there is no indigenous generation of high technology, or international groups offer only last-generation technology for collaborations. It must be said, however, that Indian research laboratories are close to global current trends on conceptual and technical terms. Obviously a lot of potential remains unharnessed, demands unmet and dreams unrealized.

Perhaps the problem in India is that elite researchers tend to not necessarily be technology oriented. I vividly remember an honest academic colleague of mine being at a total loss when asked what salable product he might deliver out of his research in plant response to stress – without that, he could not ask for grants from a biotechnology resource. He was simply not inclined to view the applicable aspect of scientific research.

Another colleague sold the funding agency on his claim of having generated value-added potatoes, but those potatoes have yet to reach the market. More recently, there was an initiative from the Department of Biotechnology, which was met with all kinds of apprehension and resistance from academic institutions of repute. Also, there is a trend where an influential group will try to quickly glorify its protégés through favors or by conferring recognition and unduly supporting grant proposals. Unfortunately the review for international proposals also has to pass through that same group, and the bias remains uncorrected.

India needs to chart its own independent priority in tech development, translation and transfer. Those writing the policy documents of India have to work in concert with the needs on the ground in agriculture, manufacturing, and healthcare, as much as on the global demand and supply situation. Being a populous country, it will be prudent to develop a model that also lifts the people. The biotech graduate has to have hands-on training not only in fundamental research but also in one of the biotechnological processes. We know this can work because when given the proper background, Indian researchers invariably do well when posted abroad.

Pramod Yadava