Marketing academic research in India
An article by Ajit Balakrishnan (CEO of Rediff) in Business Standard has kicked up bit of a storm in the desi blog-circles. The original article talks about difficulties Mr Balakishnan encountered while attempting to start an industry-academia collaboration with a professor of computer science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai (IITB), Soumen Chakrabarti.
Landing the Soumen catch turned out to be the easy part. Getting to engage IIT Bombay in a commercial relationship was to be a near-impossible task. The process for such an engagement is unchartered territory for Indian academic institutions. We settled on a compromise: we hired two of his star graduate students (or more accurately he persuaded them to join us instead of doing what all their classmates did—emigrate to America). Since then, we have been happily working together; whenever we run into a really tough computer science problem, we could get to Soumen through his students.
Response to the article has been typical. At the libertarian/free market-supporting Indian Economy Blog, Karthik held this up as an example of the failure of academic bureaucracy, lack of incentives and such. In a swift rebuttal, defenders of the anti-free market bastion, Krish and Abi, strongly supported IITB’s policies on collaboration and even laid the blame squarely on Balakrishnan.
IMHO, there is much sweeping generalizations and unsubstantiated statements on both sides. So herein, I try to play my usual role of finding the middle ground.
Firstly, a brief aside on academia-market relationship in the capitalist mecca of US. Even there, from my experience, the academia is usually suspicious of industry (though they usually don’t mind the money that comes from collaborating with it, or the free dinners!). There is something in the mentality of academicians that looks down heavily on business – PhD’s who have moved to the industry are said – in a jocular manner, of course – to have gone to the ‘dark side’ (perhaps the huge disparity in salaries versus educational levels has something to with it – but for now we shall avoid those murky waters). Recently, however, most US universities have setup an office or a whole department devoted to technology commercialization and intellectual property management of their academic research output. Some universities have even started to offer post-graduate courses on it (interestingly, Australia seems to have been way ahead of the game with the university I am with now having started such a unit in the early 80s). The goal of such units is to discover or even create commercialization opportunities for the research in the university laboratories. Universities have been quick to discover this as a good source of revenue at a time of funding crunches from the government. But it is also an important function for these units to ensure that the industry does not take undue advantage of a researcher’s hard work and perhaps prevent recurrence of the University of Rochester’s Cox-2 patent loss to Pfizer.
Coming back to the Indian context, while the regular university does not have much of a research output to speak of, the IITs, especially in disciplines such as Computer Science, Electrical/Electronics etc, have for some years conducted successful research collaborations with the industry. This has happened both at the individual level (ie a Professor acting as a consultant to some industry) or at an institutional levels (an industry providing support for research programs) and also both with private and public sectors (e.g see this for IIT-Delhi). Also, a quick look at the IITB website will show that there are two umbrella organizations, SINE and E-cell that serve as business incubators to foster entrepreneurship (perhaps our diplomatic ex-IITB-ian friend can further enlighten us on the practice of start-ups branching off from research at IITs). Therefore, Ajit Balakrishnan’s or Karthik’s assertion of “process for such an engagement is unchartered territory for Indian academic institutions” sounds rather extreme.
However, the devil is in the details – so even as IITB has a system in place for consultancy (e.g see these informal guidelines by Soumen Chakraborti himself), without first hand knowledge it is difficult to presume how efficient such a system is. One could speculate that for Mr Balakrishnan, going through the IIT system would have taken a few months time, which is eternity in the world of business. In that case, it was certainly a ‘near-impossible’ task for him to get his project kick-started (especially given that it relates to the cutting edge field of web search engines). It is possible too that IIT’s current system is more geared for collaborations with big companies, not for small start-ups. Given the quickly changing technology and economic landscapes, IITs (and other universities too) need to more nimble in responding to such needs. Therefore, there is certainly scope for improvement in bringing academia and industry together through offices of technology commercialization on the lines of US or Australia described above.
Finally, Krish’s childishly written ad-hominies against ‘free market fundamentalists’ merits a more detailed fisking. While I do not have the time or patience to rant in details, let me say that technology eventually needs to come out of the laboratory into the marketplace. There are academics who pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge (and certainly we need such people and government support for their research), anybody who makes a blank (not to mention extremely naive) statement like “academicians are against the patent system” is living in a fool’s paradise. Most human beings are slaves to incentives, and I cannot believe that providing an additional incentive will harm scientific or technological progress.
(Thanks to Rohit for original article H/T)