Should research institutes emphasize on Innovation?

March 19th- 21st, Rashtrapati Bhawan| Ameya Pore


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I recently returned from a delegation of Innovation clubs which took place at the Rashtrapati Bhawan from March 19th– 21st. The occasion was a part of the Festival of innovation and entrepreneurship (FINE), an initiative of President’s Secretariat, jointly organized by the National Innovation Foundation and Department of Science and Technology.

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FINE inauguration by the Hon’ President of India, DST minister, Secretary to the President and various dignitaries

The goal of FINE was to showcase and celebrate country’s innovative potential, recognize grassroots innovators and reflect children’s creativity. It was an expression of governmental intervention in examining and resolving challenges faced by ground-level innovators from various sectors- Agriculture, Food, information technology, healthcare and others and hence various round-table sessions were held by stakeholders to address these provocations and describe existing policies that could be helpful. It is quite impressive to note various governmental initiatives that are being undertaken to promote commercialization, but despite an extensive publicly funded education base and Research and Development infrastructure, which comprise of academic knowledge producers, like IISERs, IITs and other deemed universities, we have not been able to recognize our potential yet.

Thereby, proceeding on similar channels, innovation clubs from universities across the country were requested to send their respective achievements to be part of the event, out of which top ten were selected and asked to present to the President’s Secretariat (Mr Sanjay Kothari). Fortunately, the Entrepreneurship and Innovation club (EIC) of IISER Pune was one of the selected clubs, which lend me an opportunity to head to the President’s house. Although, only two years down the line, it is an excellent attainment to display our deliverable at the national level, at the same time, are the other well-established innovation clubs in India so poorly exhibited that they cannot compete with the mediocre procurement of EIC, which even people from IISER are not aware of? Perhaps, The Secretariat and the committee were interested in the number of ideas developed by the institute, the test data used and whether it has been pursued anywhere else. We did not have an answer to that.

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Presentations meeting by various innovation clubs, chaired by the President’s Secretariat (RBCC hall)

Here, I attempt to put forth some points from an institutional perspective and summon why it is important to focus on innovation spanning out from scientific temper.

The Indian Innovation system is partitioned into two distinct but largely separated economies. One is the knowledge producers (as previously mentioned) and other one Knowledge users which comprise of individual entrepreneurs, Venture capitals, corporate funding mechanism, Intellectual property rights, and so on. Ideally, both these structures should work hand-in-hand to produce innovation, but it is not the case in the current scenario. With extremely weak linkages between industries, enterprises, and academic institutions, the situation is even worse by intense rivalry between the two segments. E.g., Recently, There have been various workshops/seminars being held at the IISER on Intellectual property rights, which consist of knowledge of academic and industrial collaboration. The audience turn-over was less than twenty. Eg. 2- There have been various events organized by EIC, naming one of them, Coffee with a startup, where leading innovators from the city are called upon to share their innovation and share their journey and the challenges faced. Not more than fifteen IISER staff (including students) has turned up yet.

Secondly, a non-conducive education system- From a student context, the current academic system is too focused on grade-based learning and is less oriented towards Innovation and entrepreneurship. A large proportion of students apply to graduate schools in peer pressure without reasoning whether it suits them at this point in time. What is the solution? – A curriculum should be designed which tests based on real-world problems. If electronic gadgets could be used to tackle tangible research problems, then why not in exams! More success stories through inviting accomplished young achievers should be told. I could provide instances where such creativity is highly discouraged. Recently, while applying for my fifth-year project, I wished to work in a Startup on autonomous drones. Now, the academic rules are evidently against such projects and are not motivated by the graduate committee. Needlessly, I had to look for other options which might not be exciting enough.

I shall also mention that the presentations by other innovation clubs were as well not exceptionally amusing with only handful projects to demonstrate with statistical data. Doubtlessly, a common conclusion arrived after talking to various representatives that these innovation clubs are not given enough incentives and student credits for being appropriately functional. What could be the solutions- Various ideathons, hackathons should be organized to promote brain-storming activities and to enable one to think about problems. Topics emphasizing recent technological advances like Blockchain, Quantum computing etc. should be described intellectually so that one could know its disruptive implications.

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Exhibition stalls

FINE was also associated with an exhibition which was open to everyone. The exhibition showcased various innovators spanning from Farmers, children, graduate students and various entrepreneurs. To end the day, a dinner was hosted at CSIR, Lodi garden, which was inaugurated by Dr. Harsh Vardhan, union minister of DST.

In a packed agenda, we did not get to see the immense Presidential estate campus, Senator’s place but the royal suite in the house was mesmerizing. Indeed, the security arrangements were extraordinary with various inspection points, I was assessing possibilities to breach the heavy enforcement which I didn’t find until the end. Quite appreciable!

There were few lapses in the organisation, which might have led to an undiplomatic apprehension to some attendees, but I think one should ignore such glitches when considering the colossal magnitude of the event.

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Prior to closing ceremony- The President’s address

Coming back to the institutional policy, I agree with the point that it is unrealistic to expect revolutionary breakthroughs from undergraduate students, but at the same time, it is essential to teach them entrepreneurship and give them opportunities to build on ideas. Faculties should manoeuvre the implication of their research at the national and economic forum. They should publicize their work through various means, one of them could be social media so that spectators outside the community could understand the importance of research funding and could justify the taxes paid to the government. Eg- Twitter handles of MIT Media Lab, Tech reviews, Harvard Biz has got more than eight lakh followers with feed posts addressed to the general audience. Additionally, faculties should look for corporate collaborations which could provide world-class research facilities and not accuse the curtailment in the research funding by public organizations.

All in all, FINE was a great learning experience to interact with innovators from different cultures and backgrounds speak for a single cause of Innovation. Although the government is initiating reforms through various channels like Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council, Indian Innovation Growth Program, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research Innovation Complexes, and so forth, it is our liability to disseminate improved access to knowledge and support regarding resources, mentorship, and outreach.

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