In this era of continuous technological upheavals, happening literally every single day, we nonprofessionals hardly give any attention to its fundamental scientific background. If we look back at the past 500 years of human achievement, we can observe that most of the scientific accomplishments that occurred in the field of fundamental research later went on to the scale of industrial applications, resulting in the great industrial revolutions. Most innovations of 20th and 21st century in the field of agriculture, health, military industrial complex and later space exploration, lays its framework on fundamental research and development (R&D) in science and technology.
Once, while looking for chemical composition reference data on some rare group of meteorites, as part of my research, I was surprised to find an old paper containing the pertinent data with great precision, published by someone from Lockheed Martin. Why someone from Lockheed Martin would be interested in studying meteorites? Lockheed Martin and their skunk works have been utilizing material research for cutting-edge aviation technology development, and studies on meteorites opens doors of opportunities for space mining industries and other fundamental research, in the future. See, that is vision! The kind of vision where you see gold, even in a black liquid! The dream of double-digit economy that citizens of India are looking forward to in the next decades, India need similar uprising in the areas of fundamental R&D, and thereby comes in this frame the collage of multi-dimensional innovation in the form of collaboration between universities and industries.
Let me cite my personal experience that left me think in this direction. I applied for a PhD in meteorite studies, in an attractive novel project in Switzerland just because of the unavailability of equivalent projects and the adequate lab facilities in Indian institutes. Why was it so? Why despite producing well trained IITians and IIScians, we are not able to sustain them? If you ask the NRIs, they will tell you that they went abroad for further studies or job, just because they could not find one in India, which serves their skills and talent. You cannot expect all, including myself, to be like Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam after all! Why are we not able to develop a simple instrument to say analyse the basic chemical constituents of a material? Something, for which research scholars in India, will be dependent on foreign labs through collaborations, and end up sharing data, unconsciously disregarding its long-term significance.
However, there is also no dearth of such instruments in research institutes across India, but they are restricted to only few elite institutes, and constrained to limited groups. These equipments are all imported from USA, Germany, and Japan, that requires huge expenditure, from procurement to management. Therefore, given the current investments in science, making such expensive tools available to every research institute is just not economically viable. Also, I personally belief such ‘spoon-feeding’ removes the scientific temperament of ‘how things actually works’? Basic technology development and its scientific application is a symbiotic process. So, how this matter of developing basic technology can be addressed? Let us look at the possibilities.
Since the launch of Chandrayaan-II, I have been observing the views of people in India, and around the world. While some expresses happiness on its successful launch, others are expressing their pessimistic opinion on the need for investments in future space exploration, by a developing economy like India. Given my experience in the subject of space and planetary studies, I could analyse this situation. I shall provide a logical, scientific and economic justification to such criticism of ISRO. If you look at the history of ISRO, one shall find that most of its technology, although in small scale, is indigenous. Important point to also note is ISRO did that with minimum material resources, and maximum potential of human resources available. Most of ISRO scientists, including the chairperson have hardly obtained any degree from a foreign institute. These indigenous technologies developed by ISRO have so far been used in purposes of national interests be it weather forecast, agriculture, national security or limited planetary science research, but not directly in large industrial scale applications.
Only recently, the commercial aspect of satellite launching is considered. It is fact that ISRO labs are indigenously capable of designing and developing miniature sensors and instruments on board their spacecrafts for the above-mentioned purposes, which essentially is the same kind of technology required to analyse the chemical composition of a material in a lab on earth. Therefore, the question is can that same technology developed by ISRO and its other wings, be used to build low-cost instruments, which can be distributed to all relevant universities across the country? This would greatly benefit both the quality and quantity of scientific research in India. Further research using those instruments would in turn improvise those same technologies. R&D centers in state and central universities can be established, which can collaborate with experts from ISRO and others, to work on developing those technologies. If we look at it from the commercial point of view, some of the existing indigenous electrical and electronic firms can lend their hand in supplying the basic requirements and even several new start-ups can be encouraged to do the same.
A shirt-manufacturing brand will not produce all A-Z materials necessary to make a shirt. There will be many smaller industries manufacturing threads, buttons or dyes, which are associated with it. The same approach is necessary for basic technology development, technologies that are crucial for indigenous advancement of science and technology itself. This shall reduce the load on buying limited technologies and instead encourage the Government to invest that same capital in supporting platforms to build them. Such industries when reaches a profitable state can later also export such technologies to underdeveloped countries, to help their scientific atmosphere grow. Another sector where R&D in India is lagging behind is that of reverse engineering. Most of the technological development in China, which we see today, is because of investment in reverse engineering they did perhaps decades back. These same proposed centers can also incorporate reverse engineering of already available foreign technologies.
I often wonder if the IIT and IISc graduates who migrates to foreign countries, can contribute toward industrial development there, what prevents them to do so in their own place of birth. Is it the environment, poor infrastructures, available opportunities for their future, or just the mindset? I will not go into the political aspects, but it is a fact that such basic technology development should have been possible decades back. Why no one ever question as to why we could not make rifles, bullets and personal armours, while we were capable of building Aryabhatta? It is not rocket science, you see!
I think the point of time our nation is going through, this is the best possible moment to ask these questions, because the solutions as I explained, are already present, and just that we need to apply them. Just as they say that, the teacher appears only when the student is ready, is this a similar moment for Indians? Given the atmosphere of, never before like opportunities available for entrepreneurship and start-ups in India, I think that this is the perfect time we discuss and work on these ideas.
It is now or never! When question of creating jobs, uplifting people above poverty level, and multi-trillion dollar economy comes, one has to take into account how good and efficient we are, in self-manufacturing the basic technical requirements to meet those goals, because a developed country that aspires to lead the world, can never be still dependent on others for basic technology requirements.