India needs to synthesize the disruptive technologies (verticals) that can have an outsized impact on citizens and business.


Bengaluru/New Delhi: We conclude our tryptich overview of Indian science. Science today must be executable by both poor and rich countries, with the promise of significant returns in the short run. This can only be effected by a country which is not on the sidelines, but is central—making India germane for this role.
The traditional Vannevar Bush research model, is an orthodoxy replete with its own tenets of faith—papers, peer-reviews, patents and citations. This method is both inelegant and wasteful; a large pool of funds has to be made continuously available in a brute-force operation of relentless tinkering. The constraints of such a methodology are evident for a resource-strapped country with competing priorities—results are few and far between, with precious resources sacrificed at the altar of pursuing “top class” science.
Our second, and arguably more serious, concern with the Vannevar Bush model, is that translating scientific breakthroughs into practical life-changing technologies is a secondary process in the exercise. It is not automatic. Thus, it is moot to repeat the point made in our second article—the repeatedly toted statistic of India’s third highest volume of papers in the world is meaningless, as our papers are almost wholly uncited. Innovations which hold utility for an average Indian’s wellness and progress are thus stillborn or neglected while invaluable resources are pumped into a non-performing, self-serving system.
As a precursor to improvement in outcomes, we need a revolution in the methods which generate said outcomes. There must be more efficient and intervention-focused methods of doing science awaiting conceptualisation.
The kind of methodological sidestepping we hint at are central to leading Indian firms beating established western competitors. The legendary F.C. Kohli, the founding figure of TCS, solved a similar problem—how does one find a better, more efficient way of finding solutions in a procedural paradigm where copious money and idle time are a given for large players? He simply required his coding teams to get the code right within 10 tries, and 3 for getting the syntax right, in a world where competitors would stroll by with endless testing. Exceeding these limits would require you to explain yourself directly to Mr Kohli, an unenviable task. This method, and the attitude embedded within it, catapulted TCS to being a global force.
Indian science needs a similar relook into verticals which can touch the lives of the common man. We need better science for better living. India’s own history points towards such approaches being a mantra for success. Take for example, telephony. The United States had almost complete saturation of wired phone connections by the 1950s. India continued to falter on this front well into the 1990s, with one absurd policy idea after another ensuring that waiting times for a landline connection would stretch into decades. Then came the unshackling of India’s wireless telecom sector. The rest of the story is well known, with India leapfrogging into globally competitive wireless technology penetration. India it appears does exceedingly well in disruptive technologies being adapted, admixed and adopted. The beaten path of technological progression usually does not augur well for us.
India therefore needs to synthesize those disruptive technologies (verticals) that can have an outsized impact on citizens and business. A shameless importation of science done elsewhere, sufficiently modified to suit India’s priorities, is a time-tested Indian recipe for success. It is true that this approach won’t win us Nobel Prizes or get fanciful citation statistics, but it will provide the nation essential supply chain security, public welfare, and leading global businesses.
Five horizontals—energy, health, society and culture, automation, and food security—cry out for sustainable solutions, and verticals of disruption like AI, genomics, alternate energy, personalised health care, natural language processing, and quantum technology leading to a possible time reduction in Moore’s law, hold the key to almost every conceivable technological solution which fits the rubric described above. In each of these five domains, India has some key advantages which can enable us to pivot towards a breakthrough-focused, exponential-technology-led model of scientific progress.
That said, it is pertinent to note the nature of breakthrough discoveries themselves. Pasteur’s founding of stereochemistry or cure for rabies, Carrothers’ discovery of nylon, Haber’s fixation of nitrogen, or Bardeen and Shockley’s invention of the transistor, were not born out of any vaunted national lab or within the serenity of academia. These breakthroughs were all outcomes of hard-nosed attempts at solving urgent industrial or societal problems, and the science caught up thereafter.
We have to understand a critical fact of the process—Vannevar Bush depends on the corpus of money and knowledge already generated within the system, and thus India is contending with a monstrous American and Chinese lead. The Chinese marshalled resources and time which we don’t have, to reach a position where they will soon beat the Americans at their own game. It is untenable for India to run a race which it is destined to lose. Instead of choosing the terrain in a battle we are fated for defeat, it is far better to pick another battle.
All is not lost—India has many preconditions necessary to take the rest of the world by surprise. There is a reason why ISRO can achieve what it does on a shoestring budget, and MNCs set up their bases in Bengaluru; India has numerous underlying strengths it can leverage, but sadly it has chosen a system of scientific research which hinders their utilisation. India’s way forward is of disruptive innovation, exponential technologies, leapfrogging, moonshots, and private research into industrial solutions; The hobbling white elephant of concatenated government labs and overblown and overrated academic institutions has long outlived its utility. An “Indian” way of doing science is a sine qua non for achieving our longstanding ambitions, and to close the gap between us and our well-endowed competitors.

Gautam R. Desiraju is in the Solid State and Structural Chemistry Unit, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.
Deekhit Bhattacharya is a student at the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.