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How do we transform technology research and education: ranking, relevance and global reputation

There is a widespread concern that while on one hand, we want to build institutions of high ranking globally (according to criteria developed by private  ranking institutions), on the other we don’t care if high rank globally doesn’t translate to high social, industrial and ecological connect locally. This is paradoxical. Actually, both can be achieved together without making a trade-off. The assumption that more money leads to a higher rank or quality also needs to be tested by using data already available.

If we do a survey of major industrial clusters as well as agriculture, health and transportation sectors and ask them how many technologies developed nationally were used by them in the last 10-15 years leading to their competitive edge, we might get some estimate of utilization of technologies sectorally. In the agriculture sector, of course, there are thousands of varieties and other technologies which find the application at farm level. In Health, vaccines and some other solutions might have been diffused widely, besides many health practices through Asha workers. However, if we look at clusters of auto parts, machine tools, ceramics, brassware and so on, will we find the equally widespread use of domestically produced technologies?

There could be at least five reasons: a) technologies developed by CSIR labs, IITs, IISERS, tech universities and other institutions are available but because of some translational or communication bottlenecks, these are not reaching enough users; b) some technologies have indeed reached, such as CFTRI tech for making powder our of buffalo milk (without which white revolution would not have come about), or NCL technology for low pressure membrane which could be fitted in hand-pumps, but these have not provided a piggybacking system for other technologies; c) the needs of the small industries are not being put on the agenda of tech students and faculty (see results of an experiment with GTU at techpedia.sristi.org some years ago) and d) the problems don’t pose enough technological challenge to high tech institutions so that they fail to get enough attention, and e) the conversion of proof of concept solutions developed by students are not supported by industry clusters to become products, in fact, some will argue that  the clusters don’t demand new solutions.

Now, these problems cannot be addressed merely by throwing a lot of money at very few institutions. I am not against supporting IITs, BITS and IISC. These are jewels in Indian crown and deserve all the support. But will they do something different to address the needs of the small manufacturing sector which may increase jobs and also social welfare? At the same time, they should publish papers on this translational action research in reputed journals and share lessons, and raise their reputation. Many new insights and pedagogies might also evolve.

Imagine, if the Indian government had decided in 1999 (during NDA-1 government) that grassroots innovations do not figure in the index of innovation ranking by WIPO and thus need not be supported. Then setting up the National Innovation Foundation, proposed by SRISTI to scale up an indigenous model of GIAN through the Honey Bee Network would not have been possible.

Should western ranking frameworks and parameters determine our national ranking, resource allocation and policies for the pursuit of excellence, social relevance and inclusive institutions? It is well known that autonomy by itself contributes a great deal towards the emergence of excellence but then why should that be taken away by imposing more and more conditions on the way various institutions will work in future. Some institutions have started asking faculty to sign when they come or go. The pursuit of excellence requires trusting the teams, monitoring outputs and not inputs and supporting achievers in different disciplines and groups.  Not all departments are equally good in all institutions. Should not we rank departments on the basis of well-recognised parameters and then support an outstanding department in a low ranking institution if the case is so?

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