India rolls out mega plan for co-sharing technology hubs
Industry and research institutions can use the centres without having to buy expensive instruments.
doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.24 Published online 8 February 2020
India has announced ambitious plans to create several technological and scientific infrastructure clusters that can be shared between publicly-funded laboratories, academia, start-ups and the industry. Observers say the success of the Rs 1250 crore programme will hinge on how quickly the country can create skilled manpower to run these clusters, and how nimbly industries and institutions move to collaborate.
Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman detailed in her annual budget speech last week (1 February 2020) that besides being technology powerhouses, these centres will also aim at strengthening the existing intellectual property regime in the country.
India’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) will establish these hubs named SATHI (meaning friend in Hindi) – Sophisticated Analytical and Technical Help Institutes – to house high end analytical, testing, characterisation and fabrication instruments. These instruments, says DST secretary Ashutosh Sharma, will provide easily accessible technical help to everyone and reduce dependency on expensive foreign labs, which most small companies or institutes cannot afford.
The services in these clusters will run round the clock, he adds. “Three such centres have been set up by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, IIT Kharagpur and the Banaras Hindu University at a total cost of Rs 375 crore,” Sharma told Nature India. A total of 10 such centres are being planned in the next four years.
“80% of the time in these facilities will be for the industry, start-ups, micro- small and medium enterprises in specialized sectors such as health, transport, agriculture, energy and water,” Sharma said.
According to a UNESCO Science Report, as India’s national commitment to R&D remains stagnant at about 0.81% of the GDP, overall domestic innovation is heavily concentrated in just six states and nine industrial sectors. These sectors are pharmaceuticals (28% of industrial research spending), automotive (14%), information technology (computer hardware 10%), defence (9%), agriculture and related machinery (9%), industrial machinery (5%), chemicals (5%), biotechnology (4%) and electrical goods and electronics (3%).
In times of ‘shared economies’, opening up public infrastructure and resources to industry will promote sharing of ideas and inventions and lead to co-creations between industry and institutions, says former head of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research Raghunath Mashelkar.
Strengthening industrial research
However, keen watchers of the industrial research ecosystem say that despite being armed with high end instruments, it may be challenging for these clusters to ensure optimal participation from industries and small enterprises. India does not yet have a robust industrial research and development ecosystem to support this, they feel.
Another major impediment could be the deployment, training and retention of expert manpower. These ‘science powerhouses’ have to be manned 24 hours by researchers skilled in interpreting data mined from the instruments. Besides, active participation of parent institutions, where the centres will be housed, is important for their growth. In some cases, space could also be a constraint.
While small enterprises, institutions and industries will benefit immensely, not having to buy or maintain high cost instruments, the challenge will be to devise an effective management platform that enables ease of access, says biologist Chandrima Saha, President of the Indian National Science Academy. “Also challenging will be finding trained manpower and maintaining the high end equipment sustainably,” she adds.
The industry and the academia will need to value each other’s expertise and grow in their respective domains, says Mitali Mukerji, head of Genomic and Molecular Medicine at the CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology. “This is pivotal for the partnership to grow and sustain,” she points out.
Sharma, however, is confident that the SATHI centres will meet these challenges. The centres will be autonomous and professionally-run. “They will have their own salary structure and that would help recruit trained human resources,” he says.