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‘Patent, publish and prosper’

India’s largest publicly funded network of research institutions is also an intellectual-property factory earning millions for the taxpayer. LK Sharma profiles the transformation at the CSIR.

India’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which has just celebrated its 70th birthday, is a much changed institution to that which began life under the British empire’s setting sun. What was once a risk-averse institution housing talented but commercially inexperienced scientists is today flying in the opposite direction.

Delegates attending CSIR’s birthday celebrations in Delhi learnt of a five-seater aircraft developed jointly by the CSIR’s National Aerospace Laboratory and the privately owned Mahindra group, which had its first test flight on 1 September. The lab has also just approved a £47 million grant to design an aircraft that can carry 80 passengers on short flights. Earlier this year CSIR struck its biggest-ever licensing deal to produce a new generation of thrombolytic drugs with Nostrum Pharma. The agreement is expected to lead to £93m in payments to CSIR.

The institution’s present successes are a long way from where the CSIR’s 40 labs found themselves even as late as the mid 1990s. The difficulty then, as is often the case with government research labs worldwide, was that CSIR’s scientists were keen on research, but less keen on the commercial side of things. The council, with its modest annual budget of £18m would at most tinker on its own with small reverse-engineering projects, aimed at import substitution. Companies for their part made little effort to engage with scientists, and not without good reason.

The credit for transforming the CSIR goes to RA Mashelkar, a noted chemical engineer, who was its director general from 1995 to 2006. India’s media dubbed him “the CEO”, an odd designation for a government functionary. His successor Samir Brahmachari has ensured that Mashelkar’s momentum has not been lost and that more of CSIR’s scientists go beyond publishing papers.

Mashelkar’s arrival coincided with a time when India was deep into economic liberalisation and policymakers were even deeper into studying how to turn their nation into more of a knowledge-driven economy. Soon after joining, Mashelkar, who reported to the prime minister, quickly changed the organisation’s culture and also took some very risky decisions. Despite anger from members of parliament, three large, under-performing labs and 111 smaller ones were closed down and staff in those that remained were encouraged to “patent, publish and prosper”. Unusually for a scientist, Mashelkar proved adept at extracting funding from politicians: during his tenure the organisation’s budget went up from £18m to £41m and is now £80m. Towards the end of his time as director general, one-third of CSIR’s income came from industry.

Mashelkar was fortunate, too: his scientists were beginning to realise that globalisation also meant that, while they were working hard to publish papers and disseminate their findings, international companies were drawing on these findings to generate products with little or no benefit going to India’s researchers. Many revelled under the new regime and Mashelkar changed CSIR’s rules so scientists could commercialise their work.

The council established a new company named CSIR-Tech to promote innovation and to commercialise some of its existing 5,000 patents through companies and even innovation parks set up by scientists. At the same time researchers were given the freedom to move between industry and government. The marriage between knowledge and the market became symbolic of another kind of unity: that between the rival Hindu goddesses of wealth and learning.

CSIR’s market-friendliness has not made the organisation insensitive to the impact of market-failure on the poor. An open-source drug-discovery project has been designed to develop drugs for tuberculosis, which largely affects the poor and thus is neglected by major drug companies. It seeks to replicate the crowd-sourcing model used in information technology: CSIR researchers have sequenced the Mycobacterium tuberculosis genome, verified it and made it publicly available.

A CSIR laboratory has also introduced solar-powered rickshaws that provide relief to the thousands of rickshaw-pullers who would otherwise haul mechanical machines. These and other similar initiatives will help to determine CSIR’s priorities even as it climbs the global patent league and meets the research needs of mega-multinational corporations.

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LK Sharma is a science writer based in Delhi. His latest book is Innovative India Rises.