While the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, in 2019, recommended that India more than double its expenditure on research and development (R&D) to 2 per cent of GDP by 2022, N.R. Narayana Murthy, the legendary founder of Infosys, thinks this wouldn't be enough to solve the pressing problems facing the nation.
He advises a much higher spending on research and stresses that taxpayers should fund not only applied research but also fundamental research, which can take several decades to show results. In an interview to Business Today's Goutam Das on the sidelines of Infosys Prize, an annual award that honours achievements of researchers and scientists, Murthy also explained why India needs to change some of its cultural approaches to learning. Edited excerpts:
When one talks of nation building, there seems to be a tendency to look at applied research more than basic or fundamental research. From where India is right now, what sort of research do you think is more important?
In India, where there is a lot of poverty, and lots of other problems, we have to focus on solving the problems around us. For example, healthcare, education, agriculture, human work productivity, infrastructure are problems. These need solutions. To that extent, most focus should be on applied research. On the other hand, I would not want to distinguish between fundamental research and applied research because fundamental problems are 'not-yet-applied research' problems. Look at quantum mechanics. Without it, we wouldn't have transistors, DVDs, laser printers or laser surgeries. We wouldn't have quantum computers. Same thing with Einstein's Theory of Relativity. It is used in GPS. We shouldn't be hung up on fundamental research or applied research.
What would convince governments to look more at the necessity of fundamental research since it has long lead times?
We have to set apart a percentage of our GDP for solving long-term fundamental research problems. That will yield results, may be not in 10-20 years. Sometimes, they yield results in 50-100 years. But they will yield results. We have to do long-term planning. But we may set apart a larger percentage of GDP on solving problems that we see around us today.
Is there a percentage that you would recommend for a country like India? The country spends 0.7 per cent (of GDP) on R&D today.
The government has decided to take it to 2 per cent (the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister in 2019 recommended that India more than double its expenditure on R&D to this level by 2022). That itself is not sufficient. We have to get to 4-5 per cent of GDP in research, including the government and the private sector. If we did that, I am sure we would solve a lot of problems.
Should tax payers fund fundamental research?
Why not? As I explained, when we talk of fundamental research, what we are saying is that it is research that will yield results in the long run. We need fundamental research in our portfolio. We have to allow for a small percentage of our tax payer's money for fundamental research problems.
What is the role of universities in research? What can be done to improve academia-industry participation in research?
Universities are all about education - education is learning to learn. Learning is about extracting generic inferences out of specific instances and using them in new related or unrelated areas. Education will make a person more confident of solving new problems. It would help a person do deep thinking and deep learning. It would enhance his or her curiosity. So, that is the job of the university. Research, on the other hand, is about advancing the leading edge. If a teacher, who is teaching a class, is also doing research, she or he will be advancing the leading edge. They can bring their observations to the classroom. Therefore, students would automatically be taken to the leading edge. Every university must, therefore, have a portfolio of education and research. The American model is a good model. They have both education and research together.
What must India do to attract more young scientists to research? The tendency is to get into a corporate role or go abroad for research.
First, you need to create role models for youngsters. That is the purpose of the Infosys Prize. We recognise outstanding (Indian) researchers or people of Indian origin who do research in India. These people become role models for youngsters. Second, we have to make sure that those youngsters who get into research get reasonable compensation and the quality of life they lead is comfortable. Third, they have to be provided as much academic freedom as is necessary to compete with the best in the world. If we follow all the ideas that developed nations have, particularly the US, in encouraging research, I believe our youngsters too can do a good job.
Should companies operating largely on the basis of intellectual property (IP) or those who are research-based be taxed differently? Perhaps, pay a lower corporate tax?
I don't think so. After all, if you create an IP, you can use the IP to create your own products and create a differentiation in the marketplace. Therefore, sales will go up, revenues will go up. The very job of using the IP will make the corporation much more profitable. So I don't think there is any special need. Look at Google, Microsoft. They all have IP; they have grown to become huge corporations and their profitability is much higher than that of services companies.
Does India need a more structured mechanism or an institution that looks at funding research?
A National Science Foundation (NSF) kind of institution is a good idea. I believe that the New Education Policy looks at creating such an institution (the draft policy proposes a National Research Foundation to focus on funding research within the education system). The US has had excellent success with NSF (It is an independent federal agency created in 1950. With an annual budget of $8.3 billion, it is the funding source for 24 per cent of all federally supported basic research conducted by Americas colleges and universities). Therefore, we have a good example of how the US has succeeded. We should follow that and create an institution like NSF that will encourage research through project funding.
What ideally should be the duration of funding a project in fundamental research?
While we should not create any artificial barriers to completion of a fundamental research project, funding could be in phases. The first phase could be five years and the second phase, another five. As long as the researchers have something tangible to show, that they are indeed going in the right direction, they should be encouraged.
India does not have a culture of research. But it does have a culture of learning?
At this point, even the culture of learning is a rarity in India because most of our learning is by rote and not as a means to solve problems. I used to ask youngsters at Infosys basic questions on computer science. They used to say 'exams are over and so we forgot everything'. That is not learning. You must be in a position to use whatever you learnt in the classroom to solve problems around you, in your area of expertise or in related areas.
Are we aiming too high when we say that we have to ideally spend 4-5 per cent of the GDP on research when we don't even have a proper culture of learning?
We have to encourage our students to focus on discussion, debate, critical thinking, reasoning, curiosity, and problem solving in the classes. We have to get to open book kind of examinations. We have to shun learning by rote and only for the examination. They don't cost too much money. I do believe that our youngsters can become problem solvers - once they do, they can tackle very big problems, even fundamental research problems.
We have seen China and the U.S. walking away in research around artificial intelligence. India has very little to show.
Whatever you want to do, it will require a lot of hard work, a lot of discipline, and a good work ethic. Those aspects are somewhat weak in our culture. Our discipline is poor. The productivity of an Indian is somewhat low. The ability to work in a team, subordinating individual egos, is also somewhat low in India. These are cultural issues and these will have to be solved by creating role models.
How did private companies in India solve these problems?
We created exemplars. We created incentives for good behaviour and deterrence for not-so-good behaviour. There is also leadership by example. The leader should walk the talk, demonstrate compliance with all the good values. They provide good results.