The sporadic social media posts on SS Bhatnagar on his birth anniversary on February 21 and their lukewarm engagement got me to think about the levels of our general awareness about the process of science and technology research and the fact that it has become increasingly more collaborative from the mid-20th century. This is the antithesis of the popular imagery many of us have—of an individual researcher burning the midnight oil in the lab. The contemporary history of science and technology points us to some striking examples of how research collaborations have resulted in pathbreaking discoveries and inventions.
Let us take the case of Bhatnagar first. One of the facets that stood out in his professional career was his ability to collaborate with industry. As the head of the newly established University Chemical Laboratories in Lahore from 1924, he collaborated on projects with Sir Ganga Ram of Lahore (an engineer-turned-agriculturist), Lala Shri Ram of Delhi, J K Mills at Kanpur and Tata Oil Mills. His most celebrated collaboration that is now folklore was with a British firm, Steel Brothers & Co, that was prospecting for oil in Punjab. They were using mud to lubricate their drilling jigs. Soon they realized to their dismay that mud and the underground salt deposits coagulated and formed a hard mix that stopped drilling operations. When their home-grown solutions did not solve the problem, Steel Brothers turned to Bhatnagar. His elegant solution was to add an Indian gum to the mud so that it would not harden on contact with salt.
Where does India stand now on R&D collaborations? According to a publicly available DST - Elsevier report International Comparative Performance of India’s Research Base on India’s research performance, the share of papers from collaboration between Indian universities and industry decreased with a CAGR of -6.1% between 2009 and 2013 compared to a global -3.7% CAGR for the same period. China was among the few countries that had a growth in this period with a 1.3% CAGR. It is important to develop win-win models where industry, universities, and research organizations have tangible benefits from fundamental research collaborations.
Recent reports suggest that India plans to improve its ease of doing science. This is heartening to note given our national aspiration is to progressively increase our percentage of R&D spend to about 2% of GDP. Among the different aspects of ease of doing science, India must focus on fostering the ease of collaborations. The importance of collaborations was evident during these Covid-19 times where Indian technology universities, R&D labs, industry and startups collaborated to design and manufacture the much-needed ventilators, masks, PPEs and, of course, vaccines. While we seem to collaborate in R&D when push comes to shove, the general levels of collaboration can be improved.
Today’s science and technology thrive on collaborations. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) paper announcing the detection of gravitational waves had over a thousand authors including Indians. While LIGO is an extreme case of big science that had a billion-dollar budget, the trend of increased international collaboration in science is secular. An article in The Economist analysed more than 34 million research papers published between 1996 and 2015 in the Scopus database, and reported that the average number of authors per paper went up from 3.2 to 4.4 in this period. The collaboration among researchers is at multiple levels.
Models for collaboration
The most basic collaboration is between faculty members in universities who are also principal investigators on research projects and their PhD and master’s students. Carol Greider and her advisor Elizabeth Blackburn at the University of California Berkeley were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (along with Jack Szostak). They discovered how the chromosomes can be copied in a complete way during cell divisions and how they are protected against degradation. The answer was in the ends of the chromosomes, the telomeres and in telomerase, an enzyme that forms them.
Many principal investigators also have post doctorates—and are typically fresh PhDs. Indian students who finish their Postdoc/PhD/Master’s in India or elsewhere and continue on the research track in India need to be connected to their advisor's lab or another principal investigator’s lab for a few years more. The reason is to hone their research skills before they can get a faculty position and transition into a principal investigator with their own lab infrastructure. This model provides the first basis of collaboration for a young researcher and plays an important role to groom them into becoming an independent principal investigator. James Allison was one of the winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work on advancing immunotherapies for cancer. He was a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of noted Scripps Research immunologist Ralph Reisfeld. It was as a post-doc that Allison and his colleagues focused their research on how the immune system recognized pathogens. And more importantly why the immune system sometimes becomes overzealous and attacks the body’s own cells.
A prospective faculty member in a university or a researcher in a research organization is often attracted to these organizations due to the opportunities it provides to collaborate with colleagues apart from lab infrastructure. Indian universities and research organizations do not have labs and departments that are as large in terms of number of researchers associated compared to those in developed counties. A lab with about ten principal investigators or for that matter a university department with over a hundred principal investigators is not common in India. In contrast, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)—which is a department more than a single laboratory—has about 125 principal investigators. Over the years CSAIL and its earlier avatars have made fundamental breakthrough contributions powered by their research. Like the fundamental principle of representing true or false using on and off states of electric switches by master’s student Claude Shannon. This idea powers digital circuits and hence the digital age we are currently living in. Today, CSAIL’s research powers various cutting-edge technologies including the frontiers of robotics and a social media favourite, the dancing robots from Boston Dynamics, a spin-off from faculty member Marc Raibert.
A significant upside in having large labs apart from lab infrastructure and more funding is that they provide a conducive environment to nurture the tacit knowledge of researchers. These include learning nuances in research techniques, getting plugged into a stronger and wider network of researchers inside and outside the lab, fine-tuning the art of writing winning research proposals, etc. A larger group of researchers ensures that the tacit knowledge not only grows but also stays in lab much longer. Last but not the least, a larger lab and the resultant collaboration can also increase the likelihood of successfully translating research into a venture.
Another related model of collaboration is the inter-organizational collaboration among different universities and research organizations. One of the results of such a collaboration is the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) the first wide area packet-switching network that later became the internet. The idea of a robust communications network whose nodes would work even if one or more nodes are down was a useful objective for Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the United States Department of Defense in the Cold War era. The ARPA program managed this research project in which Lawrence Roberts and his team in ARPA made the initial network design based on the work of, among others, Paul Baran of RAND, an American not-for-profit think-tank. A few years later, Bob Kahn from ARPA and Vint Cerf at Stanford University developed a protocol that provides end-to-end data communication specifying how data should be packetized, addressed, transmitted, routed, and received. In short, the backbone of the internet that we now know as TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). We will look at how these were built into a physical network very soon.
In India, inter organizational collaboration typically happens among the national institutions in India. While this is good, we should strive to enhance the collaboration outside the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), IITs, NITs, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Department of Science and Technology (DST), and Department of Bio Technology (DBT) ecosystem.
The Inter-organization collaboration also includes collaboration between universities and research organizations on one hand and industry on the other.
Let us now return to look at who put together the theoretical concepts we discussed about ARPANET into a working physical model. ARPA roped in Bolt Beranek & Newman (BBN), an R&D company, to build ARPANET. They also designed and built the Interface Message Processors or IMPs that implemented the packet switching related protocols that we discussed before and connected the disparate computers that formed the nodes of the ARPANET. The IMPs were precursors to what are now the ubiquitous routers. While we see increased collaboration between industry in India in the recent past, the focus seems to be more on contract research projects rather than fundamental research. In this model the industry often provides the problem statement and funding and the universities and research organizations provide the human resources to find a solution. We need to build a portfolio of research projects—that include both applied and fundamental research—that are a collaboration between universities, labs and industry. Industry funding of research is essential to push our R&D spend to the aspirational 2% of GDP.
International collaboration is yet another model. The most successful cases of international collaboration are where an Indian researcher builds a personal relationship with a counterpart in another country. There are attempts to make this model of collaboration more institutional rather than researcher dependent. The DST – Elsevier report states that the US is the most prolific collaborating country with India during 2010-2014 based on number of research paper author affiliations. However, Indian research collaborations with other developed countries like the Netherlands and Sweden, seem to result in higher impactful research collaborations that improve India’s and the partner country’s research citations than collaboration with the US in this period.
There may not be one “best-practice” model to improve effectiveness of international collaborations. Indian universities and research labs will need to develop models for international collaboration that work best for them. A list of factors that facilitate and inhibit effective international collaboration in the Indian context will be useful to develop these collaboration models. For example, one research study identified that the “centre-periphery” distinction where developing countries like India are still perceived as a peripheral nation in international research collaborations is an inhibiting factor. While this is not a generalized context, Indian science and technology policy makers must find ways to mitigate biased perceptions. The low-hanging fruits to foster international collaboration is to decrease the red-tape in government-funded universities and research organizations and increase quantum of funding for rigorously evaluated research proposals. Programs like the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum are playing an important role in nurturing a healthy environment for research collaboration and bringing together scientific minds.
How does India compare with the rest of the world on collaborations? The DST – Elsevier report mentions that in 2013, 46.2% of research papers were a result of intra-organization collaboration, 32.1% was a result of Indian inter-organization collaboration, 16% was a result of international collaboration, only 5.7% were single author papers. India’s trend between 2009 and 2013 is in-line with the trends in BRICS nations. G8 nations have a slightly different distribution where national inter-organization collaboration is higher than intra-organization collaboration.
It appears that the Indian science and technology policy makers have taken note of the importance of collaboration. The Science Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP 2020) plans to strengthen the collaboration framework in science and technology for enhanced interconnectedness. There is a plan for a Science Technology Innovation Framework to nurture to promote effective and outcome-driven collaborations. This is likely to include flexible knowledge and talent exchange models that facilitate hassle-free collaborations.
STIP 2020 mentions establishing Collaborative Research Centres (CRCs) to bring together participating stakeholders. The policy focuses on all the different types of collaborations and also those between grassroots innovators and researchers in Indian universities and research organizations. Industry collaboration along with collaborative modes of industry funding for research projects also seems to be on the anvil. More programs like Visiting Advanced Joint Research (VAJRA) and GIAN (Global Initiative of Academic Networks) are planned to foster international collaborations. It is interesting to note a special emphasis on research collaborations among the global south.
More importantly, STIP 2020 also mentions that a culture of collaboration will be nurtured across the science technology and innovation landscape. This will provide a springboard for 21st century Indian science and hopefully play a role in increasing R&D spend and become one of the engines in India’s mission to achieve a GDP of USD 5 trillion by 2024-25.
Read: A mission to solve grand challenges, where N Dayasindhu says that grand challenges that bring together government, universities and industry, can solve near future problems using technologies innovatively.
Read: India can build world-class universities. IISc shows how, with a few caveats. Rishikesha T Krishnan says, Indian institutions tend to decay over time. The Indian Institute of Science seems to have defied this trend thanks to a strong commitment to certain core principles.