December 7, 2007

National Solar Foundation

Atanu Dey on India's Development: Solar Power Investment — Follow up After advocating targeted government investment in solar power research in an earlier post, Public Investment in Solar Power, Atanu Dey speculates on the reasons for lack of technological innovations in India — "... So what is the missing ingredient? I think it is a lack of vision, a lack of national pride. Sometimes in a dark mood I think that Indians are a nation of followers, not leaders."

I don't believe that the Indians are any different from the Americans or the Europeans (whatever these labels mean), barring, of course, their penchant for Bollywood music :) I have been privileged to have many colleagues of Indian origin — both in the academics and in the industry — who are no less accomplished researchers in comparison with their colleagues of other national origins. Few, if, any of these men and women, knew what the word vision means, with the possible exception of management researchers. Never has any of them shown the slightest indication that national pride is the motivation for her publication in Game Theory or his patent for a "neuron on a chip". These are exceptional men women, who are passionate and ambitious about what they do, and will not be detracted by pecuniary or political considerations. The rest are also rans. And, this applies to both basic and applied research.

Research and innovation will not flourish in an atmosphere where every outcome is measured in terms of what collective good it serves or is supposed to serve. Anyone who has had the privilege of sitting in an Indian Planning Commission meeting should know what I mean. As I have written in an earlier post, God, King, and Science, creativity can thrive only in an atmosphere that encourages free discussion and exchange of competing ideas and perspectives. When research is driven by extraneous considerations that subordinate the pure joy of discovery and invention, it risks becoming pedestrian. Several recent events in India point to this danger.

Quoting again from God, King, and Science, freedom of expression is necessary but not sufficient for the advancement of science and arts. Scientists require resources, and without the sponsorship of wealthy institutions and individuals, their creative endeavors cannot be sustained. To keep the donor's fingers out of the cookie jar is, however, difficult, if not impossible. It takes decades to build an institution such as the National Science Foundation (USA) — which is by no means flawless — but takes less than four years to destroy it! I know personally researchers who would not hesitate to decline hefty grants, if they perceived strings attached to them.

An efficient, incentive compatible mechanism for allocating resources to best serve private motives and interests may not be impossible, but it must be invisible!

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