The Link Between Education and Innovation

21 Oct

(Originally posted on The Innovation Workgroup’s LinkedIn page, 28th July, 2015)

N R Narayana Murthy has called out the Indian higher education system – even the IITs and IISc — for a glaring deficiency in the area of research. He maintains that this deficiency results in a dearth of great innovations in Indian companies, as well. Do you agree with him?

Speaking at the Indian Institute of Science, Murthy said, “Yet, when our students leave the portals of these institutions, there is not much impactful work they have accomplished in research here. What is worse is that there is not much impactful work they accomplish when they go into the real world here in India.” 

I’m sorry to report that my experience of Indian higher education and Indian industry aligns well with Mr. Murthy’s assessment –with some notable exceptions. Instead of conducting the kind of research and inventing things that improve life and solve problems for billions around the globe, we tend to make excuses. We focus on modest goals, and we accept mediocre outcomes.

To me, this is a terrible waste of our potential. India has the best pool of human resources of any country, and we could lead the world if we equipped and managed them more effectively. What should we do to improve our outcomes?

Murthy’s model is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). MIT’s selects problems of interest and focuses its research on those. The university’s principle is that “Programs advanced through the MIT Innovation Initiative will support the acceleration of ideas-to-impact to confront the significant global challenges we currently face in areas ranging from energy and climate change, to global healthcare and poverty, to food and water scarcity, and more.”

Recommendation 1: Choose Challenges. If each Indian college and institute would adopt at least one such national or global challenge and focus its research and teaching efforts on that issue, I believe that we would see a dramatic increase in the number of inventions that we produce. Likewise, if more of our firms would work strategically on solving such problems, the odds would increase that the next game-changing product or service will come from India.

Recommendation 2: Form Partnerships. Top global universities partner with industry to build their innovative capabilities. Arizona State University, earlier a second-tier school, now receives 8 billion dollars a year in sponsorships and has joined the exclusive roster of elite institutions known as research universities.

In India, different spending priorities keep us from achieving something similar.Universities invest in teaching, not research, because it brings immediate returns. Corporations invest in activities that add to the bottom line quickly and have a high probability of success, unlike research, whose outcomes are uncertain. We invest for short-term gains, whereas innovation often requires a longer-term view.

To improve our R&D, I propose that we start modestly, with more universities improving their research capabilities and then seeking companies to sponsor small, manageable projects. Once the universities demonstrate the value of their work, business leaders will have more confidence to support expansion and growth. Also, more corporations can initiate research projects that utilize existing college R&D resources.

Recommendation 3: Incubate Start-Ups. Such institutions as IIT Bombay, IMT Ghaziabad and Amity University are already fostering new businesses. This activity promotes the idea of innovation. It gives professors and students something to work for and look forward to if they can develop and apply their creative and innovative talents.

How realistic are my recommendations? If they are implemented, will they result in more impactful innovations coming from Indian universities and corporations? Your comments are eagerly sought.

Additional reading on this topic: Full text: Narayana Murthy questions the contribution of IITs and IISc in the last 60 years

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Posted by on October 21, 2015 in Uncategorized


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