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Boosting Innovation: Murthy's Idea Of Funding Indian PhDs In US Is A Non-Starter

Murthy’s idea will cost Indian Government in the tune of $25 bn over five years, an investment that can be better used to set up several top-notch universities and research institutions where Indians currently working abroad can be lured back.

NR Narayana Murthy suggested that India should spend an annual $5 billion to create 10,000 PhDs in American universities with the explicit proviso that none of them will be employed in the US. They have to return home to work on innovative projects and products right here.

While prima facie this seems like a bold idea to unleash thousands of innovators in India, giving a quantum jump the creation of intellectual property, a closer examination shows that this is actually a defeatist solution. Among other things, it concludes that India cannot produce world class PhDs, that the ones produced in the US will become innovative in India merely because they did their stuff under western masters, and that all this expense is worth it for ensuring high quality PhDs.

This is a typical Indian non-solution that essentially says India can’t be reformed, and that we need ideas that bypass our institutional limitations rather than improve them. This is the kind of thinking that got us a Right to Education Act, which essentially forces the 10 percent of reasonably competent privately-run schools to provide education to the underprivileged, instead of focusing on the real issue: how to make state schools deliver by making them accountable.

Look at the sheer number of heroic assumptions Murthy is making.

First, he assumes that a mere agreement with the US government will ensure that these PhDs will return to India. If force were to enable people to work for India, we would have had thousands of MBBS doctors willing to work in rural areas. But most abscond and start private practice. Moreover, what is the guarantee that the same PhDs will not seek work in, say, Europe or some other place?

Second, the primary motivation for the Indian student seeking a PhD in the US is to seek work there, with all its attendant benefits, real or perceived. These include less governmental interference in academics and the allure of a first world lifestyle. This means the agreement to create new PhDs will have to get students with a completely different career orientation.

Third, returning PhDs cannot be sure that they will get work conditions similar to what they get in the US. If the government is paying the cost of $5bn (annually), surely it will face the same political scrutiny that any other investment does. So there will be demands for reservations and quotas in these fully-paid scholarships (not unfairly, one must add), and demand for jobs based on caste back home once they return. If the government can’t absorb them, then quotas will be demanded in the private sector.

Fourth, is it fair to assume that India’s private sector will be able to pay for these PhDs and give them what they need to succeed? Given our abysmally low investments in R&D, it is only government that can absorb the bulk of them – and we know how efficient the government is in utilising even existing talent.

Fifth, politically Murthy’s idea will not fly for the simple reason that spending $5 bn (nearly Rs 34,000 crore) annually will be seen as helping the creation of a new elite when these are the kind of spends that provide millions in rural areas a basic livelihood through schemes like NREGA. A five-year PhD programme would involve spends of over Rs 1,70,000 crore – a number that can surely deliver a bigger bang for the buck if spent in India.

Murthy is clearly on the wrong track with this idea. The most sensible things to do, if PhDs are what we want, are the following:

#1: Private companies and government can sponsor potential PhDs to the US (or why not Europe?) Or even China to develop intellectual capital. The financing would be company or institution-specific, and so would the return obligation.

#2: Government should identify its own successful institutions (like Isro, or DRDO, or C-Dact) and ask them to pioneer the development of PhDs who they can fund and deploy in their own backyards. Isro and BARC have been islands of excellence and they should be studied to figure out how their DNA can be transplanted elsewhere.

#3: Scholarships should be liberally available on merit to any student willing to study abroad and return home – these should be backed by actual jobs back home.

#4: The purpose of developing PhDs should be to ensure that their future work is done under Indian supervision and for developing programmes needed in India. For $25 bn over five years, it should be possible to set up several top-notch universities and research institutions where Indians currently working abroad can be lured back.

When you can lure readymade Indian and foreign PhDs for much less, why try and create freshly-minted PhDs. It’s like a shot in the dark with – something we can’t afford with billions of dollars.

However, the germ of an idea Murthy can work with is to fund a pilot using his own funds. He could urge other fellow IT billionaires to do the same. If he succeeds, the government can surely step in to accelerate a programme, There is no point making government the guinea pig for such an experiment.

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