Why India Needs More ISROs And More Govt-Led Strategic R&D Investments

Amit Paranjape

Sep 26, 2016, 12:00 PM | Updated 12:00 PM IST

ISRO’s PSLV launch station in Sriharikota. Photo credit: ISRO
ISRO’s PSLV launch station in Sriharikota. Photo credit: ISRO
  • India’s goal should be create more ISRO-like organisations in other areas – R&D driven organisations that develop important strategic and commercial products – and also help build private R&D and manufacturing ecosystems around them.
  • Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) former chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan spoke at the Fifth Foundation Day of Pune International Centre and highlighted its progress, achievements and future plans. ISRO has made tremendous strides over the past four decades in research and development (R&D) led innovation and has succeeded in developing key technologies such as the cryogenic propulsion system. One thing that stood out during the lecture was the extent of private sector participation in R&D and manufacturing, and the manufacturing ecosystem.

    Dr Radhakrishnan said that 80 percent of the value addition of ISRO’s workhorse launcher, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), comes from the private sector. It is important to note that the PSLV is one of the most reliable space launch platforms in the world, with 34 successful launches in a row – at one of the lowest launch cost per payload weight.

    These private industry contributions for building the PSLV come from more than 120 large, medium and small companies. ISRO acts as the designer and system integrator, and assembles the final rocket at Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota. I had known about the industry participation, but the 80 percent number was indeed surprising. It was great to note the private sector’s role in India’s space programme. ISRO is thus not only delivering great rockets and satellites technology, but also helping build an aerospace R&D and manufacturing ecosystem in India. This is critical. Over the past 50 years, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has played a key role in driving the development of a similar ecosystem in the US. The advances made in space technology around materials, propulsion, guidance, navigation and other areas have many direct and indirect technology benefits in other sectors. ISRO should follow a similar example.

    For the ‘Make in India’ initiative to succeed, we need high-quality R&D investments in the public and private sector. R&D investments as a percent of GDP is an important metric and has a good correlation with the overall strength of the economy. South Korea (highest R&D/GDP in the world) is a great example. It invests 4.3 percent of its GDP in R&D. The US invests 2.7 percent (highest in absolute terms, given their GDP). China invests 2.1 percent, while India invests only 0.85 percent.

    Government-led R&D is an important component of the total R&D spending in a country. Let’s look at the US example. Here is a recent tweet by Bill Gates.

    The tweet references a link from US Department of Energy, where Gates is drawing attention to this:

    Research and development (R&D) is the unsung hero of American innovation. Government-funded R&D spurs new industries, creates jobs and helps us tackle our greatest challenges. Decades ago, that challenge was the space race; today, it is climate change.

    While we regularly talk about the R&D in private sector US companies such as Google, Apple, etc, what is often ignored is the huge investments made by the US government in this area. NASA and US Department of Defense are excellent examples. Another one is the agency that funds important research in US universities – NSF (National Science Foundation). Many of today’s great technologies and innovations were built on this R&D foundation laid by the US government R&D investments. Perhaps the best example of such an innovation is the ‘internet’. Just like the US, France too has made many strategic R&D investments in areas related to aerospace and defence, energy and computing technologies.

    Often government-led R&D is also driven by a country’s strategic interests. This is very much applicable to India as well. This is one more important driver for government-led R&D investments.

    As discussed earlier, private R&D and manufacturing can build on top of the government-led R&D initiatives. Yes, there are examples of wasteful expenditures, especially in the public sector. For one successful ISRO, there are counter examples as well. However, this should not deter the policy-makers from allocating more R&D investments in strategic areas. It is important to study what has worked at ISRO, and then to institutionalise these processes in other R&D organisations.

    ISRO represents one of the best examples (not just in India, but in the world) of effective and efficient R&D. The Mars orbiter mission ‘Mangalyaan’ is a great example. ISRO was able to deliver this incredible project at a fraction of the cost (around 10 percent) of what NASA spent on a similar project.

    India’s goal should be create more ISRO-like organisations in other areas – R&D driven organisations that develop important strategic and commercial products – and also help build private R&D and manufacturing ecosystems around them. As a product/technology matures, the role of the private sector can grow. Where possible (in terms of technology capabilities), the private sector can also play an upfront role in collaborating on new technology development.

    This piece originally appeared on Amit Paranjape’s Blog and has been republished here with permission.

    Also Read:
    The Future Of ISRO - Get More Private Industries Involved And Encourage Academic Participation

    A Technology Entrepreneur, with many diverse interests across Information Technology, Emerging Tech, Economics, Healthcare, History, and Urban Development. He tweets @aparanjape

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