No shortcuts to development, basic research is key

The notion that the innovation capabilities of developing economies can ‘leap-frog’ and catch up with developed countries without an investment in basic research is an unfortunate but persistent view, which is likely to prolong dependency on external agencies, according to Venni V Krishna, professor of science policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

“There is no shortcut to development via science and technology other than strong public policies and state support to oriented or directed basic research,” he told higher education and research policy experts at an expert roundtable meeting in Durban convened to identify topics for the new Research, Higher Education, Development and Innovation – RHEDI – project.

In a presentation guided by the theme of “Institutional Leadership and Management of Research and Innovation Policy”, Krishna said science, technology and innovation policies and the role of government support were “very crucial”.

“There is no shortcut if one follows the emerging economies carefully. State mediation played a very significant role in establishing national science and technology capabilities.”

He said too much reliance on market forces had led to a distortion of research priorities in research institutions. Krishna said there were national needs experienced by individual countries that were more important than those dictated by market forces or external agencies.

Setting research priorities

Setting research priorities for oriented or directed basic research was thus a critical responsibility for research managers and leaders.

“Countries cannot simply take up several areas and sectors in public research laboratories; they need to work on some nationally important sectors.”

In African countries, for example, these sectors include agriculture, health, biological sciences and others. “Without creating a research base in these domains, external or foreign dependency will continue and that is not good for developing countries.”

“Aid or cooperation is not a substitute for local capacity,” he reiterated in a subsequent interview with University World News.

On the importance of supportive national policies, he said: “Governments are not investing enough in research. Priorities are not always correct. There is a need to sensitise politicians to these issues and spend less time talking among ourselves as academics.”

From a policy perspective the absence of key government players from any discussion around the role of research and innovation in development was a “big gap”, he said.

Academic revolutions

Earlier, Krishna told the roundtable meeting that expecting universities in Africa to take on the role of innovation without first establishing their research capacity was unrealistic.

The world over, the academic profession and universities had historically gone through three major academic revolutions, he explained.

The first saw the introduction and institutionalisation of teaching, which occurred largely in the 11th and 12th centuries in Europe – but also before that in India. The second in the early 1800s saw the addition of research to the teaching function, as seen in Berlin and known as the Humboldtian revolution.

And the third is a contemporary phase which has seen innovation added to teaching and research in what is described as a triple helix-based approach.

“Are African universities ready to take on the role of innovation and the Triple Helix model without first accomplishing the Humboldtian goal?” he asked, before going on to argue that only the best research-based universities should embark on innovation.

“Priority should be given to achieve the Humboldtian goal of teaching and research intensity and excellence in at least 25% to 30% of universities in a country.”

The case of India

Speaking to University World News about his own country, India, Krishna said oriented basic research had played an important role in developing national research capabilities in areas such as agriculture, pharmaceuticals, baby foods and tractors.

But innovation had also been dispersed through concepts such as ‘grassroots innovations’ and innovation from below projects such as the world famous ‘Jaipur Foot’ – a limb-fitting society – and the linking of knowledge hubs with universities throughout the country.

“We have a population of 1.2 billion people and it’s a young population. The government recognised the need to invest in education and training otherwise it would have a ticking time bomb on its hands.”

Krishna said a “major” issue for the RHEDI research agenda would be to understand why innovation takes off in some countries while it fails to thrive in others.

* RHEDI will launch its own, interactive and resource-rich website on the University World News platform in the near future.