Recognise and protect knowledge

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Dec 2 2004, 05:30am hrs
The army has just announced the first patent obtained for Windy, a fast attack vehicle that has low silhouette and high combat power. It can carry a variety of armaments including a medium missile gun and a global positioning system on it. Costing just Rs 8 lakh, it can move swiftly in desert and rugged terrains. This should symbolise, even if in a small way, Indias technological assertion in a world that uses technological innovation as the new lever of might. International experts note that India has unique capabilities of integrating new technologies, particularly IT, with military technology. It can become a major exporter of advanced military technology and take a chunk of the gun bazaar.

The just published Rising Elephant by Ashutosh Seshabalaya (Common Courage Press, USA) is climbing up the charts for its brilliant analysis of how India is challenging America and the world, leveraging on its technological and human resource capabilities. In the military field, it notes that India offered to sell warships and train naval personnel from Vietnam; that Israel may market the Indian helicopter Dhruv to the USA; that Bell helicopters sent a team of engineers to study Indias notable efforts at controlling vibrations by using smart materials and sophisticated algorithms; that there is demonstrated capability to transfer nuclear-related technologies; and to use IT, communication and space technologies innovatively. This is one area where India is way ahead of China, whose FDI statistics appear to cause such paranoia.

Rising Elephant is mainly about changing the balance of power in Indias favour, about shifting of high-end work and white-collar jobs, and how India could colonise cyberspace. The painstaking research reveals stunning capabilities. But will India be able to sustain its advantages, despite the technological confidence arising from early success, particularly in the IT, space, biotech and pharma fields

Unfortunately, India has a history of getting robbed of knowledge and innovation, which is then commercially exploited elsewhere. Consequently, it was no surprise to me when a senior western diplomat wanted to identify institutes in the country where biotech research has remained half-baked or unpatented for want of funds or encouragement. Even unobtrusive surveys can give a welter of ideas and data that can be mined and taken away. India has provided a wealth of knowledge, from navigation to medicine over the centuries without realising that new knowledge has been created and that it is being passed on for free. It is this lack of assertiveness that yielded a Nobel Prize to Marconi while Jagdish Chandra Bose was portrayed as uninterested in the commercialisation of scientific inventions. Bose probably symbolises Indian scientific temperas Seshabalaya points out, After decades of controversy, the respected international journal Science noted in 1998 that the Coherer used in Marconis transmission was invented and published from Kolkata in British Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1899, by Bose but was never mentioned nor acknowledged.

Indian scientists are being increasingly engaged by multinational corporations to scale up their inventions and patentsthis is yielding spectacular results in IT, engineering and biopharma fields. Of the meagre number of patents filed in India till recently, the majority have been by foreign firms, while most of the rest are by individual Indians. Most big Indian corporates have very little presence in the patenting world. Being among the least patenting countries does not match at all with the demonstrated capabilities that the world seems to now credit us withit reflects continued complacency and a traditional scientific temper. No wonder then that, even now, scientists as well as corporates, have difficulty in recognising intellectual property that they have inherited or created let alone the ability to protect such intellectual property. And, more critically, the ability to commercialise it. We need greater advocacy on intellectual property and a modern scientific temper that encompasses recognition and protection of knowledge. The new wave must be spawned through universities, military organisations, corporates and laboratories. The advances made will be short-lived if they are not aggressively recognised, protected and commercialisedlest history repeats itself.