We Need More ISROs and More Government-Led Strategic R&D Investments

India’s goal should be to create more ISRO-like, R&D-driven organisations in other areas that develop important strategic and commercial products.

The PSLV C35 takes from from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, on September 26, 2016. Credit: ISRO

The PSLV C35 takes from from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, on September 26, 2016. Credit: ISRO

Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, the former Chairman of ISRO, spoke at the 5th Foundation Day of Pune International Centre in Pune this Saturday. It was an excellent lecture, covering many details around ISRO’s great progress and achievements, and future plans. ISRO has made tremendous strides over the past four decades in R&D led innovation and has succeeded in developing key technologies such as the cryogenic propulsion system. One thing that stood out in my mind during the lecture was the extent of private industry participation in R&D and manufacturing, and the manufacturing ecosystem.

Radhakrishnan mentioned that 80% of the value addition of ISRO’s workhorse launcher, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) comes from private industry. (Note: 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 over 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% number was indeed surprising. It was great to note the private sector’s role in India’s space program. 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, NASA has played a key role in driving the development of a similar ecosystem in US. The advances made in space tech 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% of its GDP in R&D. US invests 2.7% (highest in absolute terms, given their GDP). China invests 2.1%. India invests only 0.85%.

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 U.S. Department of Energy, where Bill 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 U.S. companies such as Google, Apple, etc., what is often ignored is the huge investments made by the US government in this area. NASA and U.S. Department of Defence 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 U.S., 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 (and a topic of a separate article).

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. (This was one process related question, I wanted to ask Dr. Radhakrishnan yesterday, but we were short on time at the lecture).

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 is a great example. ISRO was able to deliver this incredible project for a fraction of the cost (around 10%) of what NASA spent on a similar project.

India’s goal should be to create more ISRO-like, R&D-driven organisations in other areas 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 tech capabilities), the private sector can also play an upfront role in collaborating on new technology development.

This article originally appeared on Amit Paranjape’s blog. It has been reproduced here with permission.