Creating the Medici Effect in India
Jan 20 2014
The role of the university in recent times has expanded much beyond the traditional job of teaching and training. Across the world, universities have survived as oldest institutions not just because they continue to produce relevant social ‘goods’ for the masses, but are probably the only organised mechanism that takes human race forward towards progress. Thus, bringing various colleges under the umbrella of one university has to do with standardisation and accreditation, but also to facilitate cross-breeding of ideas and bringing about new innovations at the intersections of disciplines (also called the Medici Effect).
At present, in India, we have more than 500 universities, 15 IITs, 13 IIMs, and thousands of engineering colleges, yet none of these institutions feature in the top 200 of quacquarelli symonds (QS) rankings — the most reputed global rankings of institutes for higher education. There must be some relevant structural, systemic, and cultural reasons why we are the only country, even among the BRICS nations, to have this dubious distinction. Unfortunately, most of the effort of our faculty — that too the younger ones — is spent in teaching when they should be in the labs or fields. There must be a real-time database on faculty undertaking cross-disciplinary research, and another dataset on time spent in labs on experimentations.
A new paradigm in research is shaping the world. If the 18th and 19th centuries were the era of physics and chemistry and 20th century of biology, a confluence of technologies, convergences of industries, and collaboration of firms is raising newer ecologies and sub-ecologies. The world of secretive soloists and single labs is gone — now is a world of interdependence, global collaboration and quick sharing (publishing).
Cloud computing is an amalgamation of at least three disciplines, viz. maths, computers hardware and coding. Similarly, genomics is a multi-disciplinary area of work requiring interactions between medical professionals, algorithm writers, biologists, geneticists, and technologists. (This also raises the question as to why we need a separate medical council of India for regulating medicine education). Business data analytics combines the skills of management experts (industry practitioners), computer specialists and mathematicians, to name a few. One can name many emerging disciplines (robotics, 3D printing, renewable energy, mobile internet, nano-technology), which are shaking the world of production, design, and disease management. Their ubiquity and proliferation across industries mean that these newer technologies themselves have become platforms for major and radical innovations like stem cell research, memory-retaining glass, and advanced ‘wonder’ materials. In nutshell, path-breaking work now is almost impossible without interdisciplinary collaboration.
In The Wisdom of the Sands, author Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “As for future, your task is not to foresee but to enable it”. This should be the mindset with which faculty need to approach the class or enter labs. We can learn from the biggest universities and research labs in and around Chicago that are collaborating and creating the Medici Effect. Through an initial fund set up by the Searle group, a Chicago biomedical consortium was set up that mandated funded partnerships. A simple effort converted the competing universities and institutions into launching joint projects. As one scientist there mentioned, “The old philosophy was ‘the other guy is beating us’, now we are all cheer-leaders, taking pride in each-others’ success”. Once the ball was set rolling, funding and projects and other kind of help started pouring in. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) helped create the critical mass for large-scale research. The NSF awarded $30 million to improve the TeraGrid — a distributed network of 11 supercomputers.
We are now in a complex world and the old structures and mindsets may not work. Innovation, freedom, and entrepreneurship are now integral to social and bureaucratic functioning. One of the ways to rapidly change to the new world could to corporatise the universities — let them own and market their patents and other intellectual property. Another way could be to create spin-offs of marketable innovations as Japan did in the early 2000. A bio-ventures industry flourishes there while we have almost none here.
The country can reap demographic dividend only when we know where we want to reach and in what timeframe. Rest becomes a job of implementation and execution.
(The writer is a professor of strategy and corporate governance, IIM-Lucknow)