Rethinking innovation policy in India: amplifying spillovers through contracting-out

by R. A. Mashelkar, Ajay Shah, Susan Thomas. Independent India valued science and rationalism at an early stage of social and economic development. The objectives of building the scientific temper and harnessing the power of science and technology were clearly articulated, for example, in the 1958 Science Policy Resolution . These objectives pertain to improvements in the people, in the society.  The practical aspects of government expenditures on innovation, and the construction of organisations doing frontiers work, emphasised government organisations. The government used taxpayer resources, built science organisations, hired scientists as civil servants, and developed capabilities within these organisations In a new paper, Rethinking innovation policy in India: amplifying spillovers through contracting-out , we reopen the objectives of innovation policy in India, applying modern knowledge of public economics and public administration to obtain fresh insights. We start at the foundations of innovation policy, with new clarity on the questions of why (what motivates state intervention in innovation?), what (in what areas should government intervention into innovation take place in India?), how (what mechanisms should be used when spending public money?) and how much (at what point do the incremental gains to society equal the incremental costs). The market failure that motivates this field is the problem of spillovers, where the full gains from innovative activity by one person are not captured by her, leading to systematic under-investment into innovation by her. There is a case for public expenditure, where taxpayer resources are spent on innovation, but the expenditure needs to be done in a way that induces spillovers into the society. We undertake four detailed case studies: the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), innovation policy in French defence procurement and CSIR’s New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI). In each case, we understand how tradeoffs are made between `make’ and `buy’. Make involves building state organisations, scientists as civil servants. Buy involves contracting-out innovative activities into the society, to private firms and particularly to high-spillover sites of universities and research organisations (whether public or private). While doing more contracting-out is appealing from the first principles of innovation policy — the purpose is to obtain greater capabilities in the society, not in the state — there are many difficulties in implementation. We suggest the strategy for implementation which involves (a) Changes to the GFR; (b) Changes to the founding documents of government innovation organisations; (c) Changes to procurement rules and internal process manuals; (d) Resource planning for a gentle reform trajectory; and (e) a sketch of the required project planning. Many elements of innovation policy in India have been moving in a similar direction. Three recent initiatives should be pointed out. The Union Interim Budget of 2024-25 envisages a Rs.1 trillion fund that would be channeled to research and innovation in the private sector. The `National Research Foundation’ has been setup with a law that came to force on 5 February 2024. The K. Vijay Raghavan Committee report, submitted in early January 2024, has important ideas on improving the working of DRDO. There is a harmony between the philosophy of these three moves, and the ideas of this paper. Conversely, the detailed work of this paper can be useful in translating these initiatives from concept to implementation. R. A. Mashelkar, FRS, was Director General of CSIR. Ajay Shah and Susan Thomas are co-founders of XKDR Forum.