Scientific organizations are a crucial part of national innovation system (NIS). They create a pool of scientific resources who are employed in creating relevant scientific innovations for the nations. These research organizations help in technological advancement of the industry by transferring lab-proven technologies to commercialization. They may be engaged in development of civilian technologies such as agriculture, Food, or IT or defence and related technologies. In developing countries context, these research labs help in accessing and developing trade restricted technologies. They also help increase the nation’s bargaining power at international technology negotiation tables. However, one fundamental flaw with these organizations is that they are designed to fail and falter in long term. Their structures are too bureaucratic, they have low flexibility to hire and disengage talent as the need be, have administrative challenges in matching salary and other benefits to attract the best minds, contribution and engagement with industry is arms-length and have very few sources of revenue generation. Most of the organizations, even those involved in applied science and technology areas, become too dependent on federal grants to survive.
In this background, governments across the world are trying various approaches including privatization to bring in competitiveness and sustainability into these organizations. Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has reduced its total number of labs from 42 to 38. The federal government defence lab establishment, DRDO is leveraging the business expertise of the private sector by partnering with FICCI to market 40 of its most promising dual-use technologies. 26 of its 50 laboratories are participating in the venture, and the DRDO intends to consolidate and reduce its number of 50 laboratories to manageable less than 10 labs. Governments have also pursued complete divestment of R&D labs, for example Centre for development of Telematics (C-DOT) has been acquired by Alcatel.
Privatization enables organizations stemmed in the “science and commercialization push” regime of the past to embrace and deliver the “demand pull” of business engagement with markets and customers today. Privatization can yield several benefits. The elimination of bureaucracy allows selective hiring and retaining of manpower, raising overall productivity. PPPs also enable cost-sharing, while preserving the expertise of technology transfer processes and commercialization techniques. These are areas where the private sector is likely to possess a strategic advantage, both in experience and business acumen.
What are the necessary elements of privatization that set the tone for success? The experiences of other nations in R&D partnerships offer valuable insights. The United Kingdom has been especially successful in privatization of its government-owned R&D entities. Through a structured approach, identified labs are driven to satisfy a set of defined goals, typically consisting of cost recovery through sale of products or services, cost reductions and meeting task deadlines within allocated budgets. Labs are exposed to participating in the market-based tendering process and are gradually moved away from their association with the government. Post privatization, labs continued to receive government orders and obtain funding through statutory government processes for a limited period. The United States has approached privatization of public research labs through direct private participation in R&D consortiums, or by adopting a Government Owned Contractor Operated (GOCO) model. European nations such as Norway, Sweden and Finland have pursued some hybrid models of privatization, mostly preserving government ownership but with significant private sector policy adoptions.
Given this diversity in the approach to privatization, what model has works best for countries like India?. While there are no informed analysis on the approaches the outcomes yet, successes and failures of privatization is salient upon: (1) a clear objective to facilitate the building of necessary capital, after evaluating market potential (2) creation of a collaborative environment conducive to the sharing of technical know-how (3) attraction of the greatest minds with top class talent across the country (4) a smooth technology transfer process across establishments to enable successful commercialization of a product or proprietary knowledge. Certainly, there is no ‘cookie cutter’ approach to be applied to all R&D facilities owned by the government. Each entity should be evaluated for its contribution to the technology pool of the country, and more importantly, assessed on whether conversion to the private sector will possibly make the entity more productive and efficient. An additional factor to consider is the uniqueness of the lab in terms of human resources, processes and infrastructure. A government R&D lab with unique research resources and facilities is likely to have a network of research relationships that extends beyond government agencies. Increasing the competitiveness of the R&D sector will determine whether India can sustain its S&T advantages over time, while catering to our national interests of security and economic development.