Innovation, Progress, Ambition and Censorship

Scientific_Progress_Goes_Boink_(Calvin_and_Hobbes)I recently came across two very interesting articles, the ideas of which our policy makers would do well to keep in mind. The first, a broadly focused piece, titled “Between Innovation and Progress is a response by Prof Siva Vaidhyanathan (Univ of Virginia) to the interestingly poised question “Has “innovation” supplanted the idea of progress?“. The second piece, more specific to India, is the opening editorial in the “Science in India” special issue of the highly respected “Nature” science journal, titled “A Nation with Ambition” wherein they’ve said, “India is making great strides in improving its science, but it needs to look carefully at its approach and work with the rest of the world if it is to realize its full potential.” It takes a critical look at India’s staggered approach to improving its scientific research, as well as highlights dangers of ignoring energy, environmental and human rights concerns in the name of development. These two articles, especially when read together, make a compelling case for re-examining India’s approach to development and growth. I’d recommend they be read in full when you get the chance.
[Disclaimer: Long post. Mostly focused on “Innovation” policy rather than strictly “IP”.]

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Between Innovation and Progress

Vaidyanathan makes an interesting distinction between ‘innovation’ and ‘progress’. He says, “Today, those who advocate stronger intellectual property protection do so in the name of “innovation,” as do advocates of weaker intellectual property protection. Neither side argues for progress.” And then he goes on to say,

“Innovation differs from progress in many ways. Innovation lacks a normative claim of significant betterment. It emerges from many small moves rather than grand, top-down schemes. Innovation does not contain an implication of a grand path or a grand design of a knowable future. It makes no claim on the future, except that it always exists in that future, just out of reach of the now. And innovation always seems to come from the distributed commercial world rather than from grand, planned policies engineered from a strong central state. States are now encouraged to innovate rather than solve big problems or correct for market failures. The ultimate goal of innovation seems to be more innovation.”

However, he also pushes back on the idea of “progress”, stating that (for e.g.) it is with visions of progress that the environment has been damaged. “So progress for some, such as an escape from the Malthusian trap of population outstripping food production, could mean devastation for all at some later date as the entire agricultural system collapses like an abandoned coal mine” and thus perhaps it is indeed incremental “small bore” innovations which are preferable over dreams of progress? But this too runs into trouble when we consider some of the largest issues humans are facing today, including climate change, threats to political liberty, disease, rape, racism, etc., since these are certainly problems that it is widely agreed we need to ‘progress’ with and tackle.

Given these mixed shades of grey, I agree with his conclusion that perhaps its something in between, a balance of both, that needs to be focused upon, with the pros and cons of each approach being taken into account. The state can’t be directing resources into determining how each and everything should ‘progress’, but it certainly can and probably should invest some resources into addressing large scale problems which market centric, profit based entities don’t have an incentive to address, such as the examples mentioned above.

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A Nation with Ambition

The second article I’d like to focus on, titled “A nation with ambition,” gives a stark reality check to the Dept of Science of Technology’s claim that ‘India is one of the top ranking countries in basic research’, saying that there is much to be improved if real progress is to be made. In a tightly written article, it points out that though steps have been taken to improve science in India, impressive steps even, there are still a great number of issues that need to be addressed. Aside from directing less than 1% of its GDP towards research and development, a lack of high quality universities and a lack of appropriate jobs have led to a puny scientific workforce in the country, instead incentivizing a ‘brain drain’ to foreign countries.

Another major issue of concern is the bureaucratic nightmare that scientists have to deal with in the country. For example, readers may remember India’s much celebrated “Open Source Drug Discovery” program’s funding being stopped when the Ministry of Science of Technology simply sat on a cabinet note approving their funding for 6 months! Even if one leaves aside the question of ‘sufficiency’ of payment/salaries (which is not something that should be left aside!), it not uncommon to hear of scientists, JRFs and SRFs, nearly having to beg to receive overdue payments from the government. Nature points out that the problem of ‘temporary leadership’ pervades even the prestigious Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

It does discuss some other issues, however I think the biggest point the editorial raises, and one that ties in with concerns raised in the first article, comes in the latter half where it discusses how the present administration’s clamp down on environmental groups should not be seen as ‘progress’, even if it does help scientists achieve their research goals. It says, “India does, however, need to look closely at the changes it is making, because not all are positive. As part of its effort to encourage development, the Modi administration has tried to silence some critics of policies on energy, climate and human rights”. It gives the obvious example of Greenpeace in this regard, and also points out how certain moves are happening quietly so as to avoid negative attention, such as field trials of Genetically Modified Crops proceeding in 8 states in the last year. Oddly enough, as Nature points out, “Details of GEAC meetings that used to be publicly posted on its website now no longer appear online“. While the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee) website does seem to have a lot of information, it seems to have stopped being updated in March, 2013, though meetings have been held since then. This type of secrecy over something that is controversial, to say the least, is certainly problematic.

Nature goes on to say “…scientists in India should not cheer the government’s attempts to suppress dissent, even if it helps them to achieve their research goals. It would be wrong to blame environmental advocates for India’s lengthy and fault-ridden procedures for weighing up the impact of projects. The solution is not to silence discussion or to shrink environmental oversight. Rather, India should make strategic improvements to the environmental evaluation process that balance progress with protection”. 

So there we are. With visions of innovation, progress, ambition and censorship all being bundled up in various permutations and combinations to formulate claims of working in the ‘national interest’. On this note, I’ll leave our readers with a few questions to ponder and maybe throw up more questions / answer  in the comments.

1. In what manner should the Government step in (if at all) to address long standing problems that have trouble being solved through decentralized market-centric formulas — Such as public health issues for example, such as malaria, TB, HIV. Perhaps even cancers, diabetes, heart and lung disorders? Or should we wait till ‘innovation’ or some other organic solution solves this for us — such as waiting for cancer drugs to be developed, and then go off patent, and then eventually become easily accessible?

2. Environmental damage and ‘development’ have had a positive relationship through history. Does this mean environmental damage is acceptable in our quest to develop and grow fast? Or should some responsibility be placed on the Government (or developed countries?) to focus on, and allow only sustainable eco-friendly development. Is there a conflict between “Progress” and “Ambition” here? What about with “innovations”?

3. How does one solve the bureaucratic mess faced by scientists in this country!?

4. And finally, what does one make of the GMO field trials being carried out in relative secrecy? Necessary to “progress”? Necessary to ignore dissent? And if its necessary to ignore dissent to progress, is it really progress??

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2 thoughts on “Innovation, Progress, Ambition and Censorship”

  1. Innovation does not contain an implication of a grand path or a grand design of a knowable future. It makes no claim on the future, except that it always exists in that future, just out of reach of the now. this is a very informative blog!

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