Is CSIR India’s ‘patent factory’?

In last few years, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) unlike other government institutions changed its policy and initiatives to improve its image. It was due to its director general RA Mashelkar’s personal initiatives and wonderful leadership from the front. Its 38 laboratories have changed from patent-poor to patent-prolific. CSIR could get 543 US patents in the last four years, more than the number granted to its counterparts in Japan, Germany and France combined. This is something unique and happened for the first time. It would have got some special laurels from the scientific community, in particular.

Naturally, it has happened at some cost. According to CSIR itself, on an average, each US patent costs Rs 6 lakh to obtain and Rs 6.3 lakh to maintain over 20 years. And the total amount may come to Rs 18-20 crore. Though it can also mean revenue in return. This year, CSIR expects returns exceeding Rs 25 crore from some of its licensed US patents. The revenues will certainly depend on the commercial utility of the patents and vary in amount from year to year.

As reported, Indian scientists are divided on the issue of public spending on obtaining US patents. Some, such as Knowledge Commission vice-president PM Bhargava and former IIT Kharagpur director Professor KL Chopra have apprehensions about the exploitability of the inventions and want to have stringent screening. While some are more critical, “CSIR is wasting taxpayers’ money. I myself hold US patents and know it means nothing.” Is it not a little too harsh a comment for a country that wishes to be globally recognized for its R&D capability? With most of the scientific researches going on in government laboratories, naturally CSIR is the institution to provide the lead.

CSIR director general RA Mashelkar and many others think the criticism is unjustified. US patents are important as a key technology achievement index of the UNDP. On allegations, he argues: “When people call us a patent factory, they should see that CSIR with 20,000 people and 38 labs is only producing about a 100 patents a year. The University of California alone produces over 400 a year.” Scientific Advisory Council chairperson CNR Rao justifies CSIR initiative to take international patents and wants India to have a target of “at least a couple of thousand patents a year”. National Knowledge Commission chairperson Sam Pitroda thinks patents’ initiatives as a correct to be in ‘the global game’.

Why should the scientists of repute start this unnecessary dispute and bickering on so trivial an issue? Is the cost of patents involved are so high that the country can’t afford? How much are wasted in so many unnecessary procedural formalities and unnecessary staffing? Why is China spending billions of dollars to get its universities in the world’s best university list?

There is nothing wrong in spending for getting American patents, if it is being done after proper screening. Papers published in world-class research magazines and patents are certainly the recognized index of the R&D prowess. I do also believe that other R&D institutions including IITs and even DRDO with huge drain on national exchequer must also have some similar achievement index to show that some real good research works are being done there. It will make them a little more accountable and respectable to the nation and the people.

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