ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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R&D Deception and Media’s Role

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A news item in a leading English daily late last year had the eye-catching headline, “SAP to Set Up Another R&D Campus in Bengaluru” (1 December 2018). Unfortunately, this article and many others like it that regularly grace the pages of Indian newspapers, are quite misleading. As a matter of fact, most multinational companies (including European ones like SAP) do no research to speak of in India. (A few United States [US]) companies do, but not all. For instance, Google does no research in India though it is headed by an Indian American.) These companies also have zero involvement with the research ecosystem (academia, government research and development [R&D] labs, etc) in India. Not too long ago, the director of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi offered the candid opinion, “When I do research, I find it easier to work with Intel in the US or Portland, than the Bengaluru branch. The kind of work Intel is doing in Bengaluru is not next-generation technology.”

Many industry research labs have also been shuttered in the past decade or so: HP Labs, GM India Science Labs, Infosys Labs, Bell Labs India, EMC, etc, have all been wound up. Unfortunately, of course, the same disdain for research is largely true of Indian companies (including information technology [IT] companies) as well. One would be hard-pressed to name any Indian IT company that produces any world-class product through its own research, or which devotes more money to R&D than to public relations and marketing.

There have also been quite a few questionable publicity stunts. A few years ago, Mahindra and Mahindra put up a big public relations campaign, accompanied by uncritical laudatory reporting in the Indian media, for what was called, in grandiose fashion, as the “Rise Prize.” This came with the catchy slogan “Spark the Rise” and its own website (http://www.sparktherise.com/). The prize supposedly on offer was a million dollars in all, with a part of it for anyone who developed an autonomous car, and the rest for a marketable solar oven. This was, of course, a rather ludicrous bombast. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about technology research knows that such sophisticated products cannot be built cheaply, and a million dollars, though a big amount at a personal level, is really a minute fraction of what the research to come up with these would cost. It is hardly a coincidence that companies working on autonomous vehicles are spending billions of dollars on developing them.

Companies routinely rename what should honestly be called their development centres (which do back-office work or warm-body jobs, and routine software development or engineering work) as R&D centres. This happens because of tax incentives (such as the 200% tax reduction in the past on research expenditure that is fortunately being phased out) and the opportunity to gain cheap publicity. News articles like the one in the English daily mentioned earlier are brought out due to the Indian media’s lack of critical insight and professional standards, and serve to further the fiction and mislead the public as well as policymakers.

One only wishes that the media would stop copy-pasting from companies’ press releases, and would do more actual investigation and insightful reporting in the matter of private sector R&D in India. They are doing no service to India by becoming unwitting partners to the deceptions being perpetrated by false claims of R&D investments.

Shrisha Rao

Bengaluru

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