India's finest, for hire

Les Schaffer godzilla at
Wed Oct 18 16:59:14 MDT 2000

Interesting article in the latest issue of Nature magazine ...

les schaffer

Nature 407, 830 - 831 (2000) © Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

India's finest, for hire


K. S. Jayaraman writes for Nature from New Delhi.

By collaborating with western companies, are India's research
institutes consolidating their positions or allowing their young
researchers to be exploited as a cheap scientific labour force?
K. S. Jayaraman investigates

On entering the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in
New Delhi, the very first building you see carries the logo of
IBM. When IBM's New Delhi lab was set up three years ago, Paul Horn,
the company's worldwide head of research, promised that this lab would
"become a world class facility", with scientists from IBM and the IIT
collaborating to develop "software solutions for challenging problems
in information technology".

But since then, the IIT faculty's relationship with IBM has gone sour
- as it has with several other western companies that have established
a presence on the IIT's campus. In fact, last November, the majority
of the IIT's faculty backed a resolution to prevent commercial
organizations opening premises within the institute. The resolution
also said: "Steps should be initiated to nullify the existing

This vote reflects a wider concern felt by many Indian academics. They
believe that India's national research priorities are being distorted
by links with western industry. And they are particularly worried that
the country's highly qualified young researchers - its most valuable
scientific asset - are being used as cheap labour to address the
problems of multinational companies, rather than the issues facing
India's developing economy.

Given its high profile, IBM's New Delhi lab has been a particular
focus for criticism.  Many IIT faculty members complain that the
company has failed to fulfil its promises of a mutually rewarding,
collaborative relationship. "IBM set up shop here because the IIT is
the best address in the city and its students are available to provide
cheap labour," claims H. B. Mathur, a former professor of mechanical
engineering at the institute. "IBM can stay in the campus provided
they want to work with us," adds J. S. Rao, another mechanical
engineer. Rao felt so strongly about the issue that in July 1999 he
resigned as faculty representative on the IIT's board of
governors. "If they want to remain an island, they can step outside,"
Rao says.

Corporate collaborations
Links between Indian research labs and western companies began to grow
in the early 1990s. The trigger was a government policy putting
pressure on research institutions to generate their own money to
supplement public funding.  Multinational companies were only too
happy to oblige, paying to set up new facilities on campuses or
donating equipment to individual labs. The lure, in part, was India's
able and motivated, yet relatively cheap, scientific labour
force. Just as India's software engineers are in demand, either
working in India on contract to western companies, or being lured to
work in high-tech centres such as Silicon Valley, its brightest young
scientists are attractive to western companies.


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