Challenges for creative minds (2008)

Chandigarh ( Education) 10 June 2008

Challenges for creative minds
Rajesh Kochhar

Human beings are endowed with intellect and imagination. Our social and intellectual leadership is also constantly exhorting young people to become innovative. However, we should make a clear distinction between invention and innovation. An invention is the manifestation of a creative mind and is capable of standing on its own even in isolation. It becomes an innovation when it is incorporated into the mainstream and combined with existing knowledge in such a manner that future developments are influenced by this incorporation.

About three years ago, I met a girl student who was doing M. Sc. in life sciences. For her dissertation, she had identified an extract from a plant that had birth control properties. Was she planning to obtain a patent? No. The reason: her guide was very keen to publish a joint paper in an international journal for her own career advancement.

Recently, a doctoral student from Lucknow identified ingredients from a common weed which could be used to store post-harvest grains. Did he realise the significance of his discovery? Yes. Did he plan to file for a patent? No. His guide as well as well-wishers felt that his chances of getting employment would increase, if he published a research paper instead.

Thus, it is meaningless to ask youngsters to be innovative; instead we should be asking ourselves whether we are creating an innovative system or not. If a student or a young scientist comes up with a new idea, do we have a mechanism in place that will beneficially exploit the new idea and reward him? Regrettably, the answer must be an emphatic “no”.

As a society, culture and nation we have attributes that are anti-innovation. We are afraid to take risks and are scared of failures. We are mortified at the thought of being disowned by our peers if we outshine them. We do not want to be thrown out of the group, rather we want to be recognised as marginally superior in the same group. We can’t bring ourselves to say publicly in a loud and clear voice that the horse should rank higher than the ass. We are happy to leave the task of judging to those people who we consider are more powerful than us or culturally and racially superior to us.

It is creditable for the British that they conferred a knighthood on C. V. Raman even before he got the Nobel Prize. On the contrary, India decided to bestow the Bharat Ratna award on Satyajit Ray when he had already received all conceivable honours from across the world. The national honour in fact was dispatched in an indecent haste, so that it reached him before his last breadth.

Today, we are busy patting ourselves on the back that many famous foreign companies have opened their R & D centres in the country. The unadvertised fact remains that these centres are more for partial development than original research. The fact is that the patents are owned by the parent companies, even if Indian names are listed as authors. We are happy to see ourselves as employees rather than as entrepreneurs. We seem to be so content with wages that we do not covet royalties.

The CSIR has instituted invention awards for schoolchildren. My own suspicion is that many of the submitted projects are prepared not by the students themselves but by their elders. What would the award-winning students like to do next? Their answer was revealing—they wanted seats reserved for them in government engineering colleges.

Admittedly, things are changing, even if slowly. India is probably globally far more ambitious now than ever before. Yes, but what are the state institutions doing to advance this culture?

I remember a cartoon showing a mountaineering institute atop a high peak. The institute declared: “We do not offer any courses. Any one who can reach here gets the degree.” We are one better. We create all sorts of obstacles to demoralise and debilitate. Any one who achieves in spite of us is then honoured and felicitated.

Asking fellow human beings to be creative is an insult to human intellect. Our task should be asking ourselves whether we have created a system which can encourage, recognise, and most importantly, benefit from their inventiveness.

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