The research practices within governments have changed significantly since the first half of the 20th century. World-War-I–era technology development was an intensely inward-looking affair: progress pivoted on each country incubating the necessary expertise for its own immediate purposes. The current mode, though, is of a rich matrix of private enterprises offering their wares to whichever community needs them.
Many countries operate their science and technology research laboratories either directly under the oversight of a government agency or as a partnership between the central authority responsible for scientific affairs (usually a ministry) and academic institutes or semi-private companies.
In most cases, the research body is very much accountable to the government in its operations and what it is able to do with the research obtained from its labs. But once patents are legally in place, research can be corporatised to supplement income for the government—especially in areas unrelated to national defence.
For example, in India, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was established in 1942 to commission and direct research in the country. The majority of its funding comes from the Ministry of Science and Technology, and it has an operating budget of INR 1750 crores (US$3 billion) that is disbursed across the 39 labs and 50 field stations under its purview in the country.
The CSIR truly came into its own in the 2000s, when its newly-appointed Director-General, Ramesh Mashelkar, reformed it from being a typical state-run enterprise to a much more fluid organisation that imported many of its core values from the private sector. The CSIR is now tightly end-user focused and its outcomes are quantified and evaluated on a quarterly basis. Not only does the body actively register patents and sell its technology to international entities, but Mashelkar has worked closely with other countries, such as Indonesia, in helping them restructure their national research and development models to conform more closely to the ‘new way of doing things’.
For smaller countries, state-funded research on a large scale is often impractical and sometimes prohibitive, in any case. Purchasing or co-developing the right solution with the industry to solve a particular problem is more par for the course. In a recent interview with FutureGov, Dr Lee Fook Kay, the Chief Science and Technology Officer at Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs, talked about “inculcating a strong scientific culture into how we appraise technology”.
Dr Lee gave the example of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in the country evaluating DNA kits—while there are a lot of DNA kits on the market, he explained, to evaluate “which technology meets their (the CID’s) needs best, they need to have the scientific training”.
What is needed, therefore, in many modern science and technology agencies within the state is the expertise to precisely gauge and effectively deploy technology, and not necessarily all the expertise and paraphernalia associated with ground-up development in every potentially-useful sector. It would result in a major dilution of resources; the weight of ‘reinventing the wheel’ would be too heavy a burden to bear for the leaner budgets of most post-2008 governments.
The vendor community is vibrant in its depth and diversity. With watertight laws, a sound process, and—as Dr Lee mentions—a robust scientific culture, business-savvy governments are now in a good place to benefit from the best of the public and private worlds.
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