Image credits: IITMRP

The modern-day research park is envisaged as a space where various stakeholders in the science and technology ecosystem come together to innovate. Diverse functions of Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI), such as academic advancement, economic utility, and social impact, are brought together in the same space. These come with incentive models and infrastructure in place to build industrial research and development units, experimentation and research laboratories, and incubators for commercially viable and socially responsive tech products.

Historically, much has been said about the promise that scientific research parks hold when it comes to creating commercially viable products that are cutting edge. However, there have been growing concerns in recent years that they under-deliver on this promise. India’s foray into the university-based research park space over the last decade makes these considerations central to STI research and policy in the country right now. I posit that it is in India’s interests to draw on the lessons offered by the trajectory that the research park model has taken in other countries, and identify measurable, realistic outcomes towards which it can be deployed.

The IIT Madras Research Park Model

Established in 2010, the IIT Madras Research Park (IITMRP) currently houses more than 70 Research and Development companies, and has incubated more than 200 startups. Some well-known companies that operate R&D units out of the park include BHEL (Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd.), Tata Consultancy Services, Saint Gobain, and Titan Industries. The park received a large chunk of its initial capital investment from the MHRD in the form of a loan. Later, Rs 137 crore were invested in it by the government in the form of grants-in-aid. It is important to note that a lack of publicly available data that can measure its efficacy and functioning makes it difficult to assess whether or not these investments have yielded desirable economic and STI-oriented outcomes so far.

Plans to recreate the IITMRP model in eight other institutions — IIT Kharagpur, IIT Bombay, IIT Gandhinagar, IIT Delhi, IIT Guwahati, IIT Kanpur, IIT Hyderabad, and IISc Bangalore — have been underway over the last few years. The parks at IIT Kharagpur and IIT Bombay have been budgeted to cost Rs 100 crore each, while Rs 90 crore is allocated to the IIT Gandhinagar Research Park, and Rs 75 crore to the remaining parks. With the high level of investment being made into these parks, their ability to provide returns on this investment by way of fostering tangible economic growth and development in the future is a key indicator upon which their success hinges.

Perspectives from around the Globe

The research park model is not a particularly novel one. It has been deployed to different ends in countries including the United States, Japan, and Australia over the last few decades. Many of these parks focus on accelerating the process of synthesising research insights into technologically advanced, commercially viable products.

The Research Triangle Park (RTP), located in North Carolina, USA, exemplifies this form of development. It was created in 1959, in the middle of a triangle between University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Duke University, Durham; and North Carolina State University, Raleigh. The Research Triangle Regional Partnership, responsible for running the park, is an economic development organisation that brings together 12 counties in Central North Carolina, and connects businesses to governments, other businesses, and economic development organisations. At present, RTP stretches across 7,000 acres and is home to more than 250 companies. It employs more than 50,000 people. It also boasts of a thriving ecosystem for startups — the combined value of venture capital deals in the Research Triangle Region over the last decade was $5.9 billion.

While the economic success of the RTP is documented with more precision and vigour than has been done for IITMRP so far, it is widely considered an exception as far as the contributions of scientific research parks to economic growth are concerned. For the most part, the last two decades have seen much scrutiny over whether or not scientific research parks are able to stimulate regional economic growth and justify the high amounts of public and private investment they demand. 

Challenges Faced by the Research Park Model

India’s move to establish more university-based scientific research parks comes at a time when their economic utility is being re-examined and re-evaluated in many parts of the world. This section looks at three aspects of India’s STI landscape to question how research parks can be best deployed towards maximising utility.

The first thing to consider is the context of R&D funding. At 0.7%, India’s Gross Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD) is a tiny fraction of its GDP. Compared to other well-performing economies’ average of 2%, this figure leaves much to be desired. While 56% of all R&D spending in India is taken up by the government, the figure averages at 20% more for countries such as the USA, China, Japan, Germany, and Canada. Then, the channeling of more public funding into STI research and development seems central to making India a competitive player in scientific R&D at the global level. At the same time, one would be remiss not to consider the need for investing public resources in transparent, goal-oriented ways. In order to justify committing taxpayer-generated resources towards any project, the government must account for how exactly these resources will be utilised, and map out the returns that will be made on them. Thus far, it remains to be seen how effectively these resources are being channeled when it comes to research parks, and uncertainty surrounds their economic efficiency.

Second, and relatedly, there appears to be a lack of consensus around India’s areas of research priority in the STI domain. Different websites, portals, and policy documents on the subject offer up fairly different lists of priority STEM subfields, ranging from artificial intelligence to petrochemical engineering to stem cell biology. At present, most research parks that are already operational, including IITMRP, house R&D facilities and incubators for a vast variety of these subfields. One way to interpret this is to see it as a market-first approach — as opposed to determining research priorities in a top-down fashion, these research parks can be imagined as spaces that interact with the private sector on its own terms, allowing for its measures of market trends and commercial viability to steer them directionally. On the other hand, the lack of coherent direction and mappable research goals from the government’s end, evident from these vastly different lists of research priority areas, is also a cause for concern, especially in light of the release of the otherwise fairly comprehensive draft Science and Technology Innovation Policy (STIP) in December 2020. In the absence of clear research imperatives, any potential that research parks hold is arguably bound to go to waste.

Finally, it is important to consider the implications of rapidly growing digitalisation on the strategic value of research parks. The move towards entire workplaces and economic processes going digital has been hastened significantly by the COVID-19 pandemic. Up to this point, the utility of research parks has by and large been defined in terms of their unique ability to bring moving parts of STEM R&D processes into geographical proximity with one another. If digital modes of work end up becoming the norm, research parks would lose a central part of their allure.  Housing different forms of R&D in the same space in order to foster collaboration would no longer remain a necessity or pose a unique advantage if digital spaces become the primary mode of intra and inter-sector collaboration, as they increasingly seem to be. As with other aspects discussed above, this indicates the need to look critically at models for university-based research parks, and sharpen focus through considerations around utility, viability, and scalability potential.

Re-evaluating the Promise of Research Parks

Given the reasonable doubts that have emerged over the economic potential of research parks, I suggest that there is a need to re-evaluate what they can meaningfully achieve. India’s adoption of the university-based scientific research park model holds promise in at least two distinct areas— its connection with the startup ecosystem, and its capacity to mobilise social impact. While both of these things also fall within the broader ambit of economic potential, they represent a departure from the model’s success being measured through parameters like aggregate employment generation and capital growth. 

As potential hubs of startup incubation, research parks align with the current government’s flagship economic initiatives Aatma Nirbhar Bharat and Startup India. At the same time, they could also be reimagined as spaces where the social impact of STI could be harnessed. Leveraging the potential of technology for social good is a 21st-century imperative that is becoming increasingly important as the world tackles massive challenges such as climate change, poverty, and other forms of structural inequality. The antecedents of this can already be seen in green technology and renewable energy being areas of research priority for multiple research parks in the country. IITMRP recently announced a partnership with University of St. Andrews that will work towards the goal of India being 100% fuelled by renewable energy sources over the upcoming decades. In a future where research parks were to take up endeavours such as promoting women and gender minority participation in STEM, addressing rural development through technology, or creating multi-stakeholder agendas around areas of STI research priority, there would be a stronger case to make for the high amounts of public funding that they demand.

As plans around them stand, India’s research parks seem to be promising many different kinds of growth. Their ability to deliver on these promises remains to be seen, and must be a subject of every taxpayer’s critical scrutiny over the next few years.

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Post Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.