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For Indian organisations ready to bite the innovation bullet, the European Union's Framework Programme is a rewarding introduction to collaborative R&D.
Noting the remarkable success of India's generic drug makers, a leading news weekly observed, "They invest in just enough know-how to exploit the rest of the world's discoveries." The same could apply to India's raging success in other areas of science and technology. But while the country is at a stage where it has more to gain from making the most of technology than from the trouble of innovation, it is unclear how long this will hold out. What is needed is a culture that encourages private funding of innovation, putting into motion cycles of innovation that create others.
In fact, the Department of Science and Technology offers a clutch of evolving funding mechanisms to stimulate original R&D work. In spite of that, the Indian government's spending on R&D is paltry. As a percentage of GDP, it is less than that of most developed countries. While India already hosts R&D centres for over 100 multinational firms, these do not have programmes that openly invite collaborative participation even if they do share subject focus.
An alternative would be to explore the public funding schemes of other countries or organisations that are open to participation from the international community. The European Union's Framework Programme (EU FP) is such a plan for collaboration in science and technology with Europe. Since its launch in 1984, it has become the world's single largest publicly funded research programme, offering a single window to collaborate with a continent that continues to be at the forefront of defining and influencing key developments in science and technology. Funding schemes within the Framework Programme (FP) combine private sector investment and national and European public funding, the bulk of which goes into collaborative research. This collaborative angle of the FP supports cooperation between universities, research centres, public bodies and industries across the EU and the world.
The EU and India get together in science and technology
The 2002 EU-India Science and Technology (S&T) Cooperation Agreement sealed a formal collaboration between the EU and India that gave India the tag of an International Cooperation Partner Country. In practical terms, this makes Indian organisations participating in the FP eligible for funding alongside counterparts from EU Member States. Indian FP participation took off with the Sixth Framework Programme (2002-2006) which saw close to 80 Indian organisations in projects across ten thematic areas (see listing in next section).
For a programme that invites international collaboration, it has its support structure in place: a worldwide network of National Contact Points (NCPs) that provides assistance to prospective organisations on aspects of participation in the FP. In India, the role of the NCP has been assigned to the Ministry of Information Technology. The NCP and its network in India, as elsewhere, assists organisations in the process of going about submitting a proposal and forming a consortium, while at times even recommending organisations for inclusion in other project consortia in the process of being formed.
The FP is not without its problems. For one, it is implied that first-timers seek the assistance of experienced consultants, which itself is no guarantee of funding success. Another concern is that the aims of the proposals that third countries submit must be EU-centric, unless otherwise specified. This is only fair since the FP is a programme funded by EU taxpayers. But even while such projects never directly serve the purposes of non-EU regions, nothing rules out their future adaptation to the local needs of third countries by participating organisations. Even so, there are the occasional joint calls that look at concerns beyond the EU. Some FP projects with direct relevance to participating third countries include: BRAHMATWINN and Malaria Age Exposure.
eSangathan, an FP-funded project with Indian participation, which is concluding this year, has been working on issues relating to the inclusion of the ageing workforce in the knowledge society. Due to Europe's concern about a rapidly aging population, the issue of keeping and increasing the percentage of elderly workers in the workforce has become a priority.
Madhukar Joshi, a retired defence scientist and presently a consultant and independent director on the Board of Mahindra Composites, participated in the Indian pilot of the project eSangathan - "I feel the results of eSangathan have a good potential to be taken up not only within the EU, but with the participating Indian company (in this case Mahindra & Mahindra) who can build their own strengths by making use of the opportunity for effective networking and sharing of knowledge. Of course, the real gains of the project will take their own time to gather momentum and snowball." However, Joshi points out that the project could have done with an extended duration as in his opinion, "there was hardly a period of one year within which to establish connectivity, ensure security, train team members and devise metrics to analyse its utilisation and effectiveness".
For Indian organisations like Mahindra & Mahindra, the FP provides a unique experience of working on a highly demanding exercise alongside several partners with distinct competencies. As past participating organisations from India can testify, it involves the sharing of knowledge across the whole consortium and inevitably leads to the creation of new networks and contacts with future research partners in a range of countries. Also, participation in these collaborative projects often leads to commercial payoffs when the innovation hits the market. With its exposure to the concerns of EU society and the advances of its scientific players, participation in the FP projects also serves as an introduction to the EU market.
Just as a commercial engagement with the EU has in recent times served to offset the exposure of India's top-tier IT companies to a sluggish US economy, the EU FP offers an avenue for a research engagement that primes Indian S&T organisations in a culture of convergent innovation.
The FP's Cooperation Programme identifies 10 distinct areas in which Europe hopes to overcome identified challenges. The Programme invites participation from nearly all industry sectors, SMEs, large organisations, private research institutes, universities, public research organizations in the broad areas of:
Of the above, ICT alone claims 64 per cent of the total budget. Challenge areas within the ICT Programme include:
FET (Future and Emerging Technologies) is easily the biggest challenge of all in the FP. FET is a call for strictly visionary, breakthrough ideas that will become the basis for innovations of the future. FET spans the scope of ICT from ultimate miniaturisation in nanoelectronics, to the deployment of the largest distributed systems. It also stretches beyond core ICT and explores the convergence of ICT with other disciplines. The work that has been done here is the kind that you would read about in an issue of New Scientist. Take for instance, the Swarmanoids project. Based on the 'genius of swarms', the main objective of this project is to design and manufacture a robotic system consisting of a swarm of heterogeneous robots (swarmanoids) acting and interacting in 3D space. The scientists will study the behaviour of ants and bees to create these robots that will cooperate to perform a certain task. The Swarmanoids project is a follow-up of the Swarma-bots project, which was also an FP-funded FET project.
Before starting out with framing a proposal under the Framework Programme, it is necessary to sit down and read the Work Programme (available for free download from the official website at http://cordis.europa.eu/fp7/home_en.html). There is a Work Programme for each thematic area and this document covers the state of developments in that particular field. More specifically, the document states the challenges and your proposal must respond specifically to any one (or more) of these stated challenges.
Keep in mind that under the Cooperation Work Programme, it is necessary that your organisation work as part of a consortium with organisations from at least three different EU member states or associated countries. In fact, second to the idea itself, scouting and bagging the right partners with the ideal set of complementary competencies often turns out to be the most challenging stage in pre-submission planning. Other aspects to be aware of, include:
While the success rate for proposals submitted for funding to the (Seventh) EU Framework Programme stands at about 20 per cent, there is something to be said for large public-funded undertakings. They have laid the ground for some defining innovations that have become an indispensable part of everyday living in both developed as well as developing countries. The Internet was an outcome of the US Defense Department-funded research into computing networks. The World Wide Web started out as a project at CERN, the Geneva-based particle physics centre, realised by public money committed by EU member states. It was in 1993 that CERN announced that the WWW would be freely accessible to everyone. By most measures, CERN may also be responsible for a radical improvement on the Internet with 'the grid' that has been set up to store and manage all the data put out by the Large Hadron Collider. So, you never know, the project you are involved in could change the world. It has happened before, after all. That is the power of collaboration.