Biotechnology in Bangalore: The politics of innovation

Biotechnology in Bangalore: The politics of innovation

Biotechnology in Bangalore: The politics of innovation

Bangalore in Karnataka, southern India, has become an iconic technology capital, fuelled by massively successful software and technology industries. Many people see it as a taste of Asia’s future, where the old concerns of ‘development’ are banished by a high-growth knowledge economy.

Despitethe impressive growth of the technology sector and knowledge economy ofBangalore, rural areas are suffering an extended and painful agrarian crisisthat is pushing thousands of poor, indebted farmers to commit suicide. In thecity, inequality continues to worsen with rapid urban growth. Biotechnology isseen as the obvious successor to information technology. This sector is growingand high-profile events and conferences in Bangalore have added to thebiotechnology hype.

Threeclassic models are touted as critical for innovation. All apply to Bangalore:

  • The excellence model – top qualityacademic institutions sit nearby industry, with benefits flowing between them.In Bangalore, the Indian Institute of Science and National Centre forBiological Sciences are world-class institutions. Bangalore’s colleges of engineeringand science produce highly trained students.
  • The hub and cluster model – linkingdifferent components of an innovation chain. Recent investment in transporthighways, a new ‘biotechnology corridor’ and the establishment of a biotechpark create a hi-tech cluster in Bangalore.
  • The public private partnership model –links between the public and private sectors drive innovation.The Vision Group, which drove Karnataka’s state policy on biotechnology,involved high-level public and private sector players. State funds backedinfrastructure development, while private finance flowed to start-up companies.

Researchfrom the Institute of Development Studies in the UK looked at eight Bangalore-basedresearch and development establishments, asking how they matched up toinnovation models and what agricultural biotechnologies they were actually producing.The findings included:

  • Only one company, US-based multinationalMonsanto, had a product available on the local market: genetically-modifiedcotton - produced elsewhere and adapted for the Indian market.
  • Other companies were makingmoney and a stock market launch generated millions. But their incomes camemostly from contract research for US and European clients, using thelow-risk, fast-return out-sourcing model that companies knew andpreferred.
  • There was no substantialevidence of new products being developed for Indian settings and localneeds.
  • The extensive publicresearch capacity in Bangalore was not being mobilised fordevelopment-oriented innovation. High quality science institutions continueto seek publication in prestigious international journals rather thanproducing new technologies for mass use.
  • While public-privatepartnership is the mantra, this is mostly one-way traffic: the privatesector (often Monsanto) contracts under-funded university scientists to docompany work in university labs.

Behindthe hype about biotechnology, a more mundane story is unfolding: jobs for a fewwell- qualified professionals, a few new products and big gains from risingshare prices for the lucky few.

Technologyand innovation are equated with development. Anyone who questions this isdismissed as opposing progress. This policy lock-in benefits ascience-business elite, who have become increasingly influential inpolitical processes. Backlashes do occur. Rural farmers’ organisations have challengedcommitments to genetically modified crops, for example. But such challenges arerare and easily dismissed.

Asscience and technology become ever more central to development, the politics ofinnovation pathways needs to be central to policy debate. With Bangalore seenas a model for the future, we must ask deep questions about the choices beingmade. These are choices about values, politics and outcomes – especially forpoor people.

 

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