Science, technology and innovation are well-established and prioritized in developed countries and have often been highlighted through research and the work academic institutions. But on Monday, Thirumalachari Ramasami, former secretary of science and technology for India, spoke about the role of science, technology and innovation policy in developing countries.

Ramasami began his presentation — which was a part of the Ford School of Public Policy’s Policy Talks series — by discussing the perceived roles of science, technology and innovation in developmental economies and national prosperity. He explained that countries that have the greatest need for STI have fewer resources to invest in it, and developments in STI could help the people in developing countries the most.

“The resources available for the developing economies to invest in the STI are not properly matching with the needs that they have,” Ramasami said.

Ramasami stressed technology as both a “global divider and a social leveler.” As a country develops technologically, its people will be better served, but this country will also be set apart from the others.

The main problem faced by developing countries, according to Ramasami, is how to balance the need for STI with the cost of creating it.

“That’s the crucial problem,” Ramasami said. “How much should we invest?”

Ramasami’s claim is that resource-intensive models of STI are not sustainable. These models make it significantly more difficult for developing countries because they have less with which to invest. This is why lower- and middle-income countries tend to invest less in STI and research and development.

However, Ramasami displayed how the geography of STI and R&D investment is changing. The percentage of investments that come from high-income countries is less than it used to be and the percentage of investments of low- and middle-income countries is on the rise. Developing countries in Asia are becoming major investors in R&D, at about 20 percent of total investments.

Thinking about the investments of developing countries is something something that Rackham student Rachel Wallace was looking forward to hearing Ramasami discuss.

“In the sciences we’re often so siloed in our respective disciplines and we don’t really think about the broader context of our work and so for one the STPP (science, technology and public policy) program really opens you up to that,” she said. “But then we still largely think in a U.S. context and bringing Dr. Ramasami in has really expanded us to think in a global context and think about how the work we do impacts not just us in the U.S., but also how it affects social change in other developing places.” 

The next step once a country has decided to invest in STI is to decide whether to let competitiveness or inclusiveness guide the process. A competitive method would involve “leapfrog innovations for market advantages and returns to investors and innovators” while a more inclusive method would involve “incremental and frugal innovations for public and social good,” according to Ramasami.

Ramasami also made a case for collaboration between developing and developed countries. The weaknesses of developing countries — a lack of resources, for example — can be balanced out by developed countries and vice versa. 

“Countries with the ability to value-maximize and resource-optimize seem ideal allies for strategic alliances,” Ramasami said. “Countries with large domestic markets could barter market access for access to innovations. This would call for migration from competition to collaboration.” 

Ramasami used his own country, India, as an example for how lower-middle-income countries can invest in STI and R&D, use an inclusive method, and have the potential for strategic partnership with a more developed country.

India is the only lower-middle-income country to make the list of top 10 R&D-investing countries, at number six. Out of the total 90 percent of investments of low-income countries and lower-middle-income countries, India’s share of investments exceeds 89 percent because many nations cannot afford to expend so much on R&D. 

Ramasami says this is because India uses a bottom-up approach that focuses on helping the people rather than on getting ahead.

“(The) informal and frugal innovation sector of India offers unique strength for leverage in the global un(served) and underserved markets,” Ramasami said.

This is the part of his talk that Public Policy student Sruthi Gaddipati, who is native to India, agreed with most.

“In countries like India, it’s more public investment in research and development and they focus on what’s economically good for the people rather than just innovations for the rich,” Gaddipati said. “The innovations at the grassroot level … I’m from India so I’ve seen that those innovations are there.”

Ramasami’s closing remarks echoed that sentiment.

“It is not about the expenditure; it’s about the value it brings to people.”

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