Once again, think tank debate from India

13 January 2011

In response to the rich debate that the launch of the Think Tank Initiative generated in India (partially, at least), Suman Bery, director-general of the National Council of Applied Economic Research, and member of India’s Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council has published an article on the need of diversifying think tanks’ support.

The article, in my view, shows two things: first, that there is a debate on the value of policy research in India that I believe explains the country’s rapid economic, scientific and social development; and, second, that research excellence can become a great commodity for a country -and would, in fact, constitute a service export.

Suman Bery also provides insights into the challenges that the NCAER’s business model faces.

[The NCAER was originally] expected to support itself through contract research for at least two reasons: first, because there was no other funding model available and, second, to ensure that its work programme addressed practical problems rather than reflecting the intellectual interests of its staff.

However, this is no longer possible as, according to Mr.Bery:

Output is delayed or suppressed by mid-level bureaucrats, payments are sometimes withheld even for completed work, and different officials or departments hold widely differing attitudes to public disclosure or publication of the contracted work. This is obviously not an environment conducive to professional development.

It is therefore the role of local corporations and foundations to pick up the bill and invest in India’s future. This is a lessons that should be learned across the developing world -and it should not be a difficult one to learn as there are examples of this in every region: Chile in Latin America, South Africa, India in South Asia, and China and Vietnam in East and Southeast Asia have all invested heavily in research.

In Chile in particular, it is interesting to see how the initial investment by foreign foundations (including the Ford Foundation -also the original funder of the NCAER) led to the development of a domestic policy research market; very much like the one that Mr. Bery and Sanjaya Baru are asking for.