Five years ago former Indian Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha wanted to make an upbeat announcement as he presented his annual budget. So he asked Raghunath Mashelkar, the director general of the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research, India's premier state scientific research institute, for some guidance. Within an hour, Mashelkar sent Sinha a detailed plan outlining how India could make "world-beating products" by creating partnerships between private companies and government institutions.
Sinha was so impressed that he quickly promised Mashelkar $55 million to start the program. Since then the initiative has matched 65 private companies with 160 government institutions. All told, they're working on 34 projects, mostly in pharmaceuticals and technology. Two, including an anticancer drug, are in advanced stages of research.
Mashelkar's drive has made him one of the leading lights of Indian science. Since he took over CSIR in 1995, the institute -- with 21,000 researchers -- has undergone a dramatic transformation. CSIR last year earned $1.26 billion from doing contract research for the likes of General Electric Co. (GE ). That's double what it earned 10 years ago. And CSIR received 196 patents last year, up from eight in 1995. "India developed nothing in the 20th century," says Mashelkar, 62. "The 21st century has to be different."
Mashelkar knows well the despair of 20th-century India. Born into a poor family, with a widowed mother who worked as a domestic helper, Mashelkar almost dropped out of school because he couldn't scrape together tuition. In the end, he managed, and studied hard -- often outside under the streetlights for lack of adequate electricity at home -- and discovered he had a love of physics. He earned a doctorate from Bombay University and taught for seven years at Britain's University of Salford before returning to India in 1978.
Once back, Mashelkar was dismayed to find an unmotivated scientific community. When he was asked to take the helm at CSIR, he jumped at the chance to help government scientists "export their knowledge" by selling their research to multinationals. And he pushed for reform of India's patent regime, which bore fruit this year with new regulations that finally require Indian companies to honor international patents. Now, multinationals are doing more research and development in India, and Indians have plunged into original research.
These days, Mashelkar is turning his attention to India's traditional products. His labs are developing drugs by merging ayurveda -- the ancient Indian science of holistic healing -- with modern medicine. He expects the effort to help India both by developing valuable patents and by reducing the cost of drug development, which will allow more poor people to benefit from treatments. With the likes of Raghunath Mashelkar taking the lead, India just might see the sort of 21st century this scientist dreams of.
By Manjeet Kripalani