Business professor, South Asia specialist explains how relatively poor India with underfunded R&D became 1st to land rover on unexplored part of moon
By Clea Simon
It was a ground-breaking achievement on several levels. Last week India became only the fourth nation to land successfully on the moon and the first to land and deploy a rover in the southern polar region, an area of keen scientific interest. Tarun Khanna, director of the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute and Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School, has been studying and writing about India’s space program for many years and is part of a space research working group led Professor Matt Weinzierl at the Business School. The Gazette spoke with Khanna, who has been working on entrepreneurial solutions to the problems of economic development for decades.
Q&A with Tarun Khanna
HARVARD GAZETTE: Why is the Chandrayaan-3 landing important?
KHANNA: It’s a part of the moon that has never been landed upon, and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) did it. There have been a bunch of agencies, the Russians, the Chinese, NASA at one point, who’ve all been interested in going there. And prior studies have revealed frozen water in that part of the moon.
It’s been really inaccessible, but as you can imagine, if there is water in quantity there, then it opens up the possibilities for eventually a habitat of some sort, maybe breaking down the water into its constituent elements so you would have energy as well. That’s very attractive. There was an attempt by Russia to land just a few days ago, and it failed in the last stages. So this is a great science and engineering step forward.
GAZETTE: What does this moon landing mean to India?
KHANNA: The country is celebrating, and the euphoria that people are feeling is cumulative. The moon landing is a culmination of decades of work by Indian scientists. Beyond space, India has become one of the largest producers of vaccines, which of course was relevant during the pandemic and is likely going to be more and more relevant as we have more of those episodes in the future.
Similarly, India is a pioneer in the creation of so-called digital public goods, building on its universal biometric identity initiative, which no nation has been able to replicate. To me, as an immigrant in the 1980s in America, physical highways and public libraries seemed to me the greatest form of public goods. Now digital public goods are the modern equivalent.
Do you know that India uses more data per capita than any country in the world? If you added the per capita data consumption of the U.S. and China, India’s would exceed it substantially. This is because data use is the cheapest in India partly because of the system’s technological underpinnings.
We still are a very poor country. It’s encouraging nonetheless that several scientists across several domains have been able to compete and collaborate with the best. This is going to be really important as we confront adapting to climate change, an area the Mittal Institute is exploring in a deep way with the Salata Institute.
GAZETTE: What challenges did India face compared to programs like NASA or SpaceX?
KHANNA: I would say that within much more severe budget constraints, India’s ISRO has just done an unbelievable job. But what’s interesting is that the underlying attitudes are not that different — a lot of experimentation — from those that we’ve seen in the NASA and SpaceX ecosystem in the last decade but with probably a fraction of the toys [Elon] Musk has to experiment with.
GAZETTE: How is that?
KHANNA: With SpaceX, Musk has been experimenting with launching satellites and other space-related work that NASA allows. And ISRO has been doing the same thing, experimenting within its own constraints, including severe financial constraints. In that sense, progress is driven by the same underlying process.
There is one huge difference that is worth pointing out: NASA and SpaceX have the benefit of tens of billions of cumulative R&D spent in the U.S. in the last couple of decades. And that is just a corpus of knowledge that is the ultimate public good, right? Anybody can access it in theory.
India does not invest adequately in R&D, sadly. I’ve written about the importance of R&D to economic development. India spends less than 1 percent of GDP on R&D, a ratio that has, in fact, been declining over time. In contrast, the U.S. allocates 2.5 percent of GDP to R&D.
GAZETTE: This fall you’ll once again be teaching the long-running Gen Ed course “Contemporary Developing Countries: Entrepreneurial Solutions to Intractable Problems” as well as a first-time HBS course, “Managing and Investing in a Fast-Growing Emerging Market: India.” Will you be incorporating this breakthrough in them?
KHANNA: Both the courses are about creativity and entrepreneurship and diverse perspectives coming together to solve complicated, intractable problems of development.
The Gen Ed course is taught with a medical doctor, an architect, an engineer, and an artist. We get about 100 students from many different countries. The whole spirit of it is recognizing that if you want to accomplish something that has proven to be extremely difficult in the past in developing countries, it’s because there is typically no silver-bullet solution. At the end of the day, it’s going to require different perspectives coming together and brainstorming and then experimenting your way to a solution. We try to walk the talk, so to speak, rather than me coming in with one set of skills but also cognitive biases.
I have managed over the years to recruit like-minded faculty from all corners of the University. We collaborate to encourage our students to apply this mélange to problems they select to tackle in teams. And we all come together in an intellectual jam session, like a jazz festival of ideas.
The other course is a new one, an elective curriculum course at the Business School. It’s focused on India, and the lens is one of creativity and entrepreneurship. India is poised in the near future to become the third-largest economy in the world, and our M.B.A. students feel they need exposure to it.
Going back to my graduate years at Harvard, there were many valuable classes on economic development — including in economics, in political science, at HKS — but what I always missed was an individual-centric point of view. In my classes now, I put the student intellectually on the spot and encourage each to think proactively of how they can be problem-solvers living in constraints, rather than more passive recipients of policy largess. Those of us with the privilege of education, we owe this to the world.