Even as it Dares to Dream, ISRO Needs Clear Metrics of Success

Most space enthusiasts have heard how ‘each dollar of NASA spending is a catalyst for $10 of economic benefit’. But have you ever heard someone say “Each rupee of ISRO spending is a catalyst for Rs.10 of economic benefits”? Wouldn’t it be great to have such numbers on hand when folks question investments in the space sector by India every time a new mission is planned?

The mainstream media is quick to latch on to fun facts like how the Mangalyaan mission’s mileage was cheaper than an auto’s and cost less than the Hollywood film Gravity. A slightly better informed space enthusiast perhaps knows that the Government of India is spending about Rs.7,400 crore during fiscal year 2015-2016 on the space programme. Then again, all these numbers speak about investment and not returns.

From a lay person’s perspective, the only return on investment we hear about is from the commercial arm of ISRO, Antrix Corporation. However, this may not be significant in a true economic sense since Antrix’s profits mostly reflect revenues from foreign sources. It does not provide any financial insight into how space sector investments translates into  socio-economic benefit for the common man. Moreover, Antrix Corp’s profits of $28 million a year generated over the last 5 years through foreign channels is minuscule considering the $300-billion global space economy.

We all appreciate the foundation of ISRO and its service towards the nation. But do we have any established year-on-year socio-economic metrics  that provide insights on how much a rupee invested in the space programme contributes to the socio-economic development of India?

ISRO publishes an Annual Report and an Outcome of Budget annually, which provide information on developments in the space agency, the missions and their expenditure, the major achievements including successes of the satellites and the launch vehicles, etc.

Both these reports provide information on broader issues of socio-economic interest such as space applications, industry and commerce, academic research, reform measures and policy initiatives that have direct impact on the economy. These are areas that definitely have an economic impact in generating jobs, creating technological capacity, development of critical IP, promotion of investment, education, natural resources management, etc.

In fact, the Outcome of Budget report itself suggests that ‘the nature of Outcome of the Space Programmes will be mainly in the form of:

  • Indigenous capability to develop and realise complex space systems such as satellites and launch vehicles,
  • Creating infrastructure in Space by launching and operationalisation of satellites including Space operations, which are utilised by various user agencies for national development,
  • Capacity building in terms of critical technologies and ground technical infrastructure of relevance for future, and
  • Benefits to the society arising from application of space technology/systems such as IRS satellites, INSAT satellites in various fronts.’

Let us simplify these outcomes and take a closer look.

Industry development

ISRO recognises that developing a strong industry ecosystem is important to achieve higher throughput via self reliance. Building capacity in the industry enables exploration of business in commercial space. To encourage industry, ISRO facilitates technology transfer and offers buy back from the licensee. Currently, it seems that ISRO has a technology transfer portal which is mainly driven by its Space Applications Centre (SAC), Ahmedabad. The Annual Report of 2014-2015 provides account of six new technologies licensed to industry for commercialisation and regular  production.

While this is an important enabler in the development of industry, one has to explore ‘spin-off metrics’ on how the industry is taking the technology to the next level in ‘productisation’ and eventual market capitalisation. These are the all-important metrics that space agencies such as  NASA use to sell their budget proposals to their governments. In fact, NASA has tracked its 2000 spin-off technologies since 1978 and has a dedicated portal providing information on these. Clearly, a multiplier effect in economy is only possible when spin-offs take off as commercial products and services. However, this is one area where there is a clear lack of tangible information.

Therefore, as the industry grows, building frameworks and metrics in tracking multiplier effects will give us insight into the industry ecosystem spawned by ISRO’s missions. Such an exercise can start from tracking the 500 companies that currently work for the space programme in the country (most of which have been developed as vendors by ISRO). The critical question here is how many of them still depend solely on ISRO’s orders and how many have ‘productised’ and diversified their offerings. If there are only single vendors for a particular range of products and services, there may be no incentive for the vendor to diversify since business is ensured. Any productisation needs additional expenditure, which the vendor may not be interested in incurring due to the long product development lifecycle and the risk involved. Therefore, tracking of ISRO technology licensees currently under buy-back and publishing such metrics in the public domain will attract further licensees and can create a competitive environment for vendors. This competition will in turn force the vendors to diversify. This way, a bubble that would have arisen from hundreds of SME (small and medium enterprise) vendors depending on ISRO as their sole customer, will be avoided.

Eventually a full scale mapping of how many jobs are being supported via the ecosystem, the value of exports based on the transferred IP, revenues in royalties/taxes and other such data can provide effective benchmarks for investment into space sector in India. In fact, such metrics will help ISRO build a case for the larger budgets its future missions need.

Downstream applications

The foundation of ISRO has been the exploration of space for societal benefits, which is referred to as downstream applications. To this end, ISRO is considered to be one of the leaders in developing space-based societal applications. In the Annual Report, ISRO provides excellent information on how downstream applications of satellites are found in areas such as crop acreage and production estimation, Indian Forest Cover Change Alert System (InFCCAS), inventory and monitoring of glacial lakes/water bodies, agricultural drought vulnerability and many more. However, the report limits itself to use-cases and does not explicitly state the economic benefit brought about in these fields as a consequence of ISRO’s satellites.

Given that ISRO is a Central institution, the applications of space technology shall also depend on the clients’ responsible for using/implementing its products/services. For example, ISRO may only develop a platform for the Ministry of Agriculture to assess the crop output or land fertility. The onus lies with the end-user agency (e.g., the India Meteorological Department uses INSAT imagery) to use such a service effectively in their current schemes for farmers. Therefore, mapping the internal ecosystem of coordination between Central and state authorities and their effectiveness in the utility of space applications needs to be encouraged. Such an internal ecosystem mapping will lead to effective peer-to-peer functioning within the governmental institutions and ensure there are no silos.

One needs to realise that the realm of space applications can also be in commercial downstream applications in areas such as insurance, trade, real estate, oil and gas. They have the potential of taking the indigenous space applications developed in/for India to the world at large, creating a brand for export of space applications, which in turn can generate export earnings. While ISRO itself may not have the bandwidth or focus in servicing such a cause, there is a need for a foundation to be laid towards such a goal. It may be worth taking notice of models such as the Space Applications Catapult and develop a long term strategy for commercial space applications.

Academic research

ISRO encourages academic research via its RESPOND (Research Sponsored) programme, which has been in place since the 1970s. As part of this initiative, premier academic institutions in the country, including the IITs and IISc, receive funding to conduct research related to space science, technology and applications. While there is an account on the domain aspects of the projects and a breakup of them according to the institution being funded, the only result of such research grants provided is their completion status (Annual Report 2014-15 Pg. 89).

Academic research plays a fundamentally important role in developing a strong foundation for patenting and university spin-offs. There is a need to track the outcome of these projects and create innovative ‘models’ apart from commercialisation of technologies developed.

There is a lot that can be learnt from the development of institutions such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology or the Chinese Academy of Sciences and their rise in contributing to their respective national space programmes. Both of these models have developed and matured over decades of engagement and encouragement. They now serve their respective space programmes, taking charge of missions such as the Curiosity rover and in leading policy entrepreneurship, proposing ideas and setting agendas.

RESPOND must help the systemic development of infrastructure in human capital (in both academic staff and student community) and build capacity in Indian academia. There is a need to employ ‘innovative policies’ in creating clusters of excellence in various domains in the space sector, which will eventually contribute to the larger objectives of the space programme.

There is no doubt that ISRO is one of India’s brightest technology jewels and is probably the best performing government department as well. We must celebrate its success in discovering water molecules on the Moon and in making India the only country to successfully reach Mars in its first attempt. However, we are also sitting on a host of possibilities for generating multiplier effects across academia and industry, and benefit the country over a longer timespan, but aren’t taking advantage of them to the fullest.

Imagine a day when our own companies becomes better than the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin, when one of our premier academic institutions leads a robotic mission to an asteroid. There are no second thoughts about the value of such dreams turning into reality, and establishing metrics and frameworks in the Indian space programme may well be the first step towards realising such a dream.

This article first appeared on ‘The Wire