Misplaced puritanism 3

October 15, 2009

Those who argue that university research will have to become more practical or goal-oriented may find it interesting to look at figures such as those in The Statesman's Yearbook concerning the penetration rate of recent consumer-goods innovations.

Taking India as an example, the following are the 1975 and 2000 figures for the consumer take-up of some selected products and services: telephones (landlines) - 9 million in 1975, 40 million in 2000; televisions - 0.3 million, 84 million; radios - 16 million, 123 million.

For more recent innovations, the growth is much faster. For example, for 1995 and 2005, mobile telephones - 0.14 million, 90 million; personal computers - 1.2 million, 17 million; internet access - 0.5 million, 50 million.

These goods exhibit growth of up to 10,000 per cent, but this cannot continue indefinitely because there is a limit to the number of consumers and households in India. It is a similar story in other developing countries. Existing users may be persuaded to upgrade, but eventually consumer resistance to ever more complex gadgets will emerge. To encourage economic growth, we are likely to need major new consumer goods to emerge in the market within the next few years; they will have to be as innovative as the mobile phone, internet or PC was in the 1980s and 1990s.

Without blue-skies research into some application that has, as yet, no immediate economic impact, new consumer goods may well be stuck in development.

If the absence of such an economic stimulus slows the economy further and research grants dry up even more, we shall truly have painted ourselves into a technological corner.

Hillary Shaw, Senior lecturer, Department of business management and marketing, Harper Adams University College.

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