As nations move from an industrial model of production to a knowledge-based economy, the complex dynamics of innovation becomes more and more apparent.

Aparna Sharma, our next pathbreaker, Economist at India Development Foundation (IDF), conducts research on the economics of innovation, technology transfer, internationalisation of R&D activities, patents and public policy.

Aparna talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her PhD on the potential direct and indirect effects of innovation on the economy and the need for government intervention to bring about social and structural change to spur growth.

For students, innovation Economics is a new branch of economics that aims to understand where new ideas come from, and how new policies can be put forward to encourage the development of new ways of thinking !

Aparna, Your background?

I was born and brought up in Jaipur, Rajasthan. I studied in Kendriya Vidyalaya as my father was in central government service. I was an above average student in school and wanted to pursue Geography Honors for graduation. But at the same time, I wanted to get admission in Jaipur’s best graduation college i.e., University Maharani College. My college of choice did not offer a BA Geography Honors course, and so I ended up getting enrolled in BA Economics Honors. Gradually, I started liking the subject and from there, my journey as an economist progressed.

In my family, everyone is in a different profession, and my parents never imposed their choice on me. They just wanted me to be independent in life. Apart from studies, I like traveling and exploring different places, and practicing yoga. Both of my interests developed gradually, thanks to one of my jobs, where I got the opportunity to travel a lot.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I graduated in Economics Honors and did my post-graduation in Economics from the University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. After that, I took a break from my studies and started working. I worked for different organizations for 5 years and then did my PhD fro IIT Indore in Economics (particularly in Innovation studies).

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

I was passionate about doing a PhD during my graduation, though I was not much aware of the admission procedure and the research topic. When I was in the final year of my post graduation, my friends pushed me to join coaching classes for bank jobs. Though I joined the class, I was not very comfortable in those classes, and somehow never took those classes seriously. One day one of my friends asked me seriously about my career plans, and I was confused. He figured out that my interest lay in research and then showed me an advertisement for the position of Research Assistant at IIT Indore in Economics. I applied and got through, which was a major turning point in my career. 

After completing my Masters in Economics from the University of Rajasthan, I received professional experience through my research driven roles at Indian Institute of Technology Indore, Indian Institute of Management Lucknow, and CUTS International Jaipur. After that, I never looked back and progressed in the same direction.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I got my first job as Research Assistant at IIT Indore just after completing my post-graduation. It was a project based contractual position. 

The project title was “The Impact of Patent Policy on India’s Innovativeness and Technology transfer.” The key objective of this project was to contribute empirical evidence on the role of patent policy changes in stimulating innovation and facilitating technology transfers in India. My contribution in this project was mostly in data collection from different manufacturing firms of India from CMIE Prowess database, Patent data from Indian Patent Office website etc. and data processing. I also contributed partially for report writing and editing.

I started looking for other opportunities when I was close to completing my tenure at IIT. I got a second project opportunity at IIM Lucknow just after completing the project at IIT. 

At IIM, I contributed to two different projects: First, “Productivity and Profitability of Bus Transportation of India”. The key objective was to examine the productivity and profitability of different state transport undertakings (STUs) in India using various parameters. I collected data pertaining to different variables reflecting the profile and performance of the state transport undertakings of India from the Central Institute of Road Transport (CIRT), Pune publications under this project. Second, the “Global Mobility Monitor Network” Project (GMMN) was initiated by the Institute for Mobility Research, Germany in collaboration with five different institutions in India. In this project I worked with teams from IIM Lucknow and IISc Bangalore. This institute (IFMO) has been established by BMW group with Board of Trustees (Lufthansa, German Rail, MAN etc.) across various modes of transport. The project covered the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), the USA and Germany. I did primary and secondary data collection (particularly demographic indicators along with various other variables) for Lucknow city and made an information template. I visited different government offices in Lucknow for this work and also conducted stakeholders meeting for discussions on the collected information under this project.

After the IIT and IIM projects, I got a regular position in my hometown, Jaipur, at CUTS International. CUTS is an international think tank headquartered in Jaipur. I worked with CUTS for 6 years. 

CUTS International has different centres across India and overseas. They work on three verticals – good governance, rules-based trade and effective regulation. I was associated with one of their centres i.e., CUTS Centre for International Trade, Economics and Environment as researcher of international trade. I was engaged mainly in research on the issues and policies related to the trade and development in South Asia and regional economic cooperation in South Asia. I was responsible for desk and field research, conducting investigation/surveys, data collection, data entry, compilation, analysis and interpretation, formulation of project proposal (along with budget, time line and work plan), implementation, writing briefing papers, project briefs, articles, monographs and project reports.

During all my three jobs, I got the opportunity to interact with several mindful people who inspired me to do a PhD. I got a lot of exposure through each of my roles, as well as information about good institutions and requisite procedures to get enrolled for a PhD. I understood that it is important to get a PhD supervisor whose research area is aligned with my interest area. I started applying seriously to different institutions and got through at IIT Indore under the same professor with whom I had worked earlier. It was easy to start working with her because I already knew her working style. The major challenge was managing my job at CUTS along with my PhD at IIT. But I must say that the saying in Hindi, “jahan chah wahan raah” became true in my case. I got full support from both my mentors. My family was also supportive in this journey. 

Initially I had a thought that I will align my PhD with the work i was doing at CUTS. But that was not possible directly. The interesting thing is both my work and my PhD were closely related to International Economics, International trade and Innovation. I was already familiar with all the aspects of trade and so it was easy to link them with the importance of innovation and IPRs for a country, for a better understanding of my PhD area. I decided to do a PhD to learn systematic research techniques and also wanted to connect with academia. 

My PhD thesis work is on knowledge spillovers and determinants of cross-country patenting activities and their impact on origin and destination country. My work has been published in reputed International Journals. I have introduced a unique way to calculate the Technology Index to capture the Technological Capabilities of developed and developing countries. 

I also received a visiting fellowship from Taiwan Government in my 3rd year of my PhD, for a period of four months. After that, I got married, and due to relocation, I had to change my job. Fortunately, I got another job in India Development Foundation (my present organization) in Gurgaon with very supportive mentors. Now, I am about to finish my PhD soon.  

How did you get your first break? 

I got my first break off-campus through standard application shortlisting and interview process at IIT Indore as Research Assistant.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: My first challenge was managing my job and PhD together because PhD itself is a full-time project. One has to work dedicatedly on a regular basis. Since my office and mentors were supportive, I got study leave for one year, and stayed at IIT campus full-time to finish my course work. After that, I resumed office, and then things were difficult for me. Since I was not getting much time to work on my PhD after office, I also worked on weekends and holidays. I was regularly in touch with my PhD supervisor through Skype meetings. Somehow it was manageable, and the PhD also progressed well.

Challenge 2: After my marriage, again, I had another phase of distraction where I was relocated to a new place, new job, and had additional household responsibilities. But similarly, I didn’t lose hope and slowly moved towards my goals. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role as Innovation Economist

I am currently pursuing PhD from IIT Indore in the discipline of Economics and working with India Development Foundation (IDF) as an Economist. 

At IDF, my work comes under the Innovation Economy domain which is aligned with my PhD work. My previous experience helped me a lot in being comfortable with this research area. I believe that it was the major reason behind getting the project research grant from DST, Government of India. In this role, I am interacting with people from different backgrounds as well as organizations, policy makers, academia, Industry persons, inventors, researchers, activists etc. Our project team got opportunities to present our on-going work at different platforms in front of eminent economists of India who are closely associated with academia. My mentors in my present organization are also actively involved in academia.

What problems do you solve as an economist?

I have extensive fieldwork experience around the adjacent areas of the international border of North East India, such as Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh & Myanmar in the field of International Trade. I have published several articles and policy papers identifying international trade-related issues, gender dimensions in International Trade & Regional Connectivity in South Asian countries. Some of these papers and articles were cited by International Agencies like the World Bank & the UN. I did extensive literature review on comparative policy analysis, designed survey questionnaires, and analyzed outcomes to draw evidence-based insights and convey people’s preferences and attitudes towards cross-border trade facilitation, regional connectivity, innovation economy and development, for different funding agencies putting forward implementable policy recommendations. I have authored several articles on policy issues focusing on South Asia, BCIM and BIMSTEC at the intersection of Policy, Business, and Economics. I’ve 10+ years of professional and academic work experience in public policy, project implementation, extensive primary survey, data analysis, desk research, and consulting, combined with interdisciplinary (economics. Innovation studies, technology management) academic background at the intersection of policy, sustainable development, and technology.

My research interest, at the intersection of Innovation Economy and International Trade, has inspired me to form an organization, named, Center for Innovation and Trade Economy (CITE), that can study these two overlapping aspects of the global economy together.

How does your work benefit society? 

I have been working in the development sector where I got the opportunity to closely explore and observe the status of different communities of the society such as traders, transporters, small vendors, women traders etc. The ultimate goal of such research projects is to come up with policy suggestions for the Government. We also generate awareness among such communities of the opportunities available for their welfare and schemes initiated by the Government. There were many policy suggestions raised by CUTS projects and undertaken by the Government later.

Innovation Economics (or Innovation Studies) is a fairly new branch of economics that focuses on different economic aspects of innovation, alongside the study of technology, knowledge, and entrepreneurship. Basically, it aims to understand where new ideas come from, and how we can put forward policies which will encourage the development of new ways of thinking. As many nations moved from an industrial model of production to a knowledge-based economy, the economics of innovation becomes more and more relevant. The role of technological innovation in economic growth and trade is well recognized globally. Countries with better eco-system for innovation and trade economy have fared impressively compared to countries with poor performance in the area. South Korea, Singapore, China, and Taiwan are examples of such successful countries. Innovation can have different impacts on the economy and society, from productivity growth to employment, wages, profits, income inequality and well-being. These effects may differ across sectors, countries, levels of development and phases of the business cycle. To determine the need for government intervention for better policies, social and structural change it is important to examine the potential direct and indirect effects of innovation. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I’ve initiated one project titled ‘R&D and Patenting by Foreign Firms in India” and received a research grant from the Department of Science and Technology Government of India for two years. This work is on-going jointly with IIT Indore and very close to my heart. I spent a lot of time and effort completing this work because collecting data for this project was challenging. I learned a lot from this project specifically in terms of research methodological issues and I believe it will be a turning point for my career path after completion. Soon, we will be submitting the project and completing a report to the agency.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students is if you are considering your career in research and getting a PhD in the future, please do it for the right reasons, but not for title or status. PhD is a 5-6 years project, therefore one should be very clear about it; why? and how? Secondly, if you choose the development sector as your career path it is not necessary to hold a PhD but yes it definitely helps to grow. It develops your thought process, approach to understanding the problem closely, research techniques, and makes you a trained researcher. Do it if you are passionate about becoming an expert on a particular technical problem and want to be associated with academia. Never lose hope, have patience. You will succeed.

Future Plans?

After completing my PhD, I want to gradually grow my Organization named ‘Centre for Innovation and Trade Economy” and wish to contribute to India’s innovation and trade policy research.