When the former premier of the People’s Republic of China Wen Jiabao visited the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore in 2010, he spoke about his country’s rise in the world of science. His impressive speech ended with a striking statement: He said that the two countries should collaborate in science and technology because there must be a “bridge between knowledge and power”. There was no doubt in his mind on who controlled the levers of power, but it was interesting to hear him say that India was still a fountain of knowledge.
We in India, however, have other views. Despite successes — our average lifespan today is much higher than it was in 1974, many diseases have moved from being lethal to treatable and some have been eliminated — many feel that we have not done well and our science institutions are moribund.
Such cynicism is not always correct. Just as we should be proud of our achievements in applying science through technology, we must also be proud of our standing in basic sciences. Much has been achieved since Independence and despite great odds these have had an enormous social and economic impact. This basic foundation needs to be strengthened if India wants to become a true knowledge economy.
At the nucleus of the foundation in basic sciences are our institutions. Despite all odds, we have built excellent ones and they have catalysed new ones. The IISc nucleated the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) that has put India in the nano-material global map. The TIFR has nurtured many institutions and the older IITs continue to nurture new ones.
Institutional qualities with a culture of questioning are vital to the success of this ecosystem. Just as our space and defence R&D programmes owe much to IISc, there have been new ecosystems in Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai and Delhi that have grown thanks to investment in basic sciences. These institutions have strengthened India in engineering, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, materials and many other areas. The Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research are remarkable examples of transformative investment that is having a positive effect on the ecosystem. In terms of value for money, we have done as the best in the world.
Extraordinary institutions nurture extraordinary individuals. Yet if we have done well in building institutions, why don’t we have Nobel Prize or the Fields medal winners? Three kinds of people get such awards: Talented geniuses who transcend institutions; talented scientists who build and lead teams; and those who are ordinary but lucky to have extraordinary collaborators and a nurturing environment. We have many in each of these categories but the global competition is stiff.
Yet we must not forget to praise the many excellent scientists who are in the Nobel category: Shambu Nath De for his work on cholera; GN Ramachandran for his work on protein structure and Subhash Mukhopadhyay for his work on in-vitro fertilisation. In mathematics, the TIFR school is extraordinary, exemplified by MS Raghunathan and MS Narasimhan’s work as has IIT-Kanpur led by Manindra Agarwal. In materials science, the JNCASR team has done wonderful work led by CNR Rao. In string theory, Ashoke Sen is a leader. Ajay Sood in condensed matter physics and Satyajit Mayor in cell biology are some other examples.
To continue on this path of success, India today requires a new mindset that breaks the boundaries between basic and applied science and a new sense of adventure to explore our marine, terrestrial and extra-terrestrial ecosystem. This new adventure must include building scientific foundations in schools, colleges and universities, more support for science, more cohesion among the institutions, reinventing our research institutes/universities and better functioning of our science agencies. We must also invest in people as they matter the most.
The ‘system’ needs to change, but the time spent in relentlessly flaying ourselves is the time spent away from working out solutions. We demand ‘process-based’ miracles for our problems. But if there is one thing we can learn from our scientific successes it is that the places that have done well are those that have combined good processes with good culture driven by quality collective leadership and the quality of young people.
India has everything going for embarking on this new adventure. By joining the components of quality, which we have, with a steadily increasing support for science education, fundamental research and applications, we can do wonders. The next time a Chinese premier comes to Bengaluru he should say that we should collaborate because India has shown the world how our quest for knowledge and understanding of nature leads to wisdom, prosperity and a sustainable planet.
K VijayRaghavan is secretary, department of biotechnology and ministry of earth sciences. The views expressed are personal.