If you ask a child to draw a scientist, he will probably draw a man with wild hair and a lab coat, admits Dame Julia Higgins, Professor of Polymer Science at Imperial College, London. "However, if asked to draw a train, he would mostly likely draw a steam engine, even those that don't exist", she said.
With more than 30 years in research, Higgins is in the city to deliver lectures at IIT-B and TIFR on 'Tangling with molecules' (which is the area of research she specialises in) and 'The responsibility of being a scientist'.
Concerned about "the gulf that exists between scientists and non-scientists", she believes that besides the obvious responsibility of a scientist to be ethical, it is up to the scientist community to bridge the gap. "Science is seen as a highly specialised field and easily dismissed as difficult to understand. However, since it is ultimately the taxpayers' money that is funding the research, it is only fair if the understanding between the scientists and society increases," said Higgins.
Speaking to HT on Thursday, she said, "Science is rarely bad and thus, it should be done openly instead of secret corners. An advocator of public involvement and understanding of scientist community work, she said that even terrorists are claimed to be helped by science, but what they use is "school science and stuff found on the Net and so it's a red herring hyped by the American politicians."
Talking about grants, she added, "The proportion of government versus industrial research tilts towards the government."
The high point in any scientist's life is the 'Eureka moment', which differs from person to person. According to Higgins, "It is when I understand a pattern among the polymers I am working on, or when a picture becomes clear. It is highly satisfying and unforgettable. However, a scientist should always be ready to face failure at every moment, from the rejection of funding to the experiments leading nowhere. And then rising above it."
The competition for funding in research has increased, she said. "There has been a breakdown in the hierarchical system and the structure of academics. Interaction between scientists has become rapid and ideas are exchanged with ease and speed. However, I don't see any dramatic revolutionary changes in the next decade," she added.