He has spent 29 years in the US, and four years heading 400 scientists in a frontier institute for nuclear sciences and mathematics by a south Mumbai beachfront. But Shobo Bhattacharya says he is still a student in the physics laboratory he tries to visit first thing every morning.
The latest tools he is tinkering with are optical tweezers or focused laser beams that “trap” or hold objects in their grasp.
“A director wears too many hats, rides too many horses,” said Bhattacharya in his sea-view office, the Homi Bhabha room, where the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research’s (TIFR) legendary founder Homi Bhabha once worked over 40 years ago. “But if a director doesn’t do research, he can lose contact with frontiers of science. When you stop learning, you should close shop.”
But even within the TIFR, one of the best-funded and globally best-known science institutes that once hosted physicist Stephen Hawking, the conversation inevitably turns not to science, but the “crisis” in Indian science. “There is a very serious manpower crisis in science, and it is not unrelated to a global crisis,” Bhattacharya said. “But some nations supplement the lack of young scientists by recruiting worldwide. India does not have that capacity. We still depend on the diaspora, or rarely, those with strong ties to the nation.”
Unless the crisis is addressed by making scientific careers and the pursuit of PhDs financially attractive in sync with inflation, said Bhattacharya, institutions like the TIFR “will not have a bright future”. The 40-acre landscaped campus is considered by many scientists to be academically tougher to gain admission in than an Indian Institute of Technology. Yet, almost all the postdoctoral students here go abroad after receiving their PhDs.
“In India working in one institution for a long period is the norm,” said Bhattacharya. “But science is the search for the new, so scientists should have mobility and many beginnings. There should be the highest priority for national mobilisation of scientists, technologists and educationists across institutions.”
Bhattacharya’s team experiments with condensed matter physics. Simply put, they study the transition of a gas to a liquid or a solid; or how a magnet loses its magnetism; how a normal metal becomes a superconductor.
But physics research, more than biology, is now critically short of young scientists. “Physics is suffering because of its success,” he said. “Making a major breakthrough of the magnitude of the past centuries is not easy.” But added: “revolutions can happen anytime.”
At TIFR, they are waiting for a revolution too, one that will turn the tide and convince talented youth to return to the laboratories.