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Science without departments

A few days before the birth centenary of Homi Bhabha, the institute’s founder, Barma spoke to Hindustan Times, about his vision for the organisation, excerpts from teh interview with Snehal Rebello.

mumbai Updated: Oct 26, 2009 01:55 IST
Snehal Rebello

As a school kid, Mustansir Barma enjoyed playing on the barren land where the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research stands today. Later, as a physics student at St Xavier’s College, he often took bus number 103 to Afghan Church and walked to the campus of one of the nation’s most prestigious scientific centres to attend lectures and discussions on physics and astronomy.

After doing a doctorate in physics at Stony Brook, New York, and post-doctoral work at Michigan, he joined the institute in 1976. In 2007, he capped his association with the organisation by becoming its director.

A few days before the birth centenary of Homi Bhabha, the institute’s founder, Barma spoke to Hindustan Times, about his vision for the organisation.

How is the institute remembering its founder?
We remember Bhabha as someone who nurtured excellence in science and in everything else that he did. He instituted frontline research in the sciences and emphasised the need to train young researchers. He had an eye for detail that included even the placement of trees in the gardens on this campus. He loved art and classical music. He had a non-standard way of looking at things. We would like to incorporate a little bit of everything he loved in the centenary celebrations, from science to art and music.

How do you envision the institute contributing to Indian science over the next 50 years?
We would like to initiate several new programmes and expand several research areas. We plan to strongly increase the number of students and post-doctoral fellows engaged in research. The biggest initiative in Bhabha’s centenary year is the new campus in Hyderabad, which is going to keep us occupied for decades. It has the advantage of being located close to the Hyderabad’s Central University and the Hi-Tech City.
Of the 200 acres earmarked for the campus, we will start construction and a few programmes on a small plot by 2010. The master plan for the rest of the area will be rolled out alongside. A full-fledged campus with all academic and research programmes could take 20 or 25 years to build up.
The international scientific community is beginning to get interested in what the new campus will offer.

How different will the Hyderabad campus be from the one in Mumbai?
While we would like to cover all areas of science and mathematics in Hyderabad, we would like to try and avoid duplication of large experimental facilities already present in Mumbai or the other centres of the institute.
The new campus will offer new and emerging areas in science that would be of great importance even after decades. There will also be more tie-ups with universities abroad with a focus on area-to-area rather institution-to-institution or person-to-person collaborations. The biggest difference will be the larger number of students on campus.

Will the new campus operate along traditional departmental lines?
Rather than departments, we are thinking of other structures so as to encourage interdisciplinary work as also to introduce more flexibility and movement. This would mean that a group of researchers and students from different areas can come together and work on a specific project quite easily. On the other hand, teaching may continue along more traditional lines.
We are also looking at a strong visitors’ programme; something long term.
This means Indian or foreign faculty can spend more time on the new campus when on sabbatical– from six months to even a year or two. We will also try to make conditions attractive for younger researchers with the possibility of longer-term initial positions.

What is the institute doing to promote science among school and college students and the public?
We have stepped up our outreach programme in the past year. We invited more than sixty college teachers to the institute to attend a series of broad talks given by leading young researchers in the country spanning many areas.
Our scientists are giving lectures in colleges and engaging in ‘Chai & Why’ sessions at Prithvi theatre as a way of getting people to understand the science being done at the institute. Initially, the plan was to organise these programmes for a year or two but looking at the response, it could perhaps become an ongoing exercise. We will also be continuing our successful open day programme for schoolchildren, which has been operating for several years.