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Invest in science to secure the future

Our senior scientists must lead and deeply infiltrate all national missions to ensure their success within the time frame.

opinion Updated: Feb 01, 2018 09:17 IST
We need accept that scientists are a part of our society, said K Vijayaraghavan.
We need accept that scientists are a part of our society, said K Vijayaraghavan. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Science is not only beautiful but it is also the fulcrum on which the strong crowbar of national missions, security and our future can rest, allowing modest investments to lift huge loads. This fulcrum must be strong and correctly placed, but today it is poorly positioned and not strong enough.

Many citizens say scientists must engage and solve our problems. Scientists respond that this could happen if there is more investment in education and research and less bureaucracy. But such debates generate more heat than light. We need to begin a debate on the issue by accepting that scientists are a part of our society; they are not aliens. Unless this understanding seeps into every scientist and policy maker, we risk losing another opportunity for non-incremental change. In an imperfect society, one component cannot demand perfection from another as a prerequisite for action. Each needs to help the other to improve.

Whether it is the rejuvenation of rivers, sanitation or dealing with plastic waste, there are many ongoing State programmes where the involvement of scientists must increase. Such involvement in national priorities happened in the West during World War II. Today, rescuing our environment and health should be seen by scientists as a battle where our best needs to pay attention.

Simultaneously, scientists should also convince society that investing in science ensures a better future. The ability to tap global experience, wisdom and to be self-critical gives science this capability. If we invest in science, no matter the size of the problem, there will be people and technologies to solve it.

If we do not invest in science, we are in trouble. Our early commitment to atomic energy and space are examples of such futuristic investment. However, since the world of science is dynamic, the nature and level of such investments need to keep pace with changes. The State and industry must invest in ‘future-research’. The push for this must come from scientists and it must be well-articulated. There will always be resistance from those who sign the cheques for such investments but persistent and well-articulated arguments must be made, again and again.

There are arguments against India investing in science for the future because we are still not a rich country. Why not just borrow from the inventiveness of others? Indeed, that is what we have done for decades. With some exceptions, most of what we use in manufacturing is made outside India. Such an approach has pragmatic aspects. But the negative consequences of doing only this are many: first imported technologies are never built for the purpose; second, we pay far too much for products inappropriately designed for our ecosystem, and third, we can be held hostage by sanctions.

We export unprocessed material and import value-added components at huge costs. Even successful industries such as generic drugs, which supply the world, import active pharmaceutical ingredients that are not difficult to make but are far cheaper to import.

So by principally relying on the admirable inventiveness and innovation of the West to fuel the needs of a large and diverse country such as ours, we have had economic growth. This approach has had negative consequences on our environment, economy, people, and security.

One can always say what wonderful things would have happened if only India had invested in semiconductors, manufacturing displays for computers, water-conservation technologies or genomics and so on. It is this kind of passing on of responsibilities that scientists should avoid.

It is never easy to invest in ‘future -science’. Of the 100 potential game-changers in science, only 10 may succeed. Risk is integral to investment, but we are in a better position today to assess and have significant resources to invest.

So what needs to be done?

First, our university students must get opportunities for learning as well as problem solving. Second, India’s senior scientists must lead and be part of all national missions to ensure their success within the stipulated time frame. Third, each ministry must create a ‘science-for-the-future’ division in collaboration with the ministry of science and technology.

This body could have scientists from the research institutes who could then give feedback to our science ecosystem, ensuring that we develop new science and technologies, and not just import them. Such illustrative steps will only instil confidence in scientists and in society. More investments in science will be a natural consequence.

India has so far excelled in creating crises and solving them. We must now excel in preventing crises by strengthening the fulcrum of science.

K Vijayaraghavan is secretary, department of biotechnology, ministry of science and technology. The views expressed are personal.